Revisiting Banksy (Again): Leveraging Visual Literacy & Documentary to Promote Critical Thinking


As part of working on a publication that comes out later this year, I worked closely with my colleague and friend, Glenn Chance, in his classroom where he trusted me to help him implement work with visual literacy and connecting it to the work he was doing with memoir. Since I currently do not have my own ELA classroom, I truly appreciate Glenn allowing me to invade his planning and class time. There were several goals of this project and unit, but in today’s post I am only going to concentrate on how we developed visual literacy skills for students and how we partnered them with both memoir, author’s purpose, and documentary. Inside the post there is a breakdown of what we did and or reflections on those actions from our planning and class time in hopes what is shared can help you in your classroom or at the very least continue the conversation for the value of the explicit instruction of visual literacy. For anyone attending GCTE this year, we’ll be presenting this information there as well.

For some context, you may want to read my initial posts related to using Banksy in my instruction from previous years: Post 1 // Post 2 // Post 3 // Post 4

To begin, I will admit we likely made this unit more complex than it had to be. We were stretching some of our connections due to some external factors, but in general we believed in how we would approach teaching and using visual literacy and it’s techniques to support students’ understanding of author’s purpose. The biggest element we attempted to add this year was documentary as part of visual literacy and connecting that medium to that of memoir, which was part of the unit just before we launched this one. The idea being, that just like I introduced my students previously to visual literacy techniques using still images and Banksy, in addition we would introduce moving images (video) and the documentary about Banksy, Exit through the Gift Shop, in order to reinforce visual literacy skills and author’s purpose (or image maker’s intent).

Working with two 9th grade ELA classes, an on-level class and honors/gifted class, I partnered with Glenn to introduce students visual literacy as a concept and as a toolbox. We mapped out lessons each week with the intent of building a strong skills set for students to read an image, interpret it, and then analyze it. We discovered this takes a great deal of time. Our school is on an A/B block meaning students of a particular class are seen every other day. There are challenges inherent with that set up where knowledge and information is not always readily transferred. We leveraged the use of warm-ups to re-engage students with the concepts each time they re-entered the classroom.

The concepts we taught are borrowed from Hilary Janks who has developed ways for teachers and students to read images critically. The presentation below is part of the introductory process we used:

We used strategies like Chalk Talk and individual dry-erase board response to formatively assess their progression in understanding the concepts. Once we felt secure in their basic understanding of the new concepts we introduced the concept of the remix image and, of course, Banksy. Below is the presentation used show and discuss remixed images and how they associate with image making and visual literacy concepts:


As you’ll see clicking through the slides, much of the images are popular internet memes. This is completely on purpose. We wanted to create an immediate connection to what students know and have seen, and the potential purpose of the remix. As you might imagine, the discussion was rich, and we could almost visibly see a few light bulbs turn on above students’ heads. The key to the discourse we had after both looking at photographs, commercials, memes, and really remixed image was breaking down image makers intent (or as we traditionally name it in our standards, author’s purpose). Some students who had never shown much in the way inferencing skills suddenly could associate the image with context and deduce a reason or purpose for the image. Some students who traditionally excelled with inference and context clues actually struggled. The new medium tripped them up so to speak. Before introducing Banksy, students richly discussed what they saw in the images and what their intent was, including, as one student put it, “sometimes it’s just for the lolz.”

We introduced Banksy using a WebQuest format with the intent to have student independently explore him as a character, artist, and image maker. This proved to be a worthwhile challenge for the students. Thankfully, Glenn had made students complete WebQuests before, so the concepts was not foreign, which made for immediate engagement in the activity. Below is the WebQuest:

As you can gleen from the WebQuest, we did our best to bridge students new knowledge of Banksy with the skills we had already been honing. The next step was empower them to create their own remixed, Banksy-like images. As I’ve shared in past posts, we did this entirely through just using Power Point’s color inversion feature. A big thank you to my old protege and mentor Jim Stewart for finding this gem of feature for me many years ago!

Once students developed their images, they had to go onto explaining the intent of their image in a concise paragraph that had to include an explanation of the visual literacy tools they chose and why they were chosen, putting them in the position as not only image maker, but image analyst as well.  Finally, students images were put on public display in the school hallway as a way to ensure their ‘street art’ went public.


Here are few close up samples in tandem with their explanations of their image:

Banksy Example 1

Banksy Example 2

The big addition Glenn and I made to his unit was to connect this work to documentary as well. While I am not convinced we were able to really help students grasp the connections between documentary and memoir, we did get students to feel comfortable translating their visual literacy skills from still images to film, leading to rich discussion about how Exit through the Gift Shop is shot and address the film’s tone and intent.  (To clarify, we only watched clips of the documentary.) To really bring these skills home, we asked students to develop their own mini-documentaries of their pieces where they worked in pairs to critique and respond to one another’s pieces in whatever style they preferred.

Ultimately, we simply ran out of time to ensure all students completed the documentary work, but several pairs did complete some kind of short film with varying degrees of editing and stylistic choices. We still need time to digest the experience, but overall we were happy with the progression of the unit and how students took up the challenge of pivoting to use and interpret various texts and mediums. With more time or more efficient use of the time, mores students could have completed the documentaries and potentially even made them public (at least to the class through a mini film festival in class).  We cannot share any of those films for the protection of student identities. Still, their written products and discourse in class truly made us feel they grappled with and understood author’s purpose to a deeper level. In fact, Glenn saw his on-level students scores increase in the area of author’s purpose with his students only scoring second to one other teacher’s class on the county final.

Stay tuned for future exploration on this topic, but hopefully everything above might provide you a bit of a road map of how to do something similar in your classroom, or at the very least see there is genuine value to embedding visual literacy instruction to support standards learning. We’ll dive deeper into this at our GCTE session in Athens, GA on February 10 at 9:45AM in Room D.

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