Decorate, Illustrate, Illuminate


Photo courtesy of NASA via Wikimedia Commons

In 8th Grade History, we are just about to begin filming the Post World War II Documentaries. We paused for a class period to talk about music. I remember attending a professional development conference where the presenter talked about the ability of images to either “decorate,” “illustrate” or “illuminate” a project. Decorating involves putting an image that does not necessarily relate to the topic, but that makes the presentation more attractive in general. Improperly used, the image may actually detract from the presentation, or confuse the audience.   Illustrating means that the image relates to the topic, and helps to explain or clarify the meaning with the audience.  Illuminating takes two elements that have different meanings, but the juxtaposition of those elements creates a separate, third, or deeper meaning.  In this conference presentation, the teachers had a rubric to guide the students in determining how they were using images in their projects.

I immediately thought of how we use music during the documentaries.  We’ve had some confusing music parings that were chosen because I think the students liked the song, but clearly hadn’t had the opportunity to think through the relationship between the action on the film and the music.  We had one pairing that was actually disturbing in the final edit, where a violent kidnapping scene was paired with some electronica that resulted in the kidnapping feeling like an action film and not the depiction of real violence.  We’ve also had the deliberate use of silence in a scene to make a point.  When these decisions are made deliberately to harmonize with the message of the presentation, it is good documentary filmmaking, and good information literacy.

Our activity to spur this discussion included the same film footage (the launch of Apollo) paired with three different pieces of music.  The students were divided into three groups, and each group watched a different pairing, but did not see the others.  The first group watched the film with a vintage ragtime song called “Too Much Mustard” – bouncy and carnival-like.  The second watched with “Rocket Man,” by Elton John, and the third, “Spirit in the Sky,” by Norman Greenbaum.  We then had them write “Six Word Novels,” a technique I picked up from EdCamp Social Studies a few weeks ago.  They had to describe the story the film was telling in six words.  We then shared them with each other.  The group quickly realized that they had seen the same footage, but that the stories and emotions described were different for each.  Here are some of them

“Too Much Mustard” Group:  (feelings described: happy, whimsical)

  • Blast off Earth, ready for space!
  • Life is a circus!  Explore it!
  • Happy occasions involve polluting the Earth.
  • Blast off!  To the moon team!
  • We’re going to space with music.
  • Rockets fly; where will they go?
  • A successful liftoff, hooray … for now.

“Rocket Man” Group: (feelings described: sad, serious)

  • Goodbye, all of you Rocket Men.
  • They fly away leaving their family.
  • Explosion: worried, anxious, will it succeed?
  • Take off, Rocket man, be gone.
  • We have liftoff; to the moon.
  • Getting in.   Getting out.  Can we?
  • Slow and steady wins the race.
  • Spacecraft launches: one leap for humankind.

“Spirit in the Sky” Group:  (feeling described: proud)

  • Shot into the sky.  A new frontier.
  • We’re in sky, our spirits high.
  • First stop earth, next the stars.
  • Rocket rising as the dust clears.
  • Rocket smoothly blasting off for moon.
  • Blastoff, two boys without a dad.
  • Blastoff – preparatory months; minutes of action.
  • Houston we are go for launch.

I think my favorite, though, was a spontaneous six-word novel about the process:  “Boys sitting: Pondering weird history activity.” 🙂


About Paula Montrie

I am a Middle School Librarian at Friends School of Baltimore. I have been a librarian for 11 years, serving 6 years with the Howard County Public School System before arriving at my current school. I teach two classes: SpeechCraft (a combination of information literacy, public speaking and theater), and Media Literacy at the middle school level. I also collaboratively co-teach with a number of teachers at the school, including Music, Geography, and U.S. History. I love it! My professional interests are: information literacy, multiple intelligences and learning styles, teaching through movement, curriculum-writing, technology integration, and bridging the gap between digital natives and digital immigrants. My personal interests are: dancing, singing, knitting, sewing, art, living history, writing and of course - reading!
This entry was posted in Class Sessions, History, Information Literacy, Media Literacy and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Decorate, Illustrate, Illuminate

  1. tancread says:

    Weird history. Better than dull history.

  2. Paula Montrie says:


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