Pictures Painted in Words: Discovering Imagery in American Literature


Christina Perez has taught American Literature for six years. She continues to find great reward in helping students explore contemporary issues and culture through the lens of American history, themes, and stories. While advancing students writing and critical analysis skills, she believes the course also enables students to grow as social beings and view other’s life experiences with interest and empathy.

Over the last several years, one of the teaching and learning challenges Ms. Perez has faced is teaching students to identify and explain images in literature. “Unless it’s dripping in figurative language,” she explains, “they struggle to recognize, explain, and connect literary images to more important devices, and concepts for any given text.” Students are asked to use imagery throughout the course, but especially in second semester where students are expected to know, understand, and be able to readily navigate images when writing and articulating connections.

At the start of the 2018-19 school year, Ms. Perez tackled this challenge in her first unit with an emphasis on discovering imagery while exploring marginalized texts from Native American literature. She hoped to build a foundation in this first unit that would lead toward deeper understanding and analysis skills throughout the year, and ultimately prepare students for The Great Gatsby essay in second semester. We collaborated with Ms. Perez as she developed a research lesson for this unit.

Images and Empathy in Native American Lit

The first unit is called “Marginalized Literature.” The course focuses on the importance of all American literary writers, including Native Americans, specific to this unit. Native American authors have been historically absent from the literary canon and marginalized because of their spiritual and social distinctions, not to mention their physical differences. Students uncover the importance of what it means to be American in a society that is founded on immigration and racial/social disparity. As they read through various Native American texts, both ancient and current, these writers often demonstrate their identity amidst personal anecdotes and accounts of their lives as Americans, through imagery/image.

Some of the essential questions in this first unit include:

  • Due to mistreatment, how do natives view America?

  • What is the Native American dream?

  • What is the Native American lens and and their newfound identity?

Drawing Images to Discover and Connect

To scaffold students’ recognition and use of imagery while addressing these topics, Ms. Perez developed a new approach for students by introducing an imagery device chart (see example below), which requires students to think about the “pictures” that they see when they read.


She asked students to draw, write, and articulate the images they found as they progressed through a given text. Specifically, she wanted students to be able to identify at least one image, depict the image on their charts based on the author’s description, and articulate its importance in relation to the purpose of the text. Students would then use this chart as an organizing device for their writing, drawing on class discussions and newfound knowledge to articulate connections in their explanation and analysis.

Lesson Storyline: Superman and Me

The storyline for this culminating lesson included the following major segments:


1. Review examples of the “Native American dream,” covered in this unit. Discuss identities that have been assigned to Native Americans by society, and identities they aspire to.

Click here to view this opening review and discussion.

2. Read Sherman Alexie’s “Superman and Me” and ask students to annotate/make notes of important story elements.

Click here to browse through the narrative text.

Click here for a short video with student responses.

3. Work through example image as a class with basic drawing from teacher’s chart. Discuss purpose of the image. Discuss how the image connects to the Native American identity.

Click here to study teachers’ example chart.

4. Work in groups to complete these steps with another image from the text.

Click here to view a short example of a student group discussing the image of  “superman breaking down the door.”

5. Introduce example writing prompt for this text: Identify one image in Sherman Alexie’s “Superman and Me,” and explain its purpose (how) in defining the Native American identity. Be sure to tell me what is Alexie’s Native American identity.

Click here to view the teacher elaborating on this prompt during the lesson.

6. Study example response to this prompt and identify key components of an effective analysis.


Click here to study the teachers’ example response.

7. Work in groups to generate an original response to the prompt using notes from the device chart.

Click here to watch a group of students composing a response.

8. Exchange responses with another group to offer peer review and suggestions. Discuss responses and image analysis as whole class.

Click here to view an example of students providing and receiving feedback from their peers.

9. Review and discuss purpose of the chart: Have you found this chart to be helpful? How does this chart prepare you for reading literature and explaining imagery? How might you use this process in the future?

Click here to view closing segment.

Student Interviews

Student work and lesson observations from classroom video showed that students made deep connections with the plight of the Native Americans and empathized with the challenges this marginalized population faced in forging new collective and individual identities as equally capable and intelligent members of society. Students also made great strides throughout the unit in learning to select, analyze, and articulate imagery from the literary texts. Excerpts from two students interviewed below provide rich examples of this deeper knowledge and understanding. Both students (Aaron Rivera and Avery Warren) were also featured in the video clips previously referenced. Aaron is the student in the black shirt that is composing a paragraph for his group directly in front of the camera. Avery is the student in the red shirt, sitting on the right, directly behind this first group.

I: What is an image in literature? How is it different from other ways we use images in everyday life?

AR: Images in literature are more abstract and you have to find the meaning real life it’s more straight forward. An image in literature is a device used by the author to convey a message--sometimes it’s through symbolism.

AW: An image is written in words...The author has to find the descriptive words so the listener can get a feel of what’s going on...that it almost takes them to that place where they can see it.

I: What images stood out to you in this story? Which ones did you select to focus on as a group?

AR: I imagined the poverty of the reservation and I tried to picture the superman comic... In the comic, there is a door placed in front of him. He broke down the door and it shattered. He used that to tell a story as if he was superman breaking through adversity and barriers in his own life…

AW: We selected the image of superman knocking down the door. It’s a metaphor saying that they were trying to knock down their own door. They were given an identity and they didn’t agree with it, so he knocked down that door and created his own identity.

I: In your own words, what does it mean to be marginalized?

AR: We have been using that term in class to describe the adversity that Native Americans have to overcome. It’s when society can attach specific identities to you or a certain group of people. A lot of people, especially the settlers, saw Native Americans as unintelligent because they didn’t have technology and because there was a barrier in communication between them.

AW: Like a margin on the side of the paper, they were pushed to the outside. The Native Americans didn’t have a say in anything. They were outsiders that did not matter. I felt bad that this had to happen. It brought up not only literature but also history. It brought insights about how life was them back then...we see the other side of the story and how they lived in a time of oppression.

I: What did this lesson teach you about choosing an image and providing sufficient explanation/evidence to support your analysis? How has the chart helped you? Tell me more about that.

AR: In explaining and analyzing an image, the chart has helped me to structure my asks you to connect it back to the overarching theme of identify and that’s the part the chart has helped me the most with. I remember last year when I would write timed-writes it was hard for me to understand how to write an analysis properly, but with this chart it was more clear to me...I was only explaining what the image means but would not connect it back to the overall theme of my essay. The overarching theme of the story is sometimes not the same as the image you are describing.

AW: We’ve been using the graph/chart with the story title, the image, a picture of the image, the purpose, and the identify. It’s been extremely beneficial because it’s helped with organization. Analysis is difficult for me. You can look at that image and think back on it and go in more depth...consider all the factorI: When you exchanged feedback with the other group about your paragraphs, what insights did you gain about the analysis process?

AR: They told our group that we were choppy in the part leading up to the final sentence about how it relates back to his identity. We didn’t really tie all the separate information together. We just listed it and then expected the reader to do it themselves. We assumed the reader would know that the superman image represented the author as superman without ever pointing that out.

AW: We told the other group that they could have been more clear in connecting the explanation and purpose to the passage that they chose. Because if you don’t connect them it sounds like you are just putting all these sentences together. It doesn’t flow or connect.

I: Is there anything else from this lesson that you think is important that I haven’t asked you about?

AR: I think it’s important to know that the lesson has not just helped me with analysis in this format but it’s also helped a lot of other people I know. In writing the analysis, people struggled with organizing their thoughts and this chart helped people realize the order their thoughts should go in and how they should link them together.

AW: I think it’s important to realize the purpose of why we are reading these stories. It’s not only literature. This happened in the 1800s and it’s not something we should forget about. Everyone should be treated with equality.


As Ms. Perez reflected on the lesson, she shared how pivotal it was to help students begin using the device chart not only to make a list of images in a story, but to employ it as a tool for structuring and preparing to compose a written analysis. In a subsequent assessment and writing assignment on “Burning River” (by Simon Ortiz) over 90% of the students utilized the device chart as a structure to plan and organize their composition. Some students showed substantial growth in analyzing and explaining images from the story with greater depth and examples from the text. Others showed marked improvement in connecting the images to the overall theme of identity. A few students showed advanced skill in both of these areas--unpacking the images and connecting them to the overall theme. About five students did not use the chart at all and left it blank while three others only used the chart partially. These students had weaker compositions with mostly summary and little original analysis. This provided evidence of the chart’s utility in scaffolding students’ analytical skills and writing. Ms. Perez plans to share this evidence with the class to help them reflect on their use of the tool.

In her own words, Ms. Perez offered the following insights and reflective comments for the lesson and described her plans for future instruction.

The process of analysis requires writers not only to read a work of literature and internalize the plot and author’s message, but it also requires the writer to think about the various elements that make up the piece. Specifically, in Sherman Alexie’s “Superman and Me,” my students were faced with a manifold of important images that address Native American identify. Students were not only expected to highlight important aspects of the story, but to identify images that illustrated the Native American dream. The chart helped each student organize their thoughts, focus on one image, and think about how that image demonstrated the Native American identity.

While it was evident students could think critically about each image identified, their ability to develop, explain, discuss, and connect their ideas to the bigger picture was lacking. This chart provided them with the opportunity to do just that. It provided a safe, yet organized space for each student to articulate their thought process without having to worry about verbiage and fluidity. Once the chart was completed, students could physically see their thoughts on paper. Once the writing began, they could take their articulated thoughts labeled in the chart and plug them in to their short responses. This would enable them to write the paragraph focusing solely on diction and flow. A task less daunting and much more organized.

Going forward, this chart will be invaluable for any writing format. As students continue in the next unit on Puritan Literature, the chart will prove helpful in organizing student ideas for The Scarlet Letter essay as they develop and discuss Hester Prynne’s character. While the original chart enables students to identify and think about the purpose of imagery, Christina plans to incorporate a new chart component for The Scarlet Letter focused on “character trait/quote of characterization,” followed by the “purpose” of why Hester Prynne’s character behaves in this manner, and how that “connects to the novel as a whole” (her place in the Puritan society). The outline of this chart will continue to help students organize their thoughts and identify important characteristics.

Christina looks forward to implementing this new component and assessing students’ continued progress as they build analysis skills and employ these tools on their own...even when not prompted by the teacher.