Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Using Photographs To Inspire Writing
Less is more. There's really nothing complicated about the photograph shown below. A figure stands silhouetted against a gray-to-black background. In the far distance, a bright circle hovers above the horizon.
One fist appears to be clenched as the figure stands with its feet apart. Is the figure male or female? Is it facing the horizon, or is it facing the camera? Does its posture suggest anger, rage, or hostility? Why is the subject standing alone in a space that's delineated by shades of gray?
If you showed this photograph to your students to inspire them to write stories or poems, you might ask them the questions cited above. Alternatively, you might simply show the photograph and allow your students' imaginations to kick in and guide them as they create their compositions.
By the way, if you're a photography buff, you'll probably want to know that this photograph was created using a Leica M-3 and Plus-X film back in the days when silver-based images were king and digital imaging wasn't even on the drawing board yet.
Photographs can also lend themselves to teaching specific skills. At Columbus State Community College, for example, Sheila Dickson uses graphic images to focus on point of view as a writing technique. She writes: "Being a 'flower child', I show images of the Kent State shootings in 1970." First, Dickson asks students to write a descriptive paragraph from the points of view of a participating student, a National Guardsman, or an observing student. Then she directs them to write another paragraph from a different point of view. Finally, she tells the students to develop one of their choices into an essay. "Using this technique," she concludes, "I've received some of the best student writing I've ever received at the high school and college level during my thirty-six years of teaching English."
At Independence High School in San Jose, California, English teacher Martin Brandt shows his students side-by-side photos of two women and asks them to respond in writing to the following five questions: (1) What does each photograph show? (2) How is each woman dressed? (3) What do you notice about the environment surrounding each woman? (4) What do you notice about the condition of each woman? (5) What do the two women have in common? In this way, he helps the students develop papers based on comparisons and contrasts.
From the Boston Writing Project, Peter Golden reports that in one of several photo-related exercises he uses with students at South Boston High School he projects a photo of Marilyn Monroe (a Norma Jean photo) and asks the students to write down their responses and share them. After the students arrive at a general description of the subject, as in shy or sophisticated,
Golden presses them for details. Then he directs them to write descriptions of Norma that convey their conclusion (shy or sophisticated) without using that word. “In other words,” he writes, “the readers should come to the same conclusion just by reading the description.”
One of the projects my students and parents are most proud of is a project I do with my high school freshmen,” writes Jennifer Sluss, Tech Liaison for the Mountain Writing Project. To help teach purpose and audience in writing, Sluss’s students create visual personal narratives/memoirs that she fondly refers to as the Me Mini Movie. In this exercise, students compile photos that tell a story or present an aspect of their lives that they value. “We then add a song to the photos in Movie Maker or Power Point. When we do this, the students must focus on matching the music to their message. We also talk about tone, audience, and the purpose of the Me Mini Movies.” Sluss also uses representations of abstract art to help her junior English students relate to the themes and plots of novels.
Photographs are wonderful teaching aids. They can be used to elicit responses from the most reluctant students. They can be used to trigger the imaginations of students from elementary school through college. They can be used to inspire either expository or creative pieces. When you use them to encourage writing in the classroom, never again will students complain that they have nothing to write about.
Hank Kellner is a retired teacher of English and freelance writer-photographer. He is the author of many articles that have appeared in publications nationwide. His upcoming book, Write What You See: 99 Photos To Inspire Writing, 120 pages, ISBN 978-1-877-673-83-2, $24.95, perfect binding, 8 1/2 x 11 will include a supplementary CD with photos. Although the official publication date for Write What You See is April 1, 2009, it should be available directly from Cottonwood Press earlier than that--most likely in late January, 2009. Visit Cottonwood Press at http://www.cottonwoodpress.com/. Contact the author at hankpix@gmail.com.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Using Photography To Inspire Writing
by Hank Kellner

“Words and pictures can work together to communicate more powerfully than either alone.”
William Albert Allar
American Photographer

If “One picture is worth a thousand words,” can one picture also inspire a thousand words? Of course it can. That’s why educators are becoming increasingly aware of the power photographs have to unlock students’ imaginations and help them express themselves through written language.
Whether you want to teach specific writing skills or simply to help students overcome their reluctance to write, you’ll find that photographs are powerful teaching aids that can inspire students at all levels to create both expository and creative compositions. What’s more, when you use photographs in your classroom, you can be as directive—or as non-directive—as you choose to be.
For example, you could show this photograph to a group of students and ask them to let their imaginations guide them as they respond to it in writing. But if you want to be more directive, you could ask them such leading questions as: What is the woman in the photo thinking? Why is she standing alone in this scene? What does it feel like to wait for someone who is late? What kind of a family does this woman have?
You could even use short poems to complement photos that help to initiate responses from students. Here’s an example of one such poem that worked well with this photograph at the middle school, high school, and community college levels.

What are you thinking
As you stand, unsmiling,
Alone on a deserted street?

Another time?
Another place?
A moment when your world
Was bright and cheerful
And you didn’t have to stand
Alone on a deserted street.

Many educators who have used photographs successfully in the classroom are eager to share their photowriting experiences with other professionals. At Piedmont Virginia Community College, former Adjunct Assistant Professor Justin Van Kleeck showed his students a photo of a baby macaque and a pigeon who had “adopted” each other as friends. “I asked the students to freewrite after showing them the photo and giving them information about how the animals came together,” he writes. You can see the photo at http://primatology.net/2007/09/13/baby-macaque-and-white-pigeon-make-friends/ “The students wrote about everything from how different species can get along so easily while humans cannot, to the human behaviors that stress animals, such as poaching,” he concludes.
At the Prairie Lands Writing Project, St. Joseph, Missouri, Teacher Consultant Mary Lee Meyer asks her high school students to write “I am From” poems based on photos that are significant to them in terms of their lives. To support this activity, she asks such questions as Where are you from? Who are/were your grandparents? What occupations did your ancestors have? Meyer has also used this exercise at a writing institute for teachers. You can see samples at http://missouriwestern.edu/plwp/wtca/examples.htm under “I Am From…Example 1 Michelle.” See also Meyers' interesting blog at http://writingwithtechnology.edublogs.org/.
How creative can you get with photographs of bridges? Ask Diane Sekeres, who conducted a workshop for teachers at the University of Alabama’s Longleaf Writing Project Summer Institue for Teachers. “I found about 20 pictures of different kinds of bridges: rope, draw, suspension, destroyed, over gorges, over highways, over water,” she writes. “Then I asked the teachers to study the photos and select one that was a metaphor for their teaching.” At the conclusion to the exercise, the teacher-students wrote about their choices and their reasons for making them.
Another outstanding example of how a teacher uses photographs to inspire writing comes from Iowa Writing Project Director James Davis. First, Davis asks his students to recall a photograph of some significance to them. Then he directs them to describe the photograph as they remember it. “Who is in the photograph?” he asks. “What are their expressions and stances? What are the important details of the setting?” To conclude this assignment, Davis asks the students to find the photograph they described and study it carefully before writing about any discrepancies between the photo as it exists and their memories of it. “Why might these discrepancies exist?” he asks. “Which version has more to do with truth?”
When he’s not busy editing Star Teaching, Frank Holes, Jr. teaches at Inland Lakes Middle School, Indian River, Michigan. Holes shows his students photographs of children performing daily activities and asks them such questions as Who is the child? What is his/her name? What is the subject’s family like? How old is the subject? What is he or she feeling? “I also ask the students to give a full description of the setting that includes sense impressions,” writes Holes. Then he asks questions related to a possible plot before he directs the students to write a story that places the child in the setting.
“To spur on students who are afraid to write, or intimidated by the writing process,” writes Derri Scarlett, “I have them take pictures (or bring in pictures) that they like. An English instructor at Bismarck (N. D.) State College and a columnist for The Bismarck Tribune, Scarlett then encourages those students to talk about why they like the photos, or what the photos mean to them. Then she directs the students to “brainstorm” on paper. That’s when they jot down the words they first spoke of when they discussed the photographs. From that exercise come sentences, then an essay. “Because the students have invested themselves in the subject matter,” concludes Scarlett, “this is a great way of easing into the writing process.”
Often maligned but never out of sight, visual images surround and captivate us without letup. Show a photograph to a child, and the youngster will point to it, trace its image, and respond with a variety of emotions. Show another to an adult, and you get a frown, a smile, or a gesture—rarely will you draw a blank. Show a photograph, or a series of photographs, to students at any level, and you’ll generate more responses than you can handle. Soon your students will be creating stories, poems, and essays that will make you wonder why you hadn’t used this simple and obvious technique years earlier for stimulating the creative process.
Hank Kellner is a retired educator and the author of WRITE WHAT YOU SEE: 99 PHOTOGRAPHS TO INSPIRE WRITING. Although the official publication date for the book is April 1, 2009, it should be available directly from Cottonwood Press earlier than that--most likely in late January, 2009.
Contact author: hankpix@gmail.com.
Visit Cottonwood Press: http://www.cottonwoodpress.com
Photo by the author. Poem by Jerry Kato.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Shameless Self-Promotion
I was seventy-one years old when I began work on Write What You See: 99 PhotosTo Inspire Writing. Now I'm seventy-three, and the book is finally at the publisher where it's being fine tuned and made ready for the printer.
I've been delighted by the many positive comments I've received from educators who have read the unedited manuscript. Here's an excerpt from Diane Carver Sekeres' contribution. "Kellner's juxtaposition of his and others' photography with quotes, poetry, and prompts in WRITE WHAT YOU SEE is a feast of wonderment, inspiration, provocation, and stimulation."
Diane is a member of the Literacy Program Faculty at the College of Education, University of Alabama. Thank you, Diane!

The Case of the Thieving Seagull
Of all the writing activities that use images to inspire writing that have crossed my desk, Justin Van Kleeck’s “Thieving Seagull” assignment is among the most creative and original. “I show my students a video of a seagull that steals a bag of Doritos from a store in Scotland every day,” writes Van Kleeck. In the first part of the assignment, he directs the students to write a process paper in which they instruct their fellow seagulls on how to steal, open, and eat the Doritos. In the second part of the assignment, he tells the students to write from the point of view of a shopkeeper who is telling other shopkeepers how to prevent the seagull from stealing Doritos in a creative, non-violent way. "The key to the exercise,” concludes Van Kleeck, “ is for students to utilize the process approach while also employing their imaginations. They should be encouraged to create easy to follow, step-by-step instructions without skimping on style."

Does This Person Have a Toothache?
Well, we really don't know, do we? But whatever the problem may be, the image shown against an interesting and enigmatic background certainly is provocative.
Some students may simply study the photograph and allow their imaginations to guide them in their writing. Others may wish to discuss such questions as : (1) Is the person in the photograph a man or a woman? ((2) What is the meaning of the cryptic statement painted on the background? (3) Is the subject of the photograph in pain? If so, what is the cause of the pain? (4) If you could interview the subject of the photo, what would you want to find out about him or her?In any case, this photograph is just one example of thousands--maybe even millions--of others that can trigger ideas in the minds of students at all levels.

Nitwit of the Month Award
If Bill O'Reilly can have a "Pinhead" Award, why can't I have a "Nitwit" Award? Here's my first one. According to the London Daily Mail, a former British glamour model named Jayne Bennington spends the equivalent of $600 a month in an attempt to make her 11-year-old daughter into a beauty queen. Congratulations from across the pond, Jane. We look forward to the appearance of your unlucky daughter on a reality show very soon.