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.

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