Sunday, August 22, 2010

Inspiration from Photos and Poems

Look Beyond the Ocean

          You can always use photos without text to inspire writing, and you can always use text without photos for the same purpose. But when you combine the two, you present a powerful combination of words and images that never fails to encourage students to write. And when you add a relevant quotation, it gets even better. Here's one example.

"As for the future, your task is not to forsee it, but to enable it."
                                                        Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Look Beyond the Ocean

Alone, I face the sea
As waves rush toward the shore
Carrying messages unheard.

What will they say,
Those silent thoughts,
When at last
They whisper to the sand
On which I wait?

“The world awaits,” they cry.
“Look beyond the ocean,
Past the clouds
And out beyond the sky
Where you will find yourself.”
                                          Elizabeth Guybo

        For an anthology due out next year I'm on the lookout for poems by students, teachers, and others. This anthology will be unique because it will combine poems and photos. For more information and guidelines for submission, contact me at hankpix(at)gmail(dot)com  with the word Poetry in the subject line.
        Photo courtesy Megan McCarty. Megan is a graduate of  The University of Central Florida. Visit her blog at

Comic Strips, Cartoons, and Working Lunches

          There seems to be no end to the ways in which you can use photos to inspire writing. Here's one example. Mary Lee Meyer is a teacher consultant at the Prairie Lands Writing Project. See for examples of some of the activities she demonstrates at her writing workshops for teachers. Contact Mary Lee at lucki13(at)grm(dot)net for more information.
         In one activity, Meyer suggests using comic strips or political cartoons from newspapers and magazines to inspire student writing. “Scan an image into Microsoft Paint™ or another photo editing program and erase the words in the bubbles,” she writes. “Then print copies and ask the students to discuss the cartoon or comic strip in small group settings.” Meyer points out that this exercise helps students develop writing assignments that use dialogue          In another activity, Meyer asked workshop participants to take a working lunch during which they recorded at least five digital photos that they thought they could use in a writing assignment. “This was a two-day class,” she writes, “during which participants were required, among other things, to use one of their images appropriately in a written piece.”  This assignment could easily be completed with students at any level in just one day if the students are directed to come to class with photos they had already taken.

 Another Pitch for Write What You See
          Hank Kellner is the author of Write What You See: 99 Photos To Inspire Writing. Published by Cottonwood Press, Write What You See includes a supplementary CD with photos. Available at the publisher, at bookstores and on the Internet at Ask your school or local librarian to order it.          

Friday, August 13, 2010

Summer Storms and Las Vegas

             Stormy Weather

           Cynthia Staples' poem "Summer Storms" appeared in Dead Mule of Southern Literature. We've paired it with a photo and reproduced it here to illustrate, once again, how powerful a photo-poem combination can be when it comes to inspiring writing.
           To see more of  Cynthia's photos and inspirational comments, visit her interesting and exciting blog at Other work by Cynthia has appeared  in African Voices, Creativity Portal, and the Seattle Times.   

Summer Storms

I miss summer storms,
Deafening noise, blinding light.
You know—the ones with rolling thunder,
Trailing white lightning in their wake,
Sheets of rain falling like milk from the sky.

We were trembling children.
As we peered past drawn curtains,
The storm seemed unending,

But then poof! Like magic it would stop
Leaving silence in the air.
Darkness would part for the sun. Birds sang.

All that remained of the storm
Was puddles and leaves strewn across
The front porch. We’d step outside
Into a golden light as though
God had scrubbed the world clean
Just for us.

We would play until sun set
And lightning bugs came out
To dance with the stars.

And Then There's, uh, Las Vegas

Las Vegas
O Las Vegas, you tawdry queen in old sequins and greasy spangles,
A boiling cauldron of iniquity.
A devil’s den of sin and vice.
Vegas, that dark electric empire.
That dream within a dream.
A thousand white candles of hope burning and singing to that old devil moon.
Uniquely American, the beauty of Las Vegas-
The swing and swank of neon, fast cars, and hot sex.
Eternal promise, hope and hype-
O glittering golden dream.
                                                                                                     Molly Anderson-Childers' "Las Vegas" seduces us in a voice that's different from that of Staples' "Summer Storms." Rich in imagery, it speaks of "sin and vice," of "greasy spangles," of "hope and hype."
        Although this photo-poem combination wouldn't be appropriate for younger students, it would certainly inspire upper level students and adults.
      What's more, you could easily use the storm photo or the Vegas photo without the accompanying poems to inspire writing.
      Thanks to Molly Anderson-Childers for "Las Vegas." Molly is a freelance writer, photographer, artist, and creativity consultant. You can see more of her work at creativity-portal, ediblesanjuanmountains,, and
Call for Poetry
           I'd been teaching  for just a few years when Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle was published back in the 1960s. Consisting of a collection of poems accompanied by photos, Reflections became a favorite not only with the general public, but also with teachers of English. As I recall, it went through many editions before going out of print.
          What a great idea, I thought at the time. Now, more than forty years later, I still feel the same way. That's why I've decided to create another poetry-photo combination. But this time, instead of using poetry by well-known poets, I'd like to use poems by students, their teachers, and other adults.
         If you're interested in learning more about this exciting project, please contact me at hankpix(at)yahoo(dot)com. Finally, if you don't have photos, we can provide them..
Buy My Book  
Hank Kellner is the author of Write What You See: 99 Photos To Inspire Writing. Published by Cottonwood Press, Write What You See includes a supplementary CD with photos. Available at the publisher, at bookstores and on the Internet at Ask your school or local librarian to order it.                                                            Here's what Darien Public Library teen volunteer Katie Farren wrote about Write What You See. "Do you ever have trouble writing stories for your English class or on your own? Well Write What You See is packed with 99 intriguing photos, writing prompts, and key words that will surely motivate you to write stories that will blow people away. The ideas and stories these pictures can help you come up with are endless. You'll never have trouble writing again!"       

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Man in the Green Shirt

         You really must click on this photo by Minneapolis-based photographer Michael A. Shapiro to enlarge it. That's when you'll experience the full impact of this powerful image. A former writing instructor, Shapiro is the well-known creator of photographic images who has completed and exhibited five major projects since 2000; published the book Paris; is finishing the final edit for his next book, American Fair; and is working full time on another project. You can see more of his excellent images at his website

           I doubt if you'd  find a student anywhere in the the world who won't respond to this photo in one way or another.That's why I suggest that simply showing the image to young writers without comment will trigger many different poems, essays, character sketches, recollections, and more.

           Alternatively, you could show the photo accompanied by several key words designed to inspire writing. For example: shirt, mood, eyes, pensive, or many others. Ask the students to describe, in writing, what comes to mind when they match the words to the photo.

          But if you thrive on class discussion, you could challenge your students with such questions as: (1) What do you think this young man is looking at? (2) If you were to meet him, what would you discuss? (3) Why is the subject of the photo alone? (4) What is he thinking?

How Some Master Teachers  Use Photographs To Inspire Writing
             In a review of Write What You See in Voices of Youth Advocate, August, 2009, Joyce Doyle wrote: "Possibly the most helpful feature is a special section in the back of the book where high school and college teachers show how they have helped to inspire creative writing through the use of photos." Here are two examples.
     At the University of Mississippi Writing Project, Co-Director of Special Programs Allison Movitz’s students use their own photographs to spark various kinds of writings. The students also incorporate their photos into multi-genre presentations and portfolios.  “Most recently,” writes Movitz, “we’ve used Microsoft’s Photostory™, a digital camera, and a microphone to recreate a ‘who done it’ from a mock trial in speech/debate classes.”
     Mary Birky is an English teacher at the Papillion-LaVista High School, Papillion, Nebraska; a Nebraska Writing Project Advisory Board member, and a contributor to a forthcoming book on place-conscious education. Birky uses student-generated photos to stimulate writing assignments based on the content of the photos, the mood of the photos, and the imagery of the photos. “I tell my students to ‘paint the photographs with words,’” she writes, before she asks them to create free verse poetry based on the photos they have selected.”
    Justin Van Kleeck’s very successful writing activity with students he tutors involves a seagull that simply can’t get enough Doritos. A former adjunct Assistant Professor of English at Piedmont Community College, Van Kleeck shows his students a video of a seagull that steals a bag of Doritos from a store in Scotland every day. In the first part of his assignment, he directs the students to become the thieving seagull and write process papers in which they tell their fellow seagulls 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, in a creative, non-violent way, is telling other shopkeepers how to prevent the seagull from stealing Doritos. “The key to the exercises,” writes Van Kleeck, “is for students to use the process approach while also using their imaginations.”

Call for Submissions


    Do you have a photo-related writing activity you’ve used successfully in the classroom? Would you like to share that activity with other teachers at many levels nationwide? If so, I’d love to hear from you.    Please send approximately 100 words describing your activity to me at hankpix(at)gmail(dot)com as a WORD attachment to your e-mail. Don’t forget to include your name, title, school or college, city, state, and a brief statement granting permission to use your submission in my articles. Thank you.
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