Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Photos as Story-Starters: Another Back-to-School Writing Activity

We've been doing a series of posts with ideas and references for back-to-school writing activities for teachers. I hope that writers are finding these ideas useful too. If you're a writer, I encourage you to try the Writing Workout at the end of today's post.

Jeanne Marie kicked off this series with a Writing Workout that asks students to describe (among other things) what a character is wearing. I've used a variation of this exercise with my adult writing students, asking them to write specifically about a character's shoes. Students are often surprised by how something so mundane as a character's shoes can provide insights into the character's personality, and even plot ideas.

Thanks to Esther's post, I'm looking forward to picking up a copy of Better than Great by Arthur Plotnik, and trying out her splendiferous Writing Workout with my students.

JoAnn's post last Friday reminded me of the importance of encouraging my students. And whether you write poetry or teach it (or both) you'll want to check out the book she discussed, Seeing the Blue Between, compiled by Paul B. Janeczko.

Finally, on Monday, Mary Ann shared an alternative to the dreaded "What I did over summer vacation" assignment. She has her students write about something "they know a lot about," in other words, something based on personal experience. Today's Writing Workout is similar in that it also asks students (and those of you who are writers) to write about an event you personally experienced. But in this case, students use a photograph as a story-starter.

The inspiration for this exercise came from reading Lois Lowry's Looking Back: A Book of Memories.  Here's a description of Lowry's book:
"People are constantly asking two-time Newbery Medalist Lois Lowry where she gets her ideas. In this fascinating memoir, Lowry answers this question, through recollections of childhood friends and pictures and memories that explore her rich family history. She recounts the pivotal moments that inspired her writing, describing how they magically turned into fiction along the complicated passageway called life. Lowry fans, as well as anyone interested in understanding the process of writing fiction, will benefit from this poignant trip through the past and the present of a remarkable writer."
See the following Writing Workout for ideas on how to use Lowry's book to inspire your students' (or your own) writing.

Writing Workout:
Using a Photo as a Story-Starter

Note: The following exercise is for use with young writers. I've used it successfully with grades 3-8. If you're a writer, see below for information on adapting this for your own work.
  1. Before introducing Lowry's book, I ask students to bring in a photograph of themselves with at least one other member of their family. (I define "family" to include extended family, such as cousins, aunts, uncles, etc., as well as family pets.) The photo should be of an event or special occasion or vacation and not a posed family portrait. If students like, they can bring in an extra photo so they can later choose which one to use for the assignment.
  2. The day of the assignment, I introduce the topic of writing from memories, or "memoir writing." Then I present Lowry's book, Looking Back. We discuss some of Lowry's fiction books, and I explain that, unlike her fiction, Looking Back is about events that actually happened. However, some of those events inspired Lowry's other writing.
  3. I page through, Looking Back, showing the class how each photo is followed by a memoir about the depicted event. Then I read a sample memoir. For grades 3-5, I typically use the memoir associated with a 1940 photo of Lowry's older sister reading The Gingerbread Man to her. 
  4. Now it's time for students to write their own memoirs using the photos they've brought to class. I ask them to "tell the story behind their photo," being sure to answer the 5Ws: Who is in the picture? Where are they? What are they doing? When did the event take place? Why were you together (for what occasion or event)? I also ask the students to answer the "H" question: How were you feeling?
  5. I emphasize that the memoir should not be a list of answers to the above questions. Instead, it should read like a true story with a beginning, middle, and end. This may take several drafts to accomplish. One of the things I ask students to do as they revise is to try to create an intriguing opening that will make readers want to read on. And every story should have an appropriate title.  
  6. After completing the assignment, students are usually excited to read their stories and show the class their photos. While this exercise can be used any time during the school year, I like to assign it early on because it helps me learn a little about the students and their families.
If you're a writer, I suggest you read Lowry's Looking Back for inspiration before you try the above assignment. Then, consider taking the assignment a step further by using some aspect of your photo-inspired memoir in a fictional story.

Do let me know how this exercise works for you and/or your students.
Happy writing!

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