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Using Photography To Inspire Writing
by Hank Kellner
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“Words and pictures can work together to communicate more powerfully than either alone.”

William Albert Allard
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.

Photo of a woman standing in the street
Memories
What are you thinking of
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, Charlottsville, Virginia, 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 or great grandparents? What occupations did some of 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.” You can also find a great deal of valuable information about teaching writing at Meyers’ blog, http://writingwithtechnology.edublogs.org.

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