“Why is the snail on a skateboard?” “Is that Abraham Lincoln in a jetpack?” These are the types of questions raised by students in my fourth grade classroom everyday after lunch. Laughs, chuckles, and gasps ensue as they enter the room and see the day’s visual writing prompt projected on the board. These engaging images are used to get kids thinking and writing for extended periods of time. Initially, my reason for incorporating this type of activity into our day was due to the implementation of the Common Core State Standards. The Range of Writing anchor, beginning in grade three and ending in grade twelve, calls for students to be able to write routinely over extended periods of time. However, besides just hitting the standards, there have been some very happy side effects along the way. Here are some of them.
At times as an educator, you can’t help but feel that with all the deadlines, homework, mandates and testing you are squelching kids’ natural curiosity and erasing any outlet for creativity they may have. Presenting one image to 28 little minds that have the freedom to imagine is a powerfully liberating experience for both student and teacher. Children who enter the room at the beginning of the year with doubts about their creative abilities leave the room in June feeling confident. How kids tackle each image is also a creative process. Some choose to work on skill application; such as using literary devices we have been working on in English language arts. I can’t count the number of stories that open with an onomatopoeia right now! Others challenge themselves by linking each new image to the previous images from the days before. It’s been a hilarious progression to watch Abe Lincoln move from building jet packs all the way to adopting a pet sea horse. The imagining, organization and craft of the various stories have given all students the proof they need to believe that they are creative problem solvers.
The range of ability and background knowledge within any given classroom is truly staggering. What visual writing prompts give a teacher (and her students) is the invitation for unanimous participation and success. Developing a lesson where this can happen takes an almost intuitive understanding of each student’s individual needs, learning styles accounted for, hours of research compiled, careful design and a whole lot of luck. These prompts give each child the chance to shine…every day.
Another accidental byproduct has been the overall effect on the classroom environment. Surely, any year at school has to be started with clear expectations and the establishment of routines. However, the predictability and almost sacred protection of this time has had a profound effect on the culture of the classroom. The students all eagerly get out their personalized writer’s notebooks right before lunch and hustle up the stairs after to see the picture on the board. And then the laughs, comments and questions begin. After a minute or two, they all settle in and a quiet industrious calm hums along in the room. Pencils feverishly scratch along paper and the occasional self-induced chuckle surfaces. I call, “pencils down” after a half hour of sustained writing…always accompanied by disappointed sighs and pleas of, “just one more sentence!”
We then do either a whole class read or partner read. Once again, all of the students have reached a point of wanting to share. How often does this occur in the life of a teacher? I keep waiting for the day when the students drag their feet up the stairs and slam open their notebooks in frustration. With almost two years and two different classes doing this, it still hasn’t happened. There is a constant mountain of writer’s notebooks stacked precariously on my desk by students who want me to read their creations. It is comforting to know that in a profession where you are bound to experience daily fails (like the time I attempted to have them melt crayons in an effort to teach the rock cycle) and constant reflection (dissection) on your practice, there is a dedicated time for success. Most importantly, however, is the motivation and fearless attitude my students have developed. They all want to write, to share, to improve and to support one another in process. They ARE writers.
Although I’ve only used visual writing prompts in a formal education setting, I imagine that it would be equally powerful in an after school/ homeschool setting. Included throughout this post is a collection of some of our favorite images. Doing a search online for “visual writing prompts” will also yield a good crop of prompts (after some careful editing, of course). So, grab a notebook, make it your own and start story telling with the help of the young writer(s) in your life!
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