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Keywords: Writing Strategies, Language Arts, Editing
Subject(s): English/Language Arts, Information Skills
Grades 1 through 5
School: Potters House School, Grand Rapids, MI
Planned By: Beth VanderKolk
Original Author: Beth VanderKolk, Grand Rapids

Simple digital camera, two sheets of chart paper, laptop, projector, and student writing paper.

Teaching activity:
Begin by talking about a shared experience that your class has had and explain that writers often draw from their own experience to write. Solicit some general comments about the experience from your students and make a list of the comments on chart paper. Explain how some writers try to include an abundance of information in their writing and that can make it difficult for the reader to accurately conceptualize what the writer is trying to communicate.

Exhibit the digital camera and explain that writing a succinct piece is similar to taking a good photograph. In that, some people take a camera and just point it in a general direction and push the shutter button. Demonstrate this with several shots around your classroom and then show the class the results. (My class roared at a photo of the carpet.)

Explain that one technique in taking quality photographs is to not just see – take in all the visual information – but to really look- to notice line, texture, shape, and color. Talk about the fact that a good photograph is not just what you include, but what is excluded as well. Have the students all look in one area of your classroom. (My class chose an area with a bookshelf, window, and reading area.) Challenge the students that even though this was their classroom where they spent significant time, they are to look closely and ask themselves what they thought was the most interesting thing visually? Give the students examples--the texture on the wooden book crates, the pattern on the plant leaves, or the sunlight on the windowsill. Show the students how it may help to get a different perspective, lying down, standing up, or moving from one part of the classroom to another. Shoot four additional photos with the camera, each one composed intentionally. Have the students compare those photos with the ones taken earlier. Discuss the fact that the photo is enhanced because the photographer was intentional about what was included in a shot.

Discuss how people see things differently, and how what is visually striking to one person may be very different from what is striking to another person. Pair the students up and have them share with each other what they think is the most visually striking. Give the camera to individual students and have them take shots. After about five shots, have the class compare the photos and give feedback. Ask each photographer “Why did you choose that image? And what did you decide to leave out of the image?

Return to chart paper with notes about the class’s shared experience. Pair the students up again and asked them to share with each other what they think is the most significant details about the experience and what they are deciding to leave out – just like taking a good photograph, a writer is intentional in what they include and what they leave out.

Send the students to their seats to compose a descriptive piece about the shared experience. Each student should draw a quick sketch of the most significant part of their experience to serve as a visual reminder to focus in on that part for their writing. Students should then write about it.

Afterward, ask for volunteer students to share their piece with the class. Discuss: What did this writer choose to focus on in the piece? What of this experience does the writer think is most important?

This is just one mini lesson in a long series of using digital images to encourage and enhance eloquent communication. Other ideas include using the photo editing process to demonstrate the written editing process, using digital images to encourage use of descriptive words, and use of digital images to illustrate written work such as informational or biographical text. I have found that the use of digital images has endless possibilities and has been very motivating for our students.
My classroom is often compared to a type of anthill with lively and purposeful activities going on simultaneously. I teach twenty-four bright and inquisitive first graders from a variety of cultures and socio-economic classes. In the midst of our urban diversity there is one common thread, an enthusiastic drive to discover the world together.
One of our main school tenants is to enable students to communicate eloquently – to be able to represent ideas, thoughts, and possibilities clearly and creatively to others. One of the most challenging assignments for me is to help young students develop their writing craft. Getting thoughts down on paper can be a heavy cognitive load for students and I often need creative tools to instruct and motivate students through the writing process.
Our class writing routine starts with a mini-lesson where I model and give examples of different writing strategies, then we have a workshop time where students apply those strategies to their written work. I noticed that many of my students were listing phrases in their work instead of weaving their thoughts together into a cohesive picture for the reader to imagine. I thought for a while on what I could model so they could see how important it is to be intentional on what you include in a written piece and what you leave out.
Finally, I remembered my love of photography and how I use similar principals to decide on the composition of a photograph. One morning I brought in a digital camera and I showed how some people who haven’t been trained in photography tend to just point and shoot their camera. I then demonstrated and took several shots without even looking through the viewfinder. I showed the shots to the students and asked them what they thought – they particularly loved the blurry one of the carpet.
I then explained that one way to ensure clear and visually pleasing images is to think before you shoot. The class and I then selected an area of our classroom. I had each child look that area over closely and decide what looked the most visually interesting. We discussed that it may be very different for each individual since we each approach it from a different perspective. Each student and I then focused the camera on the student’s preference and left out unnecessary images. After taking photos with several students we compared the first round of images, those without intention, to the images the students took. We were all delighted with the improvement and the students really grasped the concept of choosing what to include in an image intentionally.
I then made the connection to writing; in that some people like to include a lot of information that actually distracts from getting the message across. The lesson was so powerful that I soon realized how the student use of digital images could be a yearlong catalyst for writing and oral presentations.
In fact, some additional uses are for the child to record images and then write a descriptive paragraph about it, or to take several images and write a story to accompany it. Digital images also help students illustrate a non-fiction piece; such as an informational text on how their plant grew in their science project.
Also, I used this technique in a mini-lesson for editing in which I showed an image taken intentionally but later observed a small flaw in the composition. Digital editing was demonstrated to the class in order to revise the image. The parallel was then made from digital editing to written editing.
Materials: Point and Shoot, Digital SLR, Mobile Labs, Paint, Slideshow, Clipart, English and Language Arts, Camera Bags, xD Memory Cards, Batteries