Using Visual Writing Prompts in the Classroom

by Russ Goerend

The other night I tweeted:

The first tweet was tongue-in-cheek1. The second, though, is about to come to fruition!

The first step in using writing prompts in our classroom is to find the prompts. I’ve been able to stumble across a few sources and I collect them in an Evernote notebook. That notebook has prompts from Luke NeffJohn SpencerBud Hunt, and others. I throw some of my own in there and Amy has even created a few.2

 I use the prompts those gentlemen create because they have both visuals and a statement or question to provoke thought and curiosity. In a previous post, I broke down one of Luke’s prompts.

When I use a prompt in class, as I tweeted, it’s not a matter of 1) project 2) write. I’ve found that the visually-based prompts we often use can be a bit too abstract for my students.

I project a prompt from my computer and then we go through a two-step process: observe and infer.

First, we observe everything we can about the image. Here’s the photo Bud used today. He also added the caption: Chemistry can be magical.

Because we’ve done it often enough, all I have to do is project the prompt and say, “Observations?” We use the “I see…” format for sharing observations. Students today shared:

  • a beaker
  • a woman
  • a man
  • chemicals
  • they are wearing lab coats
  • there’s a shelf behind them with more glass beakers
  • he has a tie on
Then I say, “Inferences?” We use “I think…” or “Maybe there’s…” to share inferences. There are other ways to start inference sentences, too. Today they shared:
  • they’re trying to create a cure
  • they’re going to break something
  • it’s an old picture
  • it’s a scan (see the corners?)
At this point, I’ll share what my poem might try to tackle — today I wrote about how being in black and white doesn’t mean it’s old and I tried to connect it to Instagram and how we seem to be all about the retro lately — and I might ask a few students to share what they’re inspired to write about.
The whole process of breaking down the prompt takes 5-10 minutes. Then they have time to write!
  1. though I suspect subs appreciate my specificity []
  2. I use the notebook for organization, but also because Evernote seems to be rarely blocked in schools while Tumblr often is. []

10 Thoughts on Using Visual Writing Prompts

For the last few years, I’ve used photo prompts with my students. I’ve been updating them and adding them to a new Photo Prompts Tumblr. I readily admit that the idea of turning it into a Tumblr is based upon the brilliant writing prompts on the Writing Prompts Tumblr. Here are a few things I’ve learned about photo prompts:

Idea #1

Photo prompts don’t have to be tied down to language arts. I have asked students to observe a picture of a natural phenomenon and ask inquiry questions. I have given students a context and asked them to develop math questions (who knew a child would wonder how much it would cost to fill up a pyramid with Jell-O?) The following was a very strange math prompt that got students thinking about days, months, years, ratios, etc.

Idea #2

Photo prompts allow for a bridge between the concrete and the abstract. If you look at the prompt to the left, the students have to study the visual in order to make sense out of the abstract.

Idea #3
The most successful prompts are thought-provoking in both the visual and the questioning. I have asked questions like, “Are companies more powerful than nations” and students offer great answers. But push a kid to look at Facebook as a nation and the concept of globalization changes:
Idea #4:
Sometimes the best photo prompts are driven by the picture. Some of my favorite ones involved simply, “Tell the story” or “create a question.”
Idea #5
Let kids develop their own photo prompts. Students were really into the idea of the one-sentence story accompanied by the picture (as seen below). While it might seem like a shallow writing piece, it got them thinking about the notion of character, theme and conflict that are central to a story.

Idea #6

In an effort to make things applicable to the “real world” we fail to engage in the fantastical, the whimsical, the playful and the ridiculous. So, when we go over persuasive techniques, I don’t mind asking my students to convince me to buy canned unicorn meat:

Idea #7

Be intentional. I’m beginning to see that most creativity comes from the desire of intentionality. Not every picture works. Not every question pushes students to think deeper.  However, I’ve noticed that when I’m unintentional, I go for the same questions all the time. Thus, for functional text, I always do, “Choose an activity you love to do and describe how to do it.” However, when asking them to take an opposite approach to a familiar story, students had a new audience for the functional text:

Idea #8

Photo prompts can be a chance to reinforce difficult vocabulary and grammar with ELL students. The following sentence seems pretty easy, but the sentence structure is long and the verb tense is difficult. It is not the visual that gives it away, though. That’s not the idea. The point is to provide one longer, difficult sentence that students wrestle with linguistically.

Idea #9

It’s a journey. Some of the prompts fail miserably. I really thought this one would work and it simply didn’t pan out at all. The students wanted to talk about the real “Arab Spring” and were edgy about attacking the implied totalitarianism of their childhood heroes and heroines.

Idea #10
Ultimately, it’s all about relevance. However, relevance isn’t simply about going with what kids are interested in. It’s not about stacking it full of pop culture. It’s about choosing questions that connect to the students’ lives and to their world. It’s about adding context to math and pushing students philosophically and even adding a healthy dose of technology criticism. Regardless of the picture, students want to discuss, “Are we too connected?”

Click Me Click Me

Where Have All the Story-tellers Gone?

by Russ Goerend

The other day I tweeted:


In class, I said to my students, “How many of you feel like you write a lot in this class?” A good number of hands went up, so I asked, “And how many of you feel like you are writers?” I saw just a few hands that time.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, this idea of writers and writing, and storytellers and stories. I don’t think those roles — writer and storyteller — are mutually exclusive. There is much overlap. There are also times, in my classroom at least, where my students are writers, but not storytellers. It probably has a lot to do with the type of writing I ask them to do, and I’m sure it has something to do with the culture and mindset of the classroom.

Asking students to “Write a persuasive essay” isn’t the best way to ask them to tell a story.1 As a teacher, I found myself in a slump with the writing I was asking them to do. I was sitting fastball and swinging at everything coming past me.

I’m extremely grateful for Luke Neff’s writing prompts. Think about the difference between these two prompts, though:


While both prompts are gorgeous and thought-provoking,2 asking students to write a letter is an inappropriate prompt if I want them to tell a story.3

At the beginning of the year, we worked with Ralph Fletcher’s ideas for building a writer’s notebook. I like his ideas a lot, and with some personalization, I like where it takes our students. What I’m realizing, though, is that while we covered ideas like “Capturing Memories” and “Writing from the Heart,” I didn’t give adequate time or scaffolding for students to learn those skills.

So now, three months later, I’m miffed when my students aren’t telling stories, when all I’ve done this year is tell them what to write.

We started Thursday with this question on the board:

I had students free write on that question for three minutes. Some bullet-pointed, others wrote a few paragraphs. Then, in their groups, I had them summarize their group’s thoughts into one sentence: A story worth telling is/does/has/etc…

It was a good conversation. We talked about theme and moral, characters and growth.

When the conversation was over, I projected the astronaut prompt and we talked through some things: What story do you see here? What perspective do you see this story from? Are you a cab driver? Someone walking on the street? The astronaut? Is there a metaphor here? Have you ever felt like you were on fire with smoke coming off you to the point that no one wanted to get in your way?

Then, I set a timer4 for 10 minutes and we wrote.

Happy ending:

  1. Yes, storytelling is a great vehicle for persuading, but saying to a 6th grader, “Persuade me,” opens the door to lists of reasons, not stories that illustrate. []
  2. and please don’t misconstrue this as me saying that one prompt is “better” than the other []
  3. Again, it’s possible to tell a story in a letter, but the majority of my sixth graders couldn’t even get there with prodding []
  4. it is school, after all []