Using Photos to Inspire Writing

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Write What You See

Photos Trigger Words

Present photos with a few trigger words to stimulate imaginations.

By Hank Kellner | Updated April 21, 2019

“Everything is funny as long as it happens to someone else.” So wrote the American humorist Will Rogers. That statement certainly is true, even though the young boy shown in this photo seems to be unaware of the events that are taking place around him.

Young BoyOne way to use a photo like this one is to present it to students with only a few accompanying "trigger" words designed to stimulate their imaginations. For example, you could pair the photo with words like humor, laughter, jokes, funny situations, or others. Then you could ask the students to write opening paragraphs based on the first thoughts that come to mind when they view the photo/words combination.

To complete the assignment, you could ask the students to write longer works based on their opening paragraphs. In some cases, students may wish to exchange their opening paragraphs before writing their compositions.

Another approach would be to conduct class discussions using thought provoking questions that will help the students formulate ideas for stories, poems, or even expository pieces based on the concept of humor. Students will readily respond to such questions as: (a) What is the little boy in this photo thinking? (b) Why are the two adults laughing? (c) What are some of the funniest things you have ever seen in a film or on television? (d) What does it feel like to have someone laugh at you? (e) Who is the funniest person in your class, and what is funny about this person? (f) What are some things that make you laugh (g) In what ways can laughter be harmful?

Long Live Books and Reading!

SilhouetteSilhouetted against a window, a girl appears to be engrossed in the book she is reading. At a time when motion pictures and television seem to capture the attention of so many people, is this girl the exception rather than the rule? What is it about the book she's reading that holds her attention? In what way can reading a book be more satisfying than watching a film or television?

To teach specific writing skills, you could ask your students to discuss only the main character in a novel they have read. For this assignment, they should discuss the character they have chosen emo-tionally as well as physically. They should also tell how their characters dealt with conflicts or problems that were important in the novel they chose.

Of course, many students either don't enjoy reading, or are outwardly hostile to doing so. If that's true of the students in your classroom, you could ask them to write compositions that cite specific reasons for their aversion to reading.

Behold the Lowly Onion

OnionsStudents who have handled most onions know that they have to be careful when doing so. If they've peeled or chopped onions, they might have cried. If they chewed on them, their mouths might have smarted. Worse yet, some students might have found that people turned away from them after they ate these members of the Allium plant family.

One or more of the responses described above could easily inspire any number of written compositions. Alternatively, you could present your students with several suggested writing assignments.

For example, you could ask them to describe an onion in terms of what it looks like, tastes like, feels like, and smells like. This approach will encourage them to describe an object in terms of sense impressions. On a more creative level, you could ask your students to personify an onion and reveal what it's like to be peeled, chopped or sliced, added to a salad, and drenched with salad dressing.

Promote Narrative Writing…With Humor

In Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, adjunct Instructor of English Amber Luck promotes narrative writing by showing her students at Hennepin Technical College photographs depicting people in situations in which what is happening isn't immediately clear. "The assignment," she writes, "for each student to choose one person in one of the photos and write the story behind the picture from that person's point of view." The students then take turns reading their stories aloud to their classmates. "The results are often hilarious," concludes Luck, "and the assignment works as a community-building exercise, as well as an introduction to narration."

Create an Image File

At Kalamazoo Valley Community College in Kalamazoo, Michigan, Linda Dick uses many interesting, creative techniques to help her students create stories, poems, and expository pieces. In her creative writing classes, for example, she asks them to create an image file: a folder full of magazine images and/or Internet images of anything. "In the classroom," she writes, "I ask the students to choose one of the images. Then I direct some of them to write a biography, others to create a scene, and still others to create a plot line." Finally, the students put everything together spontaneously. "In that way," she concludes, "they learn a great deal about the elements of fiction."

There Is No Limit

As you can see, there is no limit to the ways in which you can use photographs to inspire writing. You can use them to help teach the different forms of rhetoric. You can use them to help your students write biographies or family histories. You can use them to help teach figures of speech, poems, or short stories. Or, if you wish, you can simply present photographs to your students without comment or discussion and allow them to create compositions based on whatever the photos suggest to them.

©2009 Hank Kellner. All rights reserved.

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