Today’s writing and revision project was inspired by a couple of exercises from the book Discovering the Writer Within by Bruce Ballenger and Barry Lane. Photography becomes the catalyst that challenges participants to complete a radical revision. It is presented here as a classroom project for high school students, but the prompts can readily be used by any writer seeking to experiment with revision and add to their arsenal of possible topics.
I first carried out a variation of this project with three classes of sophomore English students using disposable cameras. They worked in groups of 3-5 students and used class time to take their pictures on and around the grounds of a rural school. I then dropped off the cameras at the end of the day for processing. The funds came from an Idaho Governor’s Education Grant.
That first attempt was a smashing success, but then the calendar for the next school year was shortened. I was able to re-work the assignment as a culminating activity for the new creative writing class I’d taught. Ten students were enrolled in the class, so the project then became an individual effort. I received another grant that enabled the purchase of six digital cameras, accessories, and a printer.
How to handle student camera use and the printing of pictures varies greatly. The guidelines given here are just suggestions. I’ve included file attachments for the Ways of Seeing PowerPoint Presentation featured here as well as the Ways of Seeing Rubric that I developed for the assignment. In this age of standardized testing, I readily hold firm that the benefits of a project-driving curriculum benefit students tenfold. Sharing my work with others continues to be a great pleasure and one way I continue to feel that I am making a difference as a teacher.
Introduce the main premise of the project by having students complete the “Breaking Habits of Seeing” exercise in small groups. Push them to take turns writing observations of their rock for at least 20 minutes. Then discuss the prompts given for that exercise.
Next, given the discussion that just occurred, have students get out a piece of paper and write a personal definition for revision. Ask them to include specific examples of how they have revised past work. This will later become part of their project display.
Don’t share freewrites just yet. As they wrap up, announce that each student is going to get the chance to take 50 pictures of an object of their choice (you may or may not want to limit it to an inanimate object).
With the photos slide now in mind, engage them in a discussion of what revision is and what it is not. Finally lead into a talk on how revision requires “re-seeing.” I find it best to provide anecdotes from my own experience as a writer, or engage them in what popular books such as The Hunger Games would be like it told from a different point of view, etc.
Cameras should be checked-out to students over the weekend. Again, how to handle student camera use and printing varies greatly. Provide a few basic photography pointers. Consider sharing insights to what drew you to attack a photo subject in a certain way. I tell the story of how the dead duck engrossed me. I prefer to hold off on showing finished project examples until they take pictures.
Cost is undoubtedly a factor. The morning that students returned the digital cameras, I had them narrow their 50 pictures down to just 12 that I would then print for them. Even with trustworthy students, I have found that having them print on their own leads to numerous headaches (chiefly issues with print quality). If they use their own camera, it is probably best to have them email the pictures to you.
Make sure to have another activity ready for the rest of class. Since this took place during the last two weeks of the school year, my students then spent the rest of the hour taking their final unit exam for creative writing.
Class starts with students receiving printouts of their chosen photos. I utilize large drawers in the back of my classroom for returning work, which greatly speeds up this process. If the drawer is open when they come in, they know they need to pick their stuff up.
Allow a couple of minutes for them to shuffle through their photos and share with their peers. Now it’s time to begin the What Photography Can Reveal About Writing portion of the activity (click on the exercise link for more specific instruction than what is provided below). This requires three five-minute freewrites.
Freewrite: What made you chose your favorite photograph? Be specific.
Freewrite: How did my experience with the process of taking these photos seem similar to the process of writing?
Reflection: Were your two assignments markedly similar or different? Which particular photos inspired you to see your subject in a new what? Was it relatively easy or difficult for you to take so many pictures of the same thing? Could you take even more pictures of the same thing? Why or why not?
This is where I introduce the Ways of Seeing Rubric for the assignment and go over the final two slides.
Finally, I share my own example. Depending on time, you can share the writing on the display or discuss the thought process of taking your pictures.
With 90-minute block classes, I then used the rest of the hour to start showing a cartoon related to a unit on children’s literature.
This is an intensive day of writing. I gave students the option of writing or typing. Only one wanted to write longhand. This could also be assigned completely as homework, but I highly recommend trying to set aside the class time for this portion as well. It’s also a good idea to award some daily points to award students for working diligently during class time.
Centered Title: Revision Lenses
Task: Experiment with genre.
- Write a haiku.
- Write a three sentence memoir.
- Write a four line play dialogue between two characters.
- In the style of Montaigne, write three sentences on the significance of your subject, i.e. “On Ducks.”
Task: Switch POV.
- Pick four people from various walks to life.
- List each type of person.
- Then write four first-person sentences that describe what goes through their mind the first time they see the subject in your photo.
Task: Ponder Style
- List four of your favorite authors.
- Describe the writing style of four of your favorite authors.
- What stands out when it comes to diction, syntax, paragraphing, description, subject matter?
Task: Appeal to Audiences
- Pick four demographically diverse audiences.
- List each type of audience.
- Then write four third-person sentences that state why your subject should matter to them.
Task: Assume Tones
- Pick four varied tones toward your subject.
- List each tone.
- Write four sentences from your point of view that express the tone without using the tonal word in the sentence.
- Show don’t tell!
This writing will most likely take all of a 90-minute period. If not, spend any remaining time sharing highlight from what the students wrote. From there, the students decide which revision lens to apply to their final display. Make today’s prompts available online or on a handout they can take with them.
If time allows, considering giving the students a period to work on their displays. I made poster board available as well as various arts and crafts supplies.
Projects are due at the start of class. While the cartoon related to the children’s story unit finished, I put their projects on display in the room so they could observe them gallery style before class ended.
Feedback is Appreciated
Do you think you would try this project with students? What are you feelings on project-based curriculums? Are such projects disappearing in this age of standardized testing and at what expense to students’ learning? Feel free to comment below.
The projects featured below belong to Riley Nelson and Jessica Sweeney. Each student took the creative writing class multiple times and I also had the pleasure of being their teacher for ninth and tenth grade English as well.
Quick Dip by Riley Nelson
A Fence? by Jessica Sweeney