Revision Project: Ways of Seeing

Ross Creek Cedars Fairy Den

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.

Project Backstory

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.

Day One

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).

Ways of Seeing Presentation Ways of Seeing Presentation

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.

Ways of Seeing PresentationWays of Seeing Presentation

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.

Dead Duck Wilson Ponds Nampa

Day Two

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.

Day Three

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.

Ways of Seeing Presentation

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.

Ways of Seeing Presentation

Freewrite: What made you chose your favorite photograph? Be specific.

Ways of Seeing Presentation

Freewrite: How did my experience with the process of taking these photos seem similar to the process of writing?

Ways of Seeing Presentation

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.

Ways of Seeing PresentationWays of Seeing Presentation

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.

Ways of Seeing Revision Project Bruce Ballenger

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.

Day 4

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.

Day 5

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.

Day 6

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.

Student Examples

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

What are your reactions to this exercise? What role does photography play in inspiring your creative endeavors?[signoff][/signoff]

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Author: Jeri Walker

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  1. This is wonderful. It resonates with me on so many levels. The creativity, the practical application, the learning; it’s all there and it makes me happy to think about it. Of course I would use this as a lesson if I were still a teacher. It has so many possibilities. I could also use this as an exercise for myself.

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    • Susan, thanks for nothing how the exercise work on so many different levels. I really worked hard on developing this one, and then I wonder why I never had a life when I was in the classroom?

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  2. WOW!
    Great series of assignments with something to think about years later.
    You are a wonderful teacher!

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    • Candy, I really did like coming up with assignments like these. It’s just too bad I got a serious case of burnout. Maybe someday I’ll give the classroom another go, or figure out a way to channel my teaching knowledge in other directions.

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      • Eventually something will turn up that taps into your teacher side.

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  3. That’s a great exercise, no matter what the age of the students. Photography does teach you a whole different way of looking at the world. And there are so many steps – setting up the photo, taking the photo, and then looking at it on various media. And sometimes I find my favourite photo is the one that I may have taken candidly, or as part of the setting up process. I love that you used an “old school” display – lends a whole different dynamic in this day of social media!

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    • Krystyna, I had considered letting the students do the entire project using computer software, but I think there’s still something to be said for the tactile nature of the “old school” displays featured here.

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  4. Jeri — thanks for this very thorough and interesting assignment. I read through the PowerPoint presentation. Images can definitely change our view of the world. It’s a cliche, I know, but an image can replace a thousand words. I’ve done a lot of work with professional services firms and they never saw a PP slide they couldn’t fill with dense type. I’m working a project now for a Big 4 firm and I’m hoping they will agree to less copy and more images. From my mouth to God’s ear!

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    • Jeannette, it’s like that advice not to cram a boatload of text onto a PowerPoint slide falls on deaf ears from day one! The computer applications teacher at my former school did such a great job drilling such guidelines in, then I would do the same, and on down the line with every teacher… and then on senior project presentation day, there were still some slides filled with text. The tendency to want to have the text there for backup just never seems to go away for many people. It’s better to have lots of notes handy rather than subject the audience to all that text.

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  5. A few of final year business classes were project based. Every one of them had a team focus as well. Personally I like the project based learning. It gives more practical knowledge to go along with the abstract.

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    • Jon, project-based learning yields so many more benefits, but unfortunately, the results are difficult to assess on a standardized test. Not to mention testing-companies make profit off of testing way more than they do on promoting curriculum. But when a teacher is given free rein to develop good projects, just think of the possibilities.

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  6. Oh My Goodness where we you when I was in school. This would be such an amazing project. I love projects that made me really get involved and think about things on different levels. Wow 10 students that must have been amazing. I would definitely do this with my students if I was a teacher.

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    • Elizabeth, having just ten students in the creative writing class I taught was such a plus. So much more can be accomplished with a small class of students who are totally immersed in the class, rather than just there for an easy A.

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  7. Wow, you must have been (and are) an incredible teacher… the amount of time put into this one project is really impressive. I also loved the first example of what revision truly means… I’m afraid too many times I’ve viewed it only as editing 🙂

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    • Dan, yes it was a very time-consuming project to develop, but totally worth the effort. I’m happy to share it with others. It just goes to show how the influence of the teachers who taught me then morphed into something else when I decided to teach the true meaning of revision to my students. That kind of collaboration is one of the things I miss most about teaching.

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  8. One of the great things about this project is it introduces students to visual expression as well as writing.

    In terms of costs, in our house, things get expensive when my kids decide to do a lot of printing. You are smart to have them email the pics for printing. Gosh, you are a devoted teacher! I wonder about the students’ reaction – do they appreciate this great project?

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    • Leora, at first students are just thrilled that they get to go outside relatively unsupervised. I would never be able to this project in a large school during school hours. The fun part is when they would start doing the work, only to realize that the tasks I had scaffolded for them to complete were actually quite challenging. Not many students will say so at the time, but a few here and there did let me know how much they liked some of the projects I developed and how much they learned from them.

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  9. You truly are a talented and gifted instructor. It is teachers like you that make students want to learn. 🙂

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    • Cheryl, thanks so much. I will always love developing projects like this, and it’s because I consider myself a life-long learner. There’s always something more to learn and more than one way to learn any given task. I always felt good about the assignments I have students. Now what teacher could say the same about a worksheet?

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  10. Must have been a really interesting project, Jeri!

    Think Leora and Jeannette hit on the head. In our online world, visual expressions are becoming increasingly important. Less words, more pictures is the name of the game. Long texts will simply not be read online, unless of course it’s an article in the NYT.

    When it comes to what people see. Well, as I’m sure you noticed in the project, they see what they want, or fear, to see. It’s human nature and it will never change.

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    • Catarina, visual literacy is an often ignored component in education, but one that is of utmost importance in this day and age.

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  11. I’d love to do this with a group of friends, what a great way to open up your mind and explore what’s around you. I love the creativity you bring to your teaching.

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  12. I love writing exercises. Although I don’t teach and could only use this as a personal exercise, just reading the instructions made me feel giddy and ecstatic about writing as if I were in my first writing class all over again when I fell in love with the art. That is an absolutely awesome way to teach students revision. I can’t stand that adults who have taken writing classes still believe revision is just going over the piece and looking for missing commas and misspellings. After all, what piece of writing is ever truly done until you set it done and refuse to touch it and change it anymore although you know you could spend the rest of your life playing with it. That’s the one thing I hate and love about writing. You get to play. You get to create. But I wish there was a sign that would jump out to say, “Stop. The piece is perfect. Don’t change it.” But no writing is ever perfect and finished.

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  13. Boy have things changed since I was in school, but we won’t go there. I almost felt I was in the age of the dinosaurs.
    I like the use of visual expression as I think it gets the students more involved. Have you heard the expression a picture is worth a 1000 words so not overloading the powerpoint slide with a slot of text keeps the interest of the student.
    Your creativity will be very rewarding.

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    • Arleen, if I ever was to go on and get a PhD, a possible topic I would pursue for my dissertation would be why Language Arts needs to be more of a media arts class. Students come to life when they get to create messages that take advantage of today’s technology.

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  14. You are/were a gifted and creative teacher. I’d love to take a writing workshop with you!! Sharing your approach in such detail is a gift to other teachers who may be reading your blog and to writers. I may try some of your ideas on my own revisions.

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    • Jagoda, I would love to hold writing workshops either in person and/or via webinar, but that’s a ways down the road for me. I gotta figure out how to complete novels in a more timely manner first 😉

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  15. What an inspiration you are to profs and teachers Jeri. As a few people mentioned I like the totality of the project. It’s becoming more prevalent in corporate presentations that gone are the days of the PPT slides with the presenter’s notes for every bullet. Pictures are replacing more words – thank goodness. This exercise you have created will get people prepared for the real world for sure. Thanks!

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    • Pat, I have an entire stockpile of projects like that focus on being the total package. If only there were more hours in the day, I would figure out how to market them in eBooks for teachers.

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