In my writing workshop: it’s finally time for photographs and digital stories.

At last August’s Summer Institute, Cornelius Minor, teacher extraordinaire and staff developer at TC’s Writing and Reading Project, gave an unforgettable presentation on technology in the classroom which I wrote about on my blog “A Teaching Life”.  I left TC full of good intentions about infusing my sixth grade Writing Workshop with technology,  and using digital methods in the writing process.  We’ve made great strides this year through our year round Slice of Life writing blog, and a few other forays into digital writing, but I was saving further digital adventures for the last quarter of the school year when my kids had earned a sense of greater writing independence, and are also ready for fresh, new writing challenges.  Front and center in my thinking about how these adventures will coalesce into meaningful writing experiences for my students is Cornelius’ chart, and his advice to remember that: “Technology is a tool, not a learning outcome”.


Last week, as we were getting ready for our state test , Bonnie Kaplan and I decided that this would be the perfect time to put our digital writing into high gear – what better way to break up the monotony of test prep than to take advantage of the week’ s only good-weather day for some photography based writing?  Bonnie’s marvelous SOL post captures what the day looked like as my kids trudged around our building and school grounds in search of photographs that would inspire writing.

The directive was simple: we were in search of 5 “memorable places at our school” and 5 “Spring arrives” photographs.  This would be our photo bank for:

  • a photo essay about “My Five Favorite Spots at Middle School”, which would also form the basis of
  • Tapestry stories – short, five panel and 25 word digital stories
  • a set of Spring haiku poetry using Haiku Deck  and  Waterlogue, an app that turns photographs into beautiful watercolors



We had a quick mini lesson to strategize the purpose of the photographs and what the writing pieces would look like/feel like.  And then, iphones and ipads in hand, we were off.  At the beginning of the school year, or even half way through, my kids would have been all over the place, taking random photographs (i.e. selfies!), and frittering away the time.  At the end of the year, however, it’s a different story – my students are much more self directed, and they know that they will be making meaning of these photographs through their writing.  So, they are focused. We had a wonderfully productive time, and thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to get out of our building on a fine Spring day.

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On Friday, we began reviewing our pictures, selecting shots that looked promising and editing them in various ways: zooming, cropping, etc.  Phones were passed around for comment and critique, and this was what the conversation sounded like:

  • “I want to just write about that flower – how much of the grass should I cut out of the picture?”
  • “If I take just that corner of the shot, doesn’t it look like a whole new story?”
  • “What would happen if you Waterlogued that shot – make it a painting? That would make it more of poemy sort of shot than a story shot, right?”

Each chosen photograph was tagged, and then my students used their writer’s notebooks to quickwrite:

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“How weird to know that these eyes are watching you all the time – when you walk through the doors the eyes are ON YOU!  I never noticed them until today, but now I think that I’ll be thinking of them all the time. Watching. Eyes watching. Watching us come and go. Even when we’re not here they’re watching. Weird.  Kinda creepy. It changes the way I think about the school somehow.”

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“Seeing our classroom from the outside is so totally different. It looks so boring and ordinary from here – like any other classroom.  You could never tell that it’s not, though. It’s that inside story outside story sort of thing.  It’s like the outside is tricking you into thinking that there’s nothing special here, it’s just this blank and boring space.   Everything looks the same from the outside, so you have no clue that on the INSIDE it’s like a whole other world.”

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And some began drafting directly on their phones, so that they could upload their writing onto their Googledocs files for further editing.  This student had done some pre-writing and sketching out before photographing, as a way to anchor his thinking.

Next week, we will:

  • share our writing with writing partners and begin expanding our quickwrites for our photo essays
  • then,  working blackout poetry techniques we’ve already practiced, we will distill our photoessays into Tapestry size narratives
  • craft and upload our haikus onto Haiku Deck

The level of engagement and excitement in our new unit is wonderful.  For my kids, who have written memoirs, feature articles, argument essays, and personal narratives, this kind of tech based writing is just what they need in the waning days of the school year – writing that builds on work we have done all year, and writing that allows them to approach technology not only as consumers but also as producers .  And to have lots of fun in the process.