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Using Artifacts and Photos to Inspire Writing: Discovering the Writer’s Life

Artifacts and Photos #TWTBlog

In preparation for writing this post, I found myself visiting my old trunk full of trinkets, special cards, photos, and artifacts that Discovering the Writing Life Blog Seriesarchive my life before children. I bought the trunk before leaving for college. Prior to having it, I used photo albums, notebooks, and boxes to “organize” my treasures. Then I suddenly had this vessel that I could lock up all my scraps of memories. It rests in my basement to be dragged out only occasionally when I’m looking for something or long to feel nostalgic.

As we teach children to savor over memories we can teach them that their writer’s notebook is like a trunk, a place meant to hold moments. I’ve always encouraged students to bring in objects or items that hold special meaning, but it was especially fun to ask my third-grade students to bring in an artifact, photo or special object because they’ve just plain been on the planet longer and I wondered what kind of variety I would find. We had everything from a framed photo of grandparents and silver baptism box, to stuffed animals, blankies, and baby shoes.

There are unlimited ways to use artifacts and photos to encourage writing. You can start by providing the item yourself or allowing students to bring in their own. Here’s a list of ideas to get you going:

  1. Collect photos and images of people from magazines or a free use site. Have students create a character map, detailing behaviors, likes and dislikes, and traits for character development.
  2. Have students make an initial list of descriptive words connected to their artifact. Then ask students to go item by item on their list to create a more descriptive word or phrase. For instance, a student who brings in a fuzzy brown teddy bear might start with a list similar to the one on the left, but progress to a list similar to the one on the right:
    • brown                         chocolate
    • fuzzy                         matted fuzz flattened from snuggles
    • red bow                      crimson tied ribbon
  3. Get out the magnifiers and allow children to examine their object looking for small details that might go unnoticed. Jot down these tiny details and talk about the parallels between little details in their writing.
  4. Artifacts are fun to use as inspiration for writing mask poems. It forces students to really think about words that describe the item and opens the door for similes and metaphors.
  5. Once students are comfortable writing personal narrative stories, allow them to write a true story inspired by their artifact or photo. Then, in a twist, have them re-create the story using the same item as inspiration but creating a fictional story.

I recently tried out this last idea. On the left is Grace sketching a little drawing of her dog and writing a descriptive personal narrative. The next time we visited the story, she took inspiration from her dog’s photo and began creating a fictional story about a little girl anxiously awaiting the day she gets a puppy.

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How do you use artifacts and photos to inspire your writers? I hope you will share your ideas in a comment or join us on Monday, February 8th for the Discovering the Writing Life Twitter chat. Use the hashtag #TWTBlog to join. The chat begins at 8:30 EST. We look forward to chatting with you on Monday.

Please join us on Monday, February 8th for the Discovering the Writing Life Twitter chat. Use the hashtag #TWTBlog to join. The chat begins at 8:30 EST. We look forward to chatting with you on Monday.

7 thoughts on “Using Artifacts and Photos to Inspire Writing: Discovering the Writer’s Life

  1. Thanks for sharing the possibilities for looking through memory trunks. I recently searched through a cheap plastic bin of mine that holds photos from my early teenage years. Oh the smiles that brought to my face!

    I appreciated the list of ideas to get things going. It’s so useful!


  2. I find that trunk so intriguing! I just want to look through it! I agree this would be a great writing activity to try at any time, but in March during the Classroom SOLSC when students might need help generating topics! Thanks Betsy- great post!


  3. I had this activity tucked away in my toolbox from my writing project days. Thanks for reminding me to take it out. I will use it during March when the kids are struggling to write every day.


    1. Margaret,
      I recall reading that you are willing to answer questions about doing the student March SOL challenge. I’ve done the March challenge the last 2 years myself and this year am at a school with technology so want to have my 3rd graders do it. But I’m not even sure of all my questions yet. As I make my question list, can I share with you? Any suggestions are appreciated. And I agree, this idea shared by Beth today would give us ideas to write about in March!! Sally-


  4. I love the idea of artifacts inspiring writing. I’ve drifted far away from that. Thank you for this powerful reminder! I love the student writing about her dog and flipping it and writing a fictional piece about a dog. Powerful!! Brilliant ideas!


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