I can still remember watching my dad as he prepared the trays with solution, set up the equipment, and flipped on the eerie red hue activating the hallway’s “Dark Room In Use” sign. I would perch myself in the narrow room’s corner on a metal stool, watching as he carefully went through each step. I was most fascinated with the dipping, swishing, and lifting of the paper. Sliding in, swish, swish, tap, and back out. It was like music, carefully timed, carefully tasked, and as I got older, I was able to help reveal the images of the black and white five by sevens.
My dad was not a photographer, he was a physics teacher using photography to capture movement in his known and classic experiment called “The Ball Drop.” As a little girl, often finding myself wandering the halls of the high school, I had watched this pattern for years. It wasn’t until I was a student in his classroom that I really understood the intricacies of it all. As a participant in physics class, suddenly, all the numbers, measurements, and movements came together.
As I read Ralph Fletcher’s newest book Focus Lessons, I felt my story with photography paralleling his as he talked about his experience and influencers on his process. He had not necessarily immersed himself in the craft of photography. However, the integrations photography had made across his life impacted his curiosity and knowledge. It was as though he, too, was participating in an experiment but only halfway. He was learning bits and pieces across time, that would later take on new meaning: using photography to enhance and connect writers to writing. For Fletcher, this experiment will have been a worthwhile undertaking for the writers, teachers, and classrooms intended for this book.
Focus Lessons: How Photography Enhances the Teaching of Writing by Ralph Fletcher is split into two parts. Part one reads like a story of the coming to be of Fletcher joining the world of photography. Part two dives into the connections teachers can create for their students in classrooms. Let me walk you through the magnificence that comes from this second part of the book.
Chapter five is packed with craft lessons connecting elements of photographs and photography to create corresponding writing connections. For instance, photos that represent a mood, a truth, or active motion can be catalysts for creating these moves of mood, truth, or action within a piece of writing. In the margin of each craft lesson, there is a photo tip as well, encouraging readers to capture their own images in connection to a writing minilesson. Text examples accompany every lesson of both Fetcher’s own writing or pieces from student writers to demonstrate the lesson in action.
This chapter sparked my interest immediately, not just as a teacher of writers, but I was excited to try one out myself. I even had a lesson and image in mind as I read.
I chose lesson seven on pages 53-54 titled, “Take a Wide Perspective.” This lesson intrigued me because, as Fletcher points out, we often challenge students to “write small,” when, in fact, “a wide-angle focus can be just as useful in writing as it is in photography” (p. 54).
I even decided to borrow the first three lines of his example poem, because they so perfectly aligned with the image I chose. The title of his sample poem was “Family Photo,” and the lines were: One last picture/before we head off/in different directions. I also felt like Fletcher would give me a pat on the back for lifting a few lines and not feeling guilty about it.
One of Many
One last picture
before we head off
in different directions.
This sea of headbands,
Caps, and long sleeves
Later to be shed.
Layers with mind shifts, and head games
While playlists await the spark.
We hear it…BANG!
Adrenaline filled eyes shift forward
And a storm of wind erupts from the curb.
We stand on the side
Hands cupped around our mouths
In hopes of amplifying an unheard scream.
And all of you, run away
Into your tunnel
In search of something ahead.
(Betsy Hubbard, 2019)
Like Fletcher’s lesson challenges, I tried to take the focus off of my husband and onto the moment, the bigger image within the image, the sea of awaiting energy, and uncertainty.
Fletcher continues us on this journey of connections in chapters six and seven. He offers questions and prompts to help engage writers and observers in ways to “unpack” a photo and attempt to see all of its parts. Using pictures as mentors and encouraging writers to take and use their own photos in a structured and intentional way. The idea being students should bear a purpose in mind with photography and the links to writing, capturing an element of a moment or zooming into something previously unseen.
In the final two chapters of the book, Fletcher reminds us to experiment and not force a spark between photography and writing. He also encourages a “cushion of time.” This moment of internalizing an image, whether it is one a student has taken or one they are looking at for the first time, writing from a photo is not a hurried experience.
After finishing the final lines of this book where Ralph talks to Ralph in a sort of question-answer internalized interview, I felt nourished. The kind of nourishment I find when a book encourages me to explore the unknown and pass the mundane. Fletcher offers us a feast of what photography has shown him in its relationship with a writer and encourages us to take a bite.
Note: A review copy of Focus Lessons was provided by Heinemann. To win a copy of Ralph Fletcher’s book titled, Focus Lessons see the information listed below. I also can’t say goodbye without mentioning, if you haven’t read this beautiful post by Amy Ellerman describing how to use some of Fletcher’s incredible photography, take a look here.
Congratulations to Mary who commented on this post and won a copy of Focus Lessons by Ralph Fletcher!
GIVEAWAY INFORMATION: This giveaway is for a copy of Focus Lessons, How Photography Enhances the Teaching of Writing. Many thanks to Heinemann for donating a copy for one reader. For a chance to win this copy of Focus Lessons, please leave a comment about this post by Thursday, December 12th, at 11:59 p.m. EST. I’ll use a random number generator to pick the winners, whose names I will announce at the bottom of this post by Saturday, December 14th. Please be sure to leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment, so I can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win. From there, my contact at Heinemann will ship your book out to you. (NOTE: Your e-mail address will not be published online if you leave it in the e-mail field only.) If you are the winner of the book, I will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – FOCUS LESSONS. Please respond to my e-mail with your mailing address within five days of receipt. Unfortunately, a new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.