Arts Integration Structure: Pictures First

Arts Integration Structure: Pictures First via Wonder Teacher

What comes first in your Writer’s Workshop: pictures or words?

Yesterday I posted about the dual focus required when planning arts integrated lessons. At the end of that post, I mentioned one of my favorite arts structures: Pictures First.

Over the course of my career, I have always been on a quest to find the “best” way to teach writing. I’ve read Donald Graves, Lucy Calkins, Regie Routman, Ralph Fletcher, and Katie Wood Ray. I’ve modeled, conferenced, and mini-lessoned my heart out.  As a teacher in an arts integrated school, I was also encouraged to explore a variety of illustration techniques with my students. Once we finished writing, we would often publish our work, creating beautiful artwork to accompany the text. My students and I have bound their writing together with lamination film, binder rings, rubber bands, and sometimes even needle and thread. I’ve hosted Author’s Teas and Poetry Readings. For the most part, I’ve felt generally successful as a teacher of writing, but I always knew that something was missing. My struggling writers still struggled. The blank page (or graphic organizer) still loomed like an insurmountable mountain.

What I was missing was a “pictures first” arts structure.

A few years ago I attended a workshop led by Claudia Cornett (author of the best general teacher resource book on the topic of arts integration) where she mentioned that her friend, Beth Olshansky, had written a wonderful new book about infusing writing with visual art. It was called The Power of Pictures. I jotted down the title and didn’t think about it again until a few months later when it popped up on my “recommended reading list” on I ordered it, thinking it would probably be a book full of visual art projects you could use with children to illustrate their writing. Wrong! It’s so much more than that. It’s a whole new approach to teaching writing based on rich visual art experiences.

The Power of Pictures is now on my “Top 3 Must Have” arts integration book list. Olshansky poses a seemingly simple question, “What happens when children are invited to make the pictures before they write?”

The answer led to a whole new structure for Writer’s Workshop. It also led to dramatic results in terms of increased student achievement in writing and reading. If you would like to see some of the data, read about the effectiveness of this approach here. (There is also detailed information in the book sharing the scientifically based studies that were conducted.) However, allow me to summarize: it works. Students who participate in a “pictures first” oriented writing workshop outperform their peers and make dramatic gains in literacy achievement. This approach is especially powerful for struggling writers and English language learners.

If you want to give it a try, I recommend purchasing the book. No blog post could give you all the information you need to know to fully implement this approach to teaching writing. It’s only $22 on Amazon and is worth every penny. The book even comes with a DVD that shows Olshansky modeling some of the key teaching techniques.

However, I’ll share a few of the key points with you:

1- Every lesson is based on a mentor text– a picture book that provides a fine example of excellent artwork and compelling writing. During the lessons focused on art-making, special attention is paid to the mentor illustrations. During the lessons focused on writing, special attention is paid to the author’s craft.

2- Throughout the course of a “workshop”- students create art and then use that art to inspire their writing. Students aren’t making art every day, but the art is the guiding force throughout the workshop.

3- Student sharing is a key component to this approach. Each day of the workshop ends with a “share time” during which several students are invited to share their art/writing with the class and receive feedback. It also provides the teacher with an opportunity to reinforce teaching points that students have demonstrated in their work.

4- Celebration is important. Students create “real” books and are recognized as “real” authors. Books are added to classroom libraries and become some of the most popular texts in the room. In fact, though this approach was designed to focus only on the teaching of writing, student gains in reading achievement have been excellent.

There is a fantastic video documenting Olshansky’s pictures first approach. I encourage you to take a few minutes and watch it!

The Picturing Writing website is full of great resources. I especially like this page full of articles.

Have you ever tried a “pictures first” approach to writing? Would you be willing to try it?

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  1. Love your site, Susan! It looks great. Love your lessons, too. I’ll be pinning!

  2. Hi Susan,
    Thanks so much for alerting me to your wonderful blog. I am always thrilled to hear of people discovering my work. My book is really intended to introduce readers to the broader concepts behind my “art first” approach to literacy learning. As a past recipient of National Diffusion Network (NDN) funds for national dissemination, I have been schooled in the importance of hands-on teacher training. On our website, we try to keep teachers informed about experiential teacher training opportunities (that do indeed come with a comprehensive teachers manual for each unit of study).

    • Wow- how exciting to wake up this morning and find comments from you, Beth! Thanks so much for taking the time to comment and add clarification. Using the words “image making” instead of “illustration” makes perfect sense. I am determined to get to one of your teacher training sessions sooner than later! I know there is so much more I could learn about your approach. Thanks again for your work and for writing such a great book that makes it accessible to everyone. I look forward to checking out the other videos and the new research study data. Best wishes on your future endeavors- I look forward to the day when we can talk face-to-face.

  3. A few key points: I no longer use the term “illustrate” to talk about students’ artwork. The term implies creating images to accompany an existing text. In both Picturing Writing and Image-Making (both “pictures first” methods as you note), students are not creating pictures to accompany an existing text, but rather thinking and developing their ideas in pictures first. I do not consider this book illustration.
    In Artists/Writers Workshop, I believe that the “language of pictures” and the “language of words” should be treated as complementary, parallel, and equal languages for learning. Thus equal attention is giving to making meaning in pictures and in words–not only in the study of quality picture books but also in the making of picture books. While I find that many classroom teachers may initially lack the confidence to approach art-making in this manner, after a few simple experiential lessons, they discover that they can be artists too! They also discover the power of bringing together words and pictures. The experience of transmediation (making meaning across sign systems) is indeed a powerful one and one which needs to be experienced to be fully understood.
    You were kind enough to refer readers to my website and one video segment describing an Image-Making immigration unit of study. I would like to refer you to other video clips as well. As a visual process, I find that video (pictures and words!) is the best way to share my work (click on the “DVDs” sidebar. Also I refer you to our latest federally research study (post-book) which involved 1500 students, grades 1-4 and ELL 1-5, in Manchester, NH (a national refugee resettlement community). You will see that we had stunning results for various at-risk subgroups including Title I, SPED, ELL, and boys (who tend to lag one and a half years behind girls in language arts skills). The full report can be found by clicking on “Effectiveness.”

  4. Claudia Cornett says:

    Dear Wonder Teacher (aka Susan A.),
    I think the concept of arts structures (mega strategies?) is most helpful. Beth’s image-making before writing is a perfect example.

    I also like the way you write. You are clear, specific and funny. What more could anyone want from a teacher?

    Thanks so much for all your work. I’ll look forward to reading more at your blog. How about your top music structure? Claudia

    • Claudia- Thanks so much for your kind words! You truly are my AI hero, so it means a great deal!
      Naming a top music structure is tough! Music is the one arts area that comes naturally to me. I grew up playing piano and singing and have always had a “good ear” for music and rhythm. However, other areas (visual art, dance) were always challenging. I have worked hard to “teach myself” how to integrate those arts areas and feel “qualified” to share what I’ve learned with other teachers. (As in, if I can do it, anyone can do it!)
      Music structures, on the other hand, come so easily for me that I often wonder how they would work for teachers who don’t have a natural affinity for music. Of course, there are many musical structures that require no musical ability at all (listening with purpose to a piece of recorded music, creating “soundscapes” to accompany stories and poems, singing along to CDs, etc.) I suppose it’s time for me to give it some thought and start writing about music integration!
      Funny that my strongest area is the one I think about the least.

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