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