Personal Narratives Using A “Pictures First” Structure: Part 1

Personal Narrative (Writing from Pictures)

There is much to share about the visual art and writing project I taught in cooperation with my daughter’s teacher, Mrs. Goodwin. In fact, it’s enough to require several posts. This is Part 1 and provides an overview of my plans for the project.

For the past few years I have been exploring the “pictures first” approach to writing. I have mentioned before that I was initially inspired by Beth Olshansky’s book, The Power of Pictures. See the following previous posts for more information on this approach:

Arts Integration Structure: Pictures First

Understanding Image-Making As Composition

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: The work I am currently doing is inspired by the work done by Beth Olshansky and Katie Wood Ray. (I do not claim it follows their methods in a strict sense.) Olshansky offers professional development workshops for teachers, but I have not yet managed to attend one. (It’s on my bucket list, though!) In the meantime, I have plunged right in, making this concept work for me and my students as I go. It has been a very rewarding experience!

Recently I worked with my daughter’s second grade class on creating personal narrative stories. Before I even began, I had to ask (and answer) a few questions:

1- What were our goals for the children’s writing?

Answer: Each child would share a personal narrative story (true story from their “real” life) in an engaging and interesting manner. To accomplish this, they would need to be able to “zoom in” on a small moment or two that made the memory rich and interesting as opposed to writing a story full of , “And then I did this… And then I did that… And then I did this…” They would also learn some techniques that authors use to make writing “paint a picture” in the reader’s mind, such as use of simile, descriptive words, onomatopoeia , etc. We also wanted to see a strong sense of story structure with solid beginning, middle, and end.

In addition, it is important to me (as an “writer” myself) to help children see that they are already writers and they have loads of interesting material from their own life experience to mine for use in their stories. The trick is to learn how to tell those stories well.

2- What were our goals for the children’s artwork?

Answer: “Pictures First” is an arts integration structure. Thus, there should always be a dual focus. In addition to the writing goals, I also set some visual art goals. First, I wanted the children to learn to “read” the images in a picture book while also reading text. (And learn how to make meaning from both sources.) I wanted them to become familiar with some of the techniques artists use to tell story through image, and I wanted them to apply some of those techniques in their own artwork. I also wanted them to learn how to manipulate art materials (crayon and watercolors) to get the effects they desired.

Several key “visual storytelling” techniques I planned to emphasize:

  • Artists often begin a story with a setting image, or a “zoomed out” image. This gives the reader an overall sense of when and where the story takes place, and often is designed to convey important information about the mood of the story.
  • Artists will often “zoom in” as the story draws closer to the climax or special moment in the same way that a film-maker will “zoom in” to get closer to the action.
  • Artists include interesting details in their artwork (not necessarily mentioned in the text) to help “fill in” the story and add visual interest.
  • Artists sometimes conclude their story by “zooming back out” to take a wider view of the story once again, showing how things have changed (time of day, changes for characters, resolution of problem, etc.)

3- What “mentor texts” would we use to anchor our learning?

Answer: I chose two picture books as my “anchors.” They were Owl Moon by Jane Yolen (illustrated by John Schoenherr ) and Snow by Cynthia Rylant (illustrated by Lauren Stringer.) Beth Olshansky features Owl Moon in The Power of Pictures and gives detailed information about the images and the techniques Schoenherr used to communicate information.  Katie Wood Ray refers to Snow in her wonderful professional book, In Pictures and In Words, as an example of images that tell a “backstory,” but it contains many additional visual storytelling techniques as well. I highly recommend all of these books for your professional library.

Recommended Professional Books

In Part 2 of this series, I’ll share more about teaching the children to “read” images in preparation for creating their own.

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