Struggling to teach poetry? Try Photograffiti – a hands-on approach that uses language as a visual art.
I’m a writer, so you would think my kids would love writing, too.
You would be wrong.
G is an artist and prefers to express herself visually. B is all about motion, living stories out loud through her play. F is a toddler and still eating the crayons, stomping in the paint, and smearing the almond butter. I just go with it, because each of their preferred modes of communication is a valid way of making meaning.
From a theoretical perspective, that’s all writing is, really – making meaning. When I work with children and adults who struggle with writing, our focus is on the crafting of ideas rather than the mechanical act of putting pen to paper. Eliminating anxiety and frustration is integral to making any sort of progress, so I turn to hands-on activities that involve the senses and present the act of writing in a nontraditional way.
A fellow Writing Project Teacher Consultant, Angela Trefethen, inspired one of my favorite activities for this (“The Writing Chair: Metaphor in Life and Poetry” [The Journal of the Virginia Writing Project 26:1/2, 2005]). Trefethen and her students explored details of precious memories, then used those details to write poetry about the events. They wrote the poems on a chair and kept it as a permanent fixture in the classroom.
I loved this idea. Abstract poetry applied to a concrete object is genius. It’s a literal reminder of a figurative act.
While I wanted to make this lesson a part of my teaching toolbox, I knew I wouldn’t be in the classroom forever. Plus, I wasn’t really sure what I would do with the chairs as I’m too sentimental to give stuff like that away. I eventually settled on my own version of Trefethen’s lesson, an activity I refer to as “Photograffiti”. This activity uses personal objects as a composition muse and medium, presenting invention and revision in a non-threatening, positive way.
Choose an object, image, or photo that represents something important to you. The surface will be used for writing, so make sure you are comfortable marking on the object. Freewrite about the object or image you have chosen. Record any associated words, ideas, images, or phrases as they come, without worrying about whether they make sense or are correct. Note which images or ideas have the most personal relevance by starring, underlining or rewriting words or phrases you like.
Select and focus on one strongly emotional idea from the list. Write several concrete details about that idea, including any memories that may have been stirred. Write about your memory in whatever form you choose (poetry works well for this project, but prose is fine, too). Try to avoid telling about the moment – show the reader what it was like through the inclusion of concrete images and details.
Evaluate the first and last lines of the piece. What would removing them from the poem or paragraph do to the meaning? Share your piece with a friend or family member and ask for feedback (try the “two stars and one wish” approach). When your piece is revised, record the finished composition on the object with permanent markers. Publish your piece by displaying it prominently in your home.
Here’s what I love about this activity. It aids reluctant writers in their efforts to cope with composition roadblocks by:
- breaking the writing process into manageable pieces
- focusing on memory and sense images for idea formation and encourages stream of consciousness planning, since you write ideas as they come
- shifting the focus away from blank paper and onto individual expression with unusual writing implements and surfaces
- providing an opportunity to write about topics of personal interest (writing becomes more authentic and meaningful when writers have a vested interest in their topic)
- helping writers move away from sentence level revision and into content-based revision, a difficult step for many writers to take
I hadn’t used the lesson in a while, so I decided to try it with my kiddos. We spent the morning revisiting old photo albums, talking about past trips we’d taken and telling stories about funny things we remembered. Then we talked about our hobbies and interests, loosely following the lesson outline above. It was a fun, laid back activity that moved my reluctant writer through her anxieties. We ended up with finished products we were proud of, and that’s what I consider a written success.