Draw Your Story: Visual Thinking Strategies in Writing

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The blank page is daunting for any writer. Talking in front of peers in middle school might be even more so.  A picture, however, can do the talking for us, and once it does, the writing comes.

Take a look at my drawing. Yes, look, please. Of course, I am no artist, but you see something, yes? What do you see? What can you say about what is going on? What makes you say so?

Can you tell me something about the who, what, where, when, and even why of the memory in this drawing? Probably. Do you have questions about some of the details in this drawing? Sure. And after we talk (or even before), I bet we could both fill our blank journal pages with a story.

In summer school last week, we started writing workshop with this drawing of my “best” birthday present. I used a strategy known well to most art educators, visual thinking strategies (VTS) to elicit observations. With  VTS, teachers show a picture or painting and ask students three questions:

  1. What can you say about this image (close reading)?
  2. What makes you say so (evidence)?
  3. What more can you say?

Ask these three questions over and over until the composition is illuminated. This is an effective strategy for generating ideas, close reading, detail, critical thinking, and discussion in reading and writing workshop.

When we did VTS with my drawing, the almost eighth graders had a lot to say. They know from my other writing and stories that I have seven sisters and three brothers. The first panel is about the day I received my present. We talked about the cake and my picnic-like dining table. They noticed the number of bodies at the table did not add up to the number in my family, and we had a chat about why that was.

The second panel reveals what the present was: a hairdryer (could you make that out).  They noticed a line forming to use the hairdryer. Imagine eight girls trying to get their hands on one hairdryer in the mad rush to get ready for school in the morning.

The third panel revealed why that hairdryer was precious to me. It was mine. In a large family of hand-me-downs and sharing, ownership of anything was at a premium, and sharing sometimes created resentment.

Visual thinking elicited details of my story making it easier to get talking, which is a nice warm up to writing, i.e., verbal brainstorming. The discussion made it appropriate and necessary for students to ask me questions about my childhood and family, which filled in the white spaces behind and around the scribbles in the drawing.

We opened our journals and wrote my story:

When Sarah was in junior high, she received a special present that many people would not think was a big deal, but it was for her.

You see, in Sarah’s family, the kids only got one present for their birthday because money was tight and because there were so many kids.

On Sarah’s thirteenth birthday, her family gathered around her picnic table-like dining table for cake after dinner. Sarah liked strawberry filling. In her family, the kids got to choose what kind of cake they wanted. Sarah also liked chocolate, but she knew her brother didn’t, and she wanted him to have some cake.

After cake, Sarah received her one present: a hairdryer. This was just a typical hair dryer – nothing really special about it. However, it was so special because there were 8 girls in her family, and they all had to share one hair dryer. This mean long lines in the morning waiting for the hair dryer, which also meant (because she was sixth in line) that some days she’d have wet hair for school. In middle school, that was not cool. Now, Sarah had her own hair dryer, but when her hair was dry, she’d share it with her sisters.

And then students began sketching their memories, exchanging their stories using VTS, and wrote.

How do you use drawing in your writing workshop?

2 Replies to “Draw Your Story: Visual Thinking Strategies in Writing”

  1. I am enrolled in Dr. Bruce Taylor’s Multiliteracies class at UNCC. He shared this article with us. What a great strategy to get reluctant writers started! I will definitely use this strategy with my English I students this fall.

    1. Thank you. I am so glad to hear my classroom stories are making their way to teachers, to helping others imagine how we can be better and do better for the students with whom we are entrusted. The visual thinking strategies have made such a difference in my teaching.

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