Q: Why did the snail cross the road?

A: To get the kids to write. #PicPrompts

Photograph taken by Al Elliott | Botanical Gardens, Singapore 2012

How does one get students to write? If you are in a 1:1 environment with Chromebooks, you have undoubtedly found it challenging at times to inspire creative writing submissions from your elementary students. Many students of this age have not yet mastered typing and spend much of their time either laboriously pecking out their ideas or being hopelessly distracted by the allure of multiple-opened-tabs. I was determined to tackle this problem this past school year.

When I gave writing prompts to my students last August, I was often disappointed at how few words they would write. I didn't want to start assigning a minimum number of words for their creative writing assingments but, I did want more than they were initially willing to give. I discovered that students wrote more when they were encouraged to use their imagination, creativity and an opportunity to invent stories inspired by pictures.

I ran across an old snail photograph I'd taken years prior and posted it with the question, “Why did the snail cross the road?” I embedded the image in a Google Doc and then used Google Classroom to share the assignment with my students. One of the first things I noticed when viewing my students’ progress was how many more words each of my students had contributed to their writing submissions than normal. I commented on their submissions and gave pointers about corrections that needed attention and then, encouraged them to continue writing for a time. “We'll be sharing our work before our writing session ended for the day,” I announced to them. During the write time, I enjoyed reading the imagination of my class. I was genuinely impressed by the complexity many of my students were using in their initial drafts.

There were Snail vs Slug Wars, undercover agents and snail races that decided the fate of a world. I tapped into a portal many of my students used to channel their imagination out of their minds and onto a page.

A student’s Snail’s Tale from September, 2014.

After writing for a time, I offered the floor to students wanting to share what they had written thus far. To my surprise, several hands shot in the air as many of them were eager to read what they have written. Allowing students to elect classmates to read their work alleviated the fear of public speaking for many. Most eventually worked up the nerve to share their own work once they've experienced their written inventions being shared and received by their peers.

“We should do this more often,” one of my students suggested. I agreed and #PicPrompts were born.

Man Made Trees #PicPrompts

About every other week or so, I had a new #PicPrompt ready for them to begin. There were even writing partnerships and teams that developed in class. This particular picture, “Man Made Trees” is the first for the class writing duo I'll call Cooper & Samuel. Initially, they simply wanted the class to react to their work. The would anticipate where they thought their audience would laugh and I could see the pleasure on both of their faces when they discovered they were right about thier humor predictions. Here is a sample from their first story together.

One day, Cooper was walking down the road when he saw a giant green light in the sky. Cooper didn't believe in aliens but he was starting to now. He started to walk towards the light. Once he got about 10 yards from the light, he saw a small creature with a very big head emerge from a big space ship. “What are you?” asked Cooper.
“I am the great alien named Bjarni,”answered Bjarni. Cooper started to run away far from the spaceship.
The next day, Cooper couldn't explain what he'd seen last night. “How did you sleep last night?” asked Coopers mom.
“Fine”answered Cooper. After breakfast, Cooper went back up to his room to think about Bjarni. The only thing he could think about was Bjarni’s stupid eyebrows. “How disgusting” he thought. What kind of a madman has those kind of eyebrows? Once he calmed down, he went out to get some fresh air. When he got out there, he saw the same green light as last night .
“What the heck man? Are you stalking me?” asked Cooper.
“Uhhhhh,no” answered Bjarni.
“You better get out of here before I call my mom”, threatened Cooper.

With this same assignment I challenged my class to make a picture worth a thousand words…exactly. Each student was to attempt to create a thousand word story for this PicPrompt. This number wasn't a requirement. I wanted my students to see a thousand word story was not the insurmountable goal it sounded like. Several students quickly shared their Google Doc with a classmate and began attempting to meet the challenge. The writing tandem of Cooper & Samuel was one of the first writing teams to accomplish this task.

A picture is worth a thousand words.

Using #PicPrompts contributed to the development of a writing culture in my classroom I had not anticipated. Students began looking forward to writing and sharing their work. Characters from student stories became as memorable as characters from other stories we were reading in class. My students began to see writing as a medium for expressing their ideas instead of just an assignment to finish. Their overall mastery of using Google Documents as a platform to create and share improved as well. Students ended this school year considering some of their classmates writings, and their own, as seriously as they considered published authors.

I'll be presenting at the 2015 International Society of Technology in Education Conference this year in Philadelphia (June 28 — July 1). If you are planning to attend, consider the session I'll be leading on how to use pictures to inspire writing. Each participant with receive access to least 36 images (an image per week for school year) from my #PicPrompts collection.

Taken on a friend’s rail post | 2014 | Al Elliott
Taken at What’s on 2nd in Birmingham, Alabama 2014 | Al Elliott
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