Just recently, I was babysitting my five-year-old nephew Ellis. He is a bright kid who loves playing outside, anything related to Star Wars, and books. One of my favorite things to do with Ellis is read, particularly before bedtime (this is a selfish move on my part, because he is always the most snuggly at bedtime). It had been quite a while since I had gotten to enjoy this bedtime ritual with him, and I was excited to hunker down and get reading.
He picked several books off the shelf, climbed into his bed with me, and snuggled in for story time. As we cracked the first page, I began reading. Quickly, and with a whole lot of five-year-old authority, he stopped me and said, “No, Cha-Cha, I am going to read this book to you.” I immediately felt like I had been left out of the loop. When had my sweet little nephew learned to read, and why had I not known about it? It wasn’t until he began “reading” the book to me that I understood. He had very limited knowledge about words, or the sounds that the letters make, but he was creating the story in his head based on the pictures. I got lost in his creativity, and truth be known, I liked his version better than the original.
This immediately got me thinking about my seventh graders, especially about some of them who struggle to create stories of their own. Their skills as readers are a bit stronger than Ellis’s, but many of them still struggle to begin a piece of writing, fully read a text at their grade level, or with the English language in general. So I thought, Why not teach students to “read” images to help foster their skills as narrative writers?
Minilesson 1: An Iconic Image
My students walked into the classroom, got out their writer’s notebooks, and immediately began whispering about this image of two people kissing, which was projected onto the board. (I have found that anything semi-scandalous is always a good attention grabber with adolescents.) V-J Day in Times Square, one of my favorite iconic photos of all time (that just so happens to hang in my bedroom at home), was where we would start. For our writing time that day, I asked my students (very vaguely) to do the following:
Study the image you see projected. Be sure to really look at it deeply. What do you see in the foreground? What do you see in the background? Who are these people? When was this taken? Analyze the photo and jot down what you see.
I gave them 15 minutes and required them to write the entire time. We then shared our analyses in groups, and came together as a whole class for a debrief. Very few students were familiar with the photo, and there were many creative and interesting observations. We talked about how pictures alone can tell us a story, the strategies we used to really analyze the photo, and how oftentimes, pictures can be used as a starting point for writing. I then said, “Take what you observed, and tell me the story. What is the story behind this picture?” The writing that ensued varied in quality, but nearly all students had a place to start and were able to produce something unique and individualized.
Minilesson 2: The Arrival by Shaun Tan
The Arrival is a powerful wordless picture book about immigration, one that could offer a bit more of a challenge for middle-level learners. Because of the complexity of this book, I asked my students to work in small groups so that they had a sort of sounding board to share ideas. I copied the first several pages of the story and passed out packets to each group.
I said something like, “Okay, readers, remember how yesterday we talked about how pictures tell a story? Well, today we are going to continue our work around that idea, but a little more in depth. I have copied the first few pages from a wordless picture book and would like you and your groups to read the images on each page. Feel free to jot down notes about your thinking on your whiteboards or directly in the text. I will check in with you after a few minutes.”
It was clear that students were challenged by this text, but as they really broke down each page, stories started to emerge. Each student had their own take on what was happening and where they thought the story should go. Once we were finished, as a class we flipped through the remainder of the book and discussed the author’s intended story. Some students had similar story lines, some were completely different, and all were content to argue for the version they preferred.
Here are some of the wordless picture books that have worked well in my classroom:
Any wordless pages of a given picture book (or one with words covered up)
Artwork (famous, or student created)
Panels/pages from graphic novels
In the society we are living in, kids are already reading images through media, whether it be the latest post on Instagram or the Snapchat story shared by their best friend. Why not make it a part of our classroom culture and really dig into the stories behind what we see?
As I snuggled up next to Ellis, I realized that he was at a pivotal moment in his development as a reader and a writer. His ability to read images and to generate creative thought were not only precursors to reading and creating print itself but life skills that will serve him well as he continues to grow and learn.