Last year, I noticed that many of my grade 6 students had to often be prompted and reminded to write well-developed paragraphs independently. I would often get paragraphs (both in multi-paragraph assignments and in journal entries) that sometimes include a topic sentence, but often lacked details and explanation. I pointed out that students would use terms like “stuff” and “things” or talk about how something was “interesting” but not give much information about why or how it was “interesting”. Even after showing them exemplars and scaffolding longer writing assignments, I was still wasn’t seeing huge improvement in several students. Then came the iceberg…
During the last Social Studies unit of the year, we used some lessons from World Wise (Peace Corps) regarding culture. One of the lessons included comparing culture to an iceberg. The premise being that, like an iceberg, we often see only part of a culture and there are parts we can only guess about because they are unseen (values and beliefs). I noticed that the students really responded to the image of an iceberg and were able to talk about culture using this analogy. They were even able to create their own images and analogies to show their understanding of culture. Then I thought about giving them analogy for well-developed writing and the image that came to mind was a tree. I found several images of trees in different conditions and stages of growth. I also included images of a weed and an ivy covered wall. I showed these images to students and asked them which image represented good writing and students picked the images of the full grown trees and were able to tell me characteristics of good writing in terms of a tree. They talked about how writing has specific topics (like the limbs of the tree) and details (the branches and leaves) and that it is organized (like the symmetry of the tree) and that it is not all over the place like a wall of ivy growing in different in directions. I was really excited about how they were connecting with the images and communicating their understanding of good writing. However, this took learning experience took place towards the end of the year and I wasn’t able to really build onto the lesson for long.
In the new school year I have a new group of grade 6 students and I am seeing the same issue in their writing as I did with my students last year. They’ve already experienced the “Culture is Like an Iceberg” lesson (we moved the lesson to the beginning of the year) and responded to the analogy well and were even able to produce their own images to demonstrate their understanding. I now have the opportunity to introduce the tree/writing analogy to students much earlier in the year and to see if it has any impact on improved writing. I’m banking on the research that says visuals can have a much bigger impact on our memory than text. According to the Brain Rule Rundown , “We are incredible at remembering pictures. Hear a piece of information, and three days later you’ll remember 10% of it. Add a picture and you’ll remember 65%.”
1. Images must specifically illustrate the targeted content and match the instructional goal.
Considering the targeted content and goal is abstract (good, quality writing) I feel like the tree is a good analogy to address the characteristics of the types of writing the students should be producing.
2. Ensure that students have a meaningful interaction with images or video.
In addition introducing and discussing the images, I will also have students draw their own tree with notes in their writing notebooks. We will also create an ‘anchor chart’ with the image of the tree with class generated notes about good writing to display. This way we have the image to refer back to and a reminder of what is expected in their writing. I will even encourage students to come up with or find their own image to help them remember the characteristics of a well written paragraph.
3. Make sure the images and videos supplement your good instruction, not replace it.
Of course, I will continue to provide instruction and guidance in writing but I am hoping the tree analogy will support the instruction as a visual cue to students.
4. Model appropriate use and attribution of copyrighted digital images and videos.
I am now expecting this from my students so I also model it.
I have always been conscience about using images in my teaching but have usually used it as a short term solution to convey understanding of vocabulary and ideas. Now, I am interested in seeing how a simple image might transform my students’ writing.