A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words: Using Photographs to Prompt Poetry

The following guest post, part of our “Teacher’s Corner” series, is by Rebecca Newland, a Fairfax County Public Schools Librarian and former Teacher in Residence at the Library of Congress.

Mulberry Street, New York City. Detroit Publishing Co. [ca. 1900]. Prints & Photographs Division.

Mulberry Street, New York City. Detroit Publishing Co. [ca. 1900]. Prints & Photographs Division.

If a picture is indeed worth a thousand words, why not use photographs to prompt poetry? First select engaging photographs from the collections of the Library of Congress. Since the prints and photographs collections are vast, consider focusing on one collection such as the National Child Labor Committee Collection, which contains photographs of child laborers from all parts of the United States, or the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, which contains vivid, color photographs depicting life around the nation. The primary source sets on the Teachers Page also contain easily accessible and engaging photographs.

Next, attach the photographs to poster board or large sticky paper and space them around the room. Split the students evenly between the pictures. It works well to have one photograph for every 3-4 students in the class to avoid a crowd around each one.

Ask students to:

  1. take a few minutes to look at each photo then write words, prompted by what they observe, in the space around the picture. They should move to every photograph to add words.
  2. move around to each photo again and either stand in a different placecloser or farther away, or to the sideor squint at it to see something different and record a new word.
  3. visit each photo a third time and pick a place in the photograph to stand. This time the words should relate to sights, sounds, or smells they might experience from their chosen place inside the photograph.
  4. return to the photograph they found most compelling. Now that they have a bank of words from the entire class they should record as many or as few as needed to compose a poem of any format inspired by the photograph.

What images would you use to prompt students to write poetry?

4 Comments

  1. LLynne Phillips
    December 28, 2016 at 5:34 pm

    A great idea. When I taught students in a gifted program, I used my collection of art postcards that I had accumulated over years of visiting art galleries around the world. I had them laminated and students could choose one or more for poems or story starters.

    For younger students, they were a great story stimulus for oral story telling. I also used them with adults where they could choose an image that stirred some strong feelings, esp. spiritual thoughts as it was a religious gathering.

  2. S. A.
    January 1, 2017 at 7:15 pm

    I wonder if Ms.Newland has tried to write a poem the way this “activity” is described. What is it demonstrating about making poems?

  3. R.Newland
    January 3, 2017 at 9:19 am

    I have led students through writing poems in this way. The benefit for students is in having a visual prompt to begin writing as well as a word bank to draw from. I find that even high school students can be stymied by limited vocabulary. Having a variety of words at their fingertips related to a specific visual prompt seems to free up their creativity.

  4. ADEODATO PIAZZA NICOLAI
    January 7, 2017 at 9:26 am

    Dear Rebecca, I have been attempting to dialogue with the Muse for these past 60 yrars…at times scene, a painting, a traumatic event becomes the kindling stick that strts the fire…but most of the time writing a poem requires great sensitivity, unuual capacities to listen to the most disparaging sounds, to open all the senses to all that nature and its creatures, after all of this, if the minimal poem comes, it is a little miracle, for which the poet must give humble thanks and blessings….

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