As soon as my elementary students have learned how to string words together to form sentences, I have them writing paragraphs and essays. To me, teaching writing is about passing my love of the creative process on to my students—and I have yet to meet a child who was not born to write.
When I was a new teacher, my students were fascinated by my daily calendar, which featured landscape paintings. They would stand by my desk between classes and tell me stories about the paintings. From there, the leap was natural: I could use art to teach them how to use their imaginations to write. Over time, I’ve refined the approach by having them pair paintings with prompts rooted in the five senses.
Back then, I saved the landscapes as I tore them off each day until I had enough for every student in my class. Each student first shared their painting with the class and then wrote, “What I see in the painting,” at the top of a sheet of paper.
Next, I had the students use simple sentences to list what they saw in their picture. I walked around the room helping them to grow their sentences. Sentences such as “I see a cloud ” became “I see a big, white, fluffy cloud.” As the students added adjectives to their sentences, we discussed other ways to grow sentences with similes, metaphors, and personification; with a little thought, the sentence became “I see a big, white, fluffy cloud that looks like cotton candy and I would like to eat it.”
My students quickly caught on, and their sentences became more imaginative. At the end of class, I had them turn in their picture and paper to me to keep for the next day.
On the second day, I passed out the paintings again, with a second sheet of paper. When I had students write at the top of the paper, “What I hear in the picture,” they were confused: How could they hear a picture?
“Imagine the painting is real and you are standing somewhere inside it. Point to where you are standing.” The students studied their pictures carefully, chose their spots, and pointed.
“Now close your eyes and imagine you are there,” I instructed. “Can you see it in your mind? Tell me what you hear.”
The students scrunched up their faces as they concentrated. “I hear a bird,” one finally said. “I hear a fountain,” another said.
Suddenly they were all chiming in. As they wrote down their sentences, I moved around the room as I’d done the day before, helping them grow their sentences. This time, the students were much quicker. “I hear a bird” quickly became “I hear a mama bird yelling at her kids because they made a mess of the nest.” At the end of the class, I again collected their papers and pictures.
The third day’s prompt was “What I can touch.” Once they’d chosen a spot in their painting, I asked them to close their eyes and imagine the weather within it. “Can you feel a breeze? Is it hot or cold?” This time, the students told me they were running through their painting on the warm grass, splashing in the cold water of the creek, climbing the scratchy bark of the trees, and touching the soft petals of the flowers. This time, I didn’t have to help them with growing their sentences; their creativity was running wild all on its own.
Taste and Smell
We explored the last two senses together. I first explained to my students how smell and taste are linked and started off by asking them what they could smell in their paintings. The students talked about the scent of the roses in the garden and the freshly mowed grass in the yard; one of the students said that the house in the picture reminded him of his grandmother’s and he could smell and even taste her fried chicken. Another said that they were having a picnic with delicious lemonade, and yet another told me that the American flag in the painting reminded him of July Fourth—he could smell the fireworks.
Putting It All Together
On the final day of the project, I passed all four pieces of paper back to the students along with a fifth, with lines organized and indented into six paragraphs. In the first paragraph, I had the students introduce themselves and share the name of their painting and artist. Then they used their notes from earlier in the week to write a paragraph for each day. They ended their essay with what they liked best about their painting. (For older students, try some of these strategies for revising a final draft.)
Then they mounted their picture on construction paper and drew a frame around it. I gathered their paintings into a notebook; students took turns reading each other’s essays for the next week. A local art gallery displayed the notebook, and seeing their work being read by others inspired my students to keep writing. Now, because I no longer use a printed calendar, local art galleries donate postcards that we use in exchange for exhibiting the notebook.
As an international teacher, I’ve seen art bridge gaps that diplomacy could not. Once a seventh-grade English language learner wrote that she could hear the sound of freedom in her picture. When I asked her about it, she pulled out her picture of a painting of an American soldier walking toward the light. “I don’t know what freedom sounds like,” she said as she reverently touched the soldier, “but I know he’s hearing it.”