Tag Team Tech June 2012

The Marriage of Words and Pictures

Sarah Ludwig

June 2012

I am not a very good artist (truthfully, I’m awful; my “style” hasn’t changed since I was twelve). But I love to write and since I write a lot, I know first-hand the frustration of not being able to come up with anything to write about. This column, for example–when it came time to hand in my June blurb, I reached an acute point of frustration while staring at a blank Google docs screen. Is there anything worse than a blank screen or an unblemished piece of paper? No. There’s nothing inspiring about either one.

Students, too, experience that frustration. They know all too well what it’s like to not know where to start. Happily, it doesn’t end at the blank screen. Technology offers us the ability to use images to prompt writing, to combine words and pictures to tell stories, and to organize and visualize facts and ideas. Here are some of my favorites:

Image Banks

A great way to get teens’ creative juices flowing is to have them browse images. I often work with students to make book trailers using others’ content; the exercise of finding pictures that match the image in a student’s head is more complex than you’d think. Teens can play around with keywords. For example, instead of nouns, have them search with adjectives. Or have them search broadly (“summer” or “boy”) and free-write based on a picture they find. It can be hard for students to let go of the parameters they may bump up against during writing assignments, but if you can encourage them to let this go, they might find a new direction for their writing.

Here are some quick ideas for image-based writing prompts:

  • Select an assortment of random photos from some of the image banks below and distribute them to students via a Google doc. Each student will write in the space underneath the photo.
  • Have each student select a photo he or she likes, and then have each student move one seat to the left and write about the image that was selected.
  • Students can storyboard their own writing using images; have them insert the photos into a Google slideshow, one for each paragraph or scene. The act of finding images that correlate with their story can be inspiring.
  • Try some of the skill-based activities in this article from the New York Times: “Picture This! Building Photo-Based Writing Skills.”
  • Let students build a portfolio of images for their stories using Evernote–with web clipper installed, students can right-click (or option-click on a Mac) on an image and save it directly into an Evernote notebook. If they’re storing their writing notes in Evernote as well, this can become a dossier of images that inspire characters, settings, objects, and more.

Here are some image banks I like for teens:

Words + Pictures

Adding text to images can be funny (memes, anyone?), but it can also be a great way to write poems, tell stories, get inspired, or present ideas. In the public library, these tools would be great for writers’ groups or time-writing programs.

PimPamPum offers several Flickr-based tools–meaning that students can search Flickr images directly through the programs. These include:

  • Bookr: Teens can create photobooks with text captions. These can be about any topic. One of our Spanish teachers has used it to have her students research and share information about different Spanish-speaking countries.
  • Bubblr: A simpler tool than Bookr, Bubblr lets you put speech and thought bubbles on images.

The FlickrPoet project allows you to enter sentences or poems into its site; then, it pulls from Flickr to find images that match the words that you’ve typed. If you’re not happy with the pictures, you can click “show story” until you find some pictures you’re happy with. Click the photos and you’ll get to the Flickr page where they came from. Use FlickrPoet to help your students see their words in new ways, or to veer off in another direction entirely.

PicLits is a quick and easy way to either drag and drop words onto pictures or free-write over them. The drag-and-drop version is reminiscent of refrigerator poetry and would make for a fun exercise. Free writing can lead to some funny results, but some of the photos are more serious in nature and sentences or phrases written over them could be fabulous writing prompts or first sentences.

BigHugeLabs is a bit sillier, offering everything from LOLcats to motivational posters to trading cards. These could be great for teen programs, but could also be more academic in nature–make trading cards for all the characters in Hamlet! (I’ll trade you my Guildenstern for your Laertes!)

Snapchop is a goofy app available for iPhones or Android devices that I’ve seen some of my students using lately. You snap a photo with your smartphone and then Snapchop drops a random phrase onto the picture. It’s just pure fun, and the photos can be shared easily. Note that some of the phrases are meant for more mature teens.

Five Card Flickr works like this: you get five photos to choose from. Make your choice, and another five randomly selected photos come up for you to pick from. Do that five times in all, and you have five photos to use to tell a story, either via the images alone or by writing up a story in the comment section. Check out the gallery section for some great examples.

Visualization Tools

Finally, here are some websites that help writers get organized and visualize what they’re writing. Whether mindmapping or creating infographics, these three sites are great for those who think visually.

Create.ly allows for collaborative diagramming, which means that students can either use it on their own or share with others if they’re working on a group writing project. Like other mind-mapping software, Create.ly is great for brainstorming and categorizing ideas, and it would work well for those who are organizing longer stories, keeping track of characters and scenes, etc. It would also be excellent for those starting out in the writing process. I like how Create.ly doesn’t just offer text boxes for its diagrams, but also objects and people.

Easel.ly is the best free tool I’ve found thus far for creating infographics. (Visual.ly promises to be great, but right now doesn’t offer the ability to make your own from scratch.) It’s still in beta, but you can easily create very slick-looking infographics either starting from one of their templates or from scratch. The infographics are drag-and-drop, and there are tons of graphics and styles available. Teens can present information (how cool would this be for a research project?), use it to create character dossiers, or create plot flowcharts.

Mindomo is similar to Create.ly, but it has some different features. In your mind map, you can upload your own photos, which I like. You can also comment on different topics, insert icons (smiley faces, etc.), add multimedia, and add links and attachments. These mindmaps can be presentations in and of themselves, but I like the idea of using them as writing notebooks, full of all of the things that inspire you, organized in a way that focuses on connections.

Sarah Ludwig  is the academic technology coordinator at Hamden Hall Country Day School in Hamden, Connecticut. Formerly she was the head of teen, technology, and reference services at the Darien (CT) Library, where she developed the library’s first teen program after serving as the head of library services at Wilbraham & Monson Academy in western Massachusetts for three years. She  is currently the chair of YALSA’s Teen Tech Week Committee. Her book, Starting from Scratch: Building a Teen Library Program, was published by ABC-CLIO in June 2011.


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