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Visual Storytelling: Portraits of Learning

by Miguel Guhlin
painted hand

If you can write what people will read by choice, the world is yours,” says Vicki Spandel.  If your writing fails to engage, no one reads it. As human beings, we write our passions, one way or another. Many of us have a deep desire to be heard and recognized. Yet if what you write doesn’t sparkle, you will lack for readers. Fortunately, visual storytelling empowers young writers to rely on a photo or image to support their writing.

Empower Children

Tell a child what to write and you wrest away their voice and choice. A student’s nimble fingers can text an entire piece of writing via their mobile device with the audience a worldwide network of interested readers. For students, the pay is in the joy of publication.  Gretchen Bernabei, speaking to a teacher audience participating at a writing academy she facilitated, said:

If students leave the writing workshop feeling famous, then I have done my job right. Sharing your writing, being enlarged by others’ writing, is what makes you feel famous.

Wondering how to combine pictures and words in powerful ways? One approach sure to captivate involves visual storytelling. You can combine visual storytelling with existing approaches such as the portrait photo essay.

Visual Storytelling

While publishing student writing online fundamentally hooks students as writers, as teachers we can take advantage of available tools to make our jobs easier. Just as our students have new digital tools, so do we as their teachers.

A visual narrative (also visual storytelling) is a story told primarily through the use of visual media. The story may be told using still photography, illustration, or video, and can be enhanced with graphics, music, and voice and other audio. (Source)

Today, you often have only about eight seconds to tell a story. Here are some tips for creating short content:

In Instagram (which enjoys over 600 million viewers), write a short tale that describes a student’s photo with more than three sentences. You have a 2,200 character limit before Instagram switches to ellipses. Here is one powerful example:

Ideas to Begin With

Place pictures in Instagram, Google Docs, Google Sites, or Facebook or give Padlet a try.

Ready to engage? Create short stories in 120 characters or less that link to longer, more in-depth stories. One example for students to emulate is Humans of New York. How could you do a Humans of [YOUR LOCATION]? Some ideas suggested or adapted via 15 Brilliant Examples of Visual Storytelling on Instagram include:

  • Combine words and images to tell a compelling story about a historical event
  • Ask your students and/or community to share compelling pictures that provide insight (e.g. academic achievement, sports tale, a digital book jacket retelling a story in students’ own words)
  • How your students/staff have helped others at school, at work, or in the community
  • A visual story of an upcoming or current event from a student perspective
  • A collection of images that captures different perspectives of the same situation

Create an Instagram Wall

“That’s where a physical Instagram display comes in. The idea is to create a display with images from your Instagram rotated out periodically. If you include your Instagram handle in the display, it promotes your account and encourages students to follow,” says Diana Rendina (@DianaLRendina),  library media specialist. She goes on to say, “Once you set up the display initially, it’s easy to change out the images as you add new photos to your Instagram account. I refresh mine every week or so. It makes a nice evergreen display that keeps your students up to date about what’s happening in the library.” You can take Diana’s idea and give it a visual storytelling twist.

Each of these ideas can be adapted for classroom use. And, probably, these ideas already have been. What makes them different is that the technology students use has changed. How are you using these technologies in the classroom? How about to share about your organization?


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