Important–but not obvious

It’s no secret that organization is one of the cornerstones of the Common Core Standards for writing. Yet, it can be among the most difficult traits of writing to teach–partly because organization is complex. But also because–unlike, say, voice–it is not immediately evident from the literary examples we share with students. Read a passage that rings with voice and everyone hears it, feels it. Immediately. We respond to voice as we might to the taste of chocolate. But how many times have you read a poem, short story, novel, or informational piece aloud and had students cry out, “Oh, wow–that organization just blew my mind.” Right. Never. We have to dig for evidence of organization–or do we? What if we could make it visual?

Got a camera handy? 

Does your school have a camera or two available for student use? If not, you can supply one of your own–or borrow one. You will need to have students take photographs to make this lesson work–and you’ll need to spend more than one day at it. But their resulting understanding of what makes organization work will astound you, and make all the effort worthwhile.

Getting ready

Many of your students may already be experienced photographers–but many may be used to snapping shots without giving the actual composition of the photo that much thought. That’s where this lesson will be a bit different.

Find out who is familiar with the kind of camera(s) you will be using. Spend  as much time as you need reviewing the how-to mechanics of operation. If you’re fortunate enough to have several cameras available, you can group students into teams to work together on this project. Even a student who helps set up shots (without actually taking a photo) will benefit.

Think about how you will reproduce the photos you take. This is important. If you can develop or print actual photos and post them in your classroom, you will find this very beneficial as you discuss the results. (You can also transfer photos to an online library, if you wish, but this approach is less desirable because such photos are less accessible to the whole class, which makes discussion at the classroom level more difficult.)

If you are a professional or amateur photographer yourself, you may also be thinking it would be helpful to share sample photos with students and review them prior to having them launch out on their own. I would be cautious about this. Students actually learn more about organization in the long run through some initial photographic blunders than if they begin by being too skilled, ready, or careful. For best results, don’t over-prepare them.

Choosing subjects

Every student (or team) needs a subject to photograph. Make some generic suggestions if you wish–but allow students to choose their own subjects, based on what catches their eye. Good possibilities are trees or other fauna, animals of any kind (be sure the subject will be available in days to come, though), furniture, artwork of any kind, geographic or geological features, buildings or other architectural features, inanimate objects of any sort, water, earth, the sky. Tip: Avoid human subjects, as photographing people, even friends, can lead to privacy issues.

Analyzing the results

Once you have actual photos to look at, let students know they will be analyzing the composition of the photos they have taken. They must do this–not you. That’s because the composition of each photo parallels the organization of a written piece, and by assessing the composition, they will gain understanding they can use in organizing their writing. (Side benefit: There is NOTHING for you to assess!) Students will, of course, need some guiding questions–like these:

  • Does the photo have a “center”–a clear subject that leaps right out at the viewer? Is it the first thing to which your eye is drawn?
  • Is there a “message”? In other words, does the photo make an impression on the viewer or seem to speak to the viewer? Would you kow immediately what title to give this photo?
  • Is the subject clear? Is it centered? Is it focused or fuzzy? Does it seem balanced within the overall framework of the photo–top not sliced off, etc.? Is it the right size–not too large and overwhelming or small and unnoticeable?
  • Does the photo capture the details you felt were important as you viewed your subject in real life?
  • Look at the background. Does it show off the subject–or interfere? Does it “retreat” without being too out of focus?

Related questions

  • Look at the lighting. What mood does it give to the piece? (In writing, mood relates to voice.)
  • What’s the angle? Is the subject shot from the front–or the side. Or is the photographer seeing the subject from above–or underneath? Does the angle show off the subject to advantage? (Angle relates to perspective in writing, and influences both voice and detail.)

Making the connection

Discuss the results of students’ analysis. Which photos seemed to have the most effective composition? Why?

Help students see that the composition of a photo (or any piece of art) is a visual representation of organization. All elements work together to create the whole–but there is also a primary topic or impression that affects the viewer (just as a main idea in a written composition jumps out at a reader). In an effective written piece (as in a photo), the main subject needs to take center stage. It should be supported by the detail that surrounds it, not overpowered or upstaged. Let’s look at those earlier questions once more to see how they relate to writing (and imnportant elements of sound organization):

1. Does the photo have a “center”? Good writing needs a center, too: a theme, a main point, a primary purpose that is like the hub of a wheel.

2. Is there a message? Could you come up with a title? Well-organized writing always has a message, point, or storyline that the reader can sum up in a few words. And if the writer has done a good job of keeping the message foremost in the reader’s mind, the reader could probably come up with a title if the piece did not already have one.

3. Is the subject clear, balanced, focused–and the right size? In well-organized writing, the main point doesn’t fade in and out of focus. That’s because instead of meandering, the writer stays on track. In addition, careful writers know how much time to spend on the main idea. They don’t repeat themselves. Instead, they expand a central idea by developing related ideas (like the background in the photo) that are important to the reader’s overall understanding of the main topic.

4. Does the photo capture important details? Knowing where to draw the viewer’s eye first (and what to leave out or minimize) is important to good photography. Similarly, a good writer draws attention to his or her main point first, but strategically shares details that help a reader appreciate or reflect on the message–and avoids what is irrelevant or distracting.

5. Does the background show off the subject? Background isn’t usually the first thing we notice about a photo–but it’s often significant. Similarly, we might read an informational piece for key information or a novel for the plot–the first time through. Later, we notice context. How did the writer set the stage? How did he or she help us notice what mattered most, or appreciate the time or geographic setting for that novel? Background shouldn’t overwhelm main ideas–but it should matter deeply.


Following your discussion of the links between photographic composition and written composition, have students take new photos–of their same subjects. They should strive to overcome any faults they noticed within their earlier photos, but also to simply make the subjects more visually compelling. They may adjust the overall composition of the piece, the angle, lighting, size of the subject–anything they feel makes a difference. To complete the connection, have them use the photo as the basis for a short written piece on the same subject. Suggestions . . .

  • Poem
  • Journal entry in the “voice” of the subject
  • Lead to any film in which the subject would be featured in the opening shot
  • First three paragraphs of a story in which the subject has a featured role
  • Informational paragraph that fills in descriptive or historic details readers cannot glean from the photo alone

Coming up on Gurus. . .

Later this week, look for a review of one of the great books of 2010–Newberry Award winner Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool. This is truly one of the finest young adult works to come along in some time, and you won’t want to miss it. And bring a friend because . . . we need only 13 more visitors before we give away our first door prize!! It’s a copy of Creating Young Writers, filled to the brim with remarkable student writing (K through 3), tips on making writing process and workshop work for you at primary level, some of the best literature ever for young readers, and dozens of lesson ideas you will love. You (or a friend) could be our lucky winner!!