Teach it Tuesday: Capturing the Essence

We’ve all heard the phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words”, but back in my final practicum (a year and a half ago) I challenged that phrase. Instead of writing a thousand words to go along with a picture, I had my students write five or less words to truly “capture the essence” of a series of photos.

How we did this lesson: My students were seated in pods, which served nicely as small groups. I chose an image to project on the screen and had my students look at it and think about it for a few minutes. Once my class had some time to look at and think about the photo, I asked them to discuss and take notes on one sheet of paper per group. The ideas written down could be as lengthy and detailed as the group desired. After each group had a chance to discuss and write, we went around the room and shared ideas. It was interesting to her what each group had to say about the same photo – some ideas were similar and some ideas were radically different! From here, I had my students work within their group to narrow down the essence of the photo. The groups worked together, crossing out words and phrases that didn’t totally and fully describe the photo. This part of the lesson was interesting for me because some students really had a hard time narrowing down specific words or short phrases that captured what they thought the essence of the photo was.

The end goal: At the end of narrowing down the photo’s descriptions in small groups we came together as a class as shared our specific words/phrases once more. During this sharing I wrote the words along the edges of the projected photo. After each group had shared their idea(s) we decided as a class what the “caption” of the photo should be, in five words or less.

I found this lesson to be quite powerful because of the images I chose. The photo below is a picture I took in Cambodia while riding a local bus through Phnom Penh early one morning.

A barefooted monk collecting morning alms from the people.

A barefooted monk collecting morning alms from the people.

Not only did this lesson serve as a writing lesson, it also touched on aspects of humanity, social studies, creative thinking/question forming and rich conversation. Initially, I created this lesson for my students to introduce the notion of writing in comic strips (a social studies project we were working on). Comic strips sometimes use very little writing, so I wanted to show my students how powerful images could really be and how UNnecessary wordiness can be.

I’m curious to know what words you all think fit with this photo? Can you capture the essence in five words or less?


4 thoughts on “Teach it Tuesday: Capturing the Essence

  1. This is great – think I’ll use something along these lines in S.S. Have we talked about “gists” yet? This is my new-ish favourite thing in teaching: Students need to summarize their learning/thinking in exactly twenty words, though the number of sentences doesn’t matter. It’s fun to watch the students economize their words, trading them out for more meaningful synonyms. My students did their first gist on ancient Rome, and it was incredible how diverse their gists are, and how accurate and detailed, considering that they summarized a civilization that lasted for centuries (or over a millennium, depending on whom you ask and what you consider “ancient Rome”). You can use gists in every subject area. They make for joyful reading and ridiculously easy marking, should you wish to mark them. 🙂

    • Do you remember this photo lesson from practicum, Karen? (No worries if you don’t!) I know about your “gists” you have your students do, but I’m definitely in need of a refresher!!

  2. I saw an activity somewhere about summarizing… kids have a hard time with that, I think! You could combine this and that, although they are quite similar. I believe it had to do with giving them a whole cue card to write on, then a half, and the a quarter… and each time, obviously, they have to write more precisely. Maybe also a good way to teach note-taking, for example, for science diagrams. I really like this – going to put a few pictures into my TOC bag now!

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