Young authors often have trouble making the distinction between summarizing a story and writing from “inside the story” (a phrase coined by Lucy Calkins, who has some brilliant thoughts buried in those wordy manuals of hers). This is a quick, simple activity to help students understand the difference.
You’ll need some photographs to start. It’s important that they have people and/or animals in them—anyone who could be a potential character in a story. Photographs of your family work well, or images cut from magazines. A simple google search of “photographs of people” will turn up a treasure trove of material. Or you could always make it a homework assignment: “Bring in a photo of a group of people or animals.” Don’t tell them what it’s for; curiosity is the greatest hook.
When I introduce this activity, I do it with the students sitting on the floor in front of me, circle time style. However, it could just as easily be done with the students at their desks, especially if you have a Smartboard on which to display the images.
Let’s say the first photo is of a…pensive kitten.
If I ask the students to describe this image, they might say something along the lines of, “It’s a cute kitten. It looks like it’s thinking about something.” Great! But now I explain that while that’s an excellent summary of the photo, it’s an exterior description, as though you (the writer) were standing across the street staring at the kitten. Authors write from the interior of the story, as though they are actually a part of it. For example, “The kitten wondered what its master was going to give it for lunch.”
Students may point out that writing from the interior of the story means the author is choosing a perspective, and that’s a great observation. I make sure I point out that although writers may use more than one perspective in their novels, they only use one perspective at a time. (This is important to note, because some students have a tendency to flip back and forth indiscriminately between characters.) I may read from a few chapter books to give kids a taste of this, and touch on 1st/3rd person as well.
From here we go on to the assignment. I place about ten of these photographs around the room, and students are to walk around the room with their journals and write one sentence from the exterior of the photo and one from the interior of the photo. Although the goal is to have students write from the interior of the story, I find that having students write both sentences helps them to distinguish between the two—and it’s not like you never write from outside the topic, after all. Summarizing and expository writing are important too. (Just not as important as fiction. And yes, I’m biased.)
In the end, of course, the students share at least one set of sentences that they’ve written. If the photo has a group of people or animals it’s even more fun, because then the other students have to guess whose specific perspective the writer has chosen, based on facial expressions.
This is a very repeatable little activity, and can also be used as a quick and easy center!