Ekphrasis in the English Classroom
Responding to a visual artwork can be a non-threatening and rewarding way of easing into creative writing. It relieves students of the sometimes crippling decision: What do I write about? Not only does the image provide a topic, but it suggests a form, style and tone too.
The open-ended nature of the exercises means that they can be easily "differentiated" to suit a range of students' abilities. That said, some of the tasks assume a degree of prior knowledge so may require the pre-teaching of certain terms and concepts. Where possible, I have included links to reliable and approachable glossaries, to help students independently fill these gaps in their knowledge.
Below are specific suggestions for how these exercises could be incorporated into lessons.
Junior (Years 7 and 8)
- Project the 'Race for Life: Black Saturday' image on a screen.
- Give the class one minute to silently observe the artwork without writing anything.
- When one minute is up, set the 'Five Senses' warm-up task.
- After 15 minutes, invite a few students to read their favourite lines that they have just written (emphasise that the writing does not have to be perfect at this stage).
- Now, introduce the site, and instruct students to choose a different artwork, which they will use to complete the 'Before and After' exercise. Depending on the length of your lesson, this could be finished during class or for homework.
- One way or another, I recommend the 'Writer to Editor' follow-up task in the next lesson.
• Experiment with text structures and language features and their effects in creating literary texts, for example, using rhythm, sound effects, monologue, layout, navigation and colour (ACELT1805)
• Create literary texts that adapt stylistic features encountered in other texts, for example, narrative viewpoint, structure of stanzas, contrast and juxtaposition (ACELT1625).
• Share, reflect on, clarify and evaluate opinions and arguments about aspects of literary texts (ACELT1627)
Middle (Years 9 and 10)
- Introduce this site. Give students five minutes to scroll through the images, and to read over the 'Warm Up' exercises.
- Pair students up and instruct them to assign their partner one image and one warm-up exercise to complete. Give students 15 minutes to do their assigned exercises.
- Show students the 'Writer to Editor' exercise. Emphasise the "rules" for giving constructive criticism. Suggest that students both annotate their partner's piece of writing and provide a short paragraph of written feedback. There should be no talking during this stage - just reading and writing.
- After 15 minutes, give students about five minutes to read and respond to their partner's feedback.
- Now, instruct students to write a second draft of their piece, bearing in mind the feedback they have received. Depending on the length of the lesson, either invite students to read their second draft to the class, or let them finish the editing as a homework task.
• Create literary texts, including hybrid texts, that innovate on aspects of other texts, for example by using parody, allusion and appropriation (ACELT1773)
• Analyse how the construction and interpretation of texts, including media texts, can be influenced by cultural perspectives and other texts (ACELY1739)
• Create literary texts that reflect an emerging sense of personal style and evaluate the effectiveness of these texts (ACELT1814)
• Create literary texts with a sustained ‘voice’, selecting and adapting appropriate text structures, literary devices, language, auditory and visual structures and features for a specific purpose and intended audience(ACELT1815)
• Create imaginative texts that make relevant thematic and intertextual connections with other texts(ACELT1644)
Senior (Years 11 and 12)
Visual artworks provide a valuable illustration of the broader cultural and historical context in which a written text has been produced. For example, if your class is studying Miles Franklin's My Brilliant(?) Career (1901), William Strutt's paintings and drawings of Australian life in the mid to late 19th century could deepen their understanding of the author's and protagonist's situations. Interestingly, writer Miles Franklin was a direct contemporary of art collector, Russell Grimwade, born exactly one day before him (14th October, 1879). Encouraging an investigative engagement with biographical coincidences of this sort can enliven a text that might be initially unrelatable for students.
While Strutt's work will not be relevant to every text, these exercises can be applied to any image. For example, if your students are studying T.S. Eliot's poetry and require a foundational understanding of modernism, applying these writing tasks to Cubist or Expressionist visual artworks would be effective.
Lastly, while VCE (particularly Year 12) tends to be busy and stressful for both students and teachers, do not view creative writing exercises as a waste of precious time. The 15 minutes a student spends thinking laterally, experimenting with language and, most importantly, writing with focus, will improve their ability to exercise these skills under exam conditions and to apply them to essay writing.
• analyse the ways texts represent personal, social and cultural concerns
• draw connections, contrasts and parallels between texts
• explore and analyse the features particular to different texts
• make appropriate reference to textual detail to support a comparative interpretation
• explore texts beyond surface meanings to show deeper awareness of ideas and attitudes
• acknowledge sources where appropriate
• plan creative responses to texts (written, spoken and multimodal), for example consider an alternative perspective or explore a gap or moment in the text, taking account of the purpose, context and audience in determining the selected content and approach
• explain and justify decisions made in the writing process
• develop, test and clarify ideas using discussion and writing
• draft, review, edit and refine creative and analytical responses to texts, making choices about features of texts and using feedback gained from individual reflection, discussion, and peer and teacher comments
Ekphrasis in the Humanities Classroom
Creative writing, specifically ekphrastic writing, has great potential for helping students "develop historical understanding through key concepts, including evidence, continuity and change, cause and effect, perspectives, empathy, significance and contestability" (AusVELS, History Description).
Each of the exercises has been designed to improve students' perspicacity, inquiry skills, and ability to recognise and empathise with multiple perspectives. All of the exercises require students to analyse and respond to a historical source. The sources provided are directly relevant to Year 9 History's depth study of Australian settlement. However, these exercises could easily be applied to other sources - even images in textbooks.
As mentioned above in the 'English' section, the open-ended nature of the exercises means that they can be "differentiated" to suit a range of students' abilities. That said, some of the tasks assume a degree of prior knowledge so may require the pre-teaching of certain terms and concepts. Where possible, I have included links to reliable and approachable glossaries and examples, to help students independently fill these gaps in their knowledge.
The following links offer relevant material to support and supplement the writing exercises:
- The interdisciplinary analysis encouraged by the creative writing exercises aligns well with the Big History Project.
Identify a range of questions about the past to inform an historical inquiry (ACHHS207)
Locate, compare, select and use information from a range of sources as evidence (ACHHS210)
Identify and describe points of view, attitudes and values in primary and secondary sources (ACHHS212)
Develop texts, particularly descriptions and explanations that use evidence from a range of sources that are acknowledged (ACHHS156)
Use a range of communication forms (oral, graphic, written) and digital technologies (ACHHS157)
The extension of settlement, including the effects of contact (intended and unintended) between European settlers in Australia and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples (ACDSEH020)
Living and working conditions in Australia around the turn of the twentieth century (that is 1900) (ACDSEH090)
Identify the origin, purpose and context of primary and secondary sources (ACHHS187)
Process and synthesise information from a range of sources for use as evidence in an historical argument (ACHHS186)