The Power of Story and Visual Images in Teaching Composition | A Coreq Campfire Session

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This post is part of the Campfire Session series from Corequisite Composition Summer Camp 2021. You can find all recorded sessions and resources from Camp here.

How Story Forms the Foundation for Teaching Composition and How Visual Images Can Shape Our Students as Writers

By Linda Maria Steele, Dean College

I remember my very first teaching gig straight out of graduate school at University of Texas, Dallas. I received a fellowship and worked as a Teaching Assistant, which led to my teaching job at Richland College in Dallas. I was hired as an adjunct the semester after I received my Master’s degree from UT. I was offered three sections of Composition.

I was full of hope, energy, and enthusiasm. But early on, I wasn’t always clear on how to get students to actually apply the tools I was teaching them and help them become better writers.

Developing effective skills as a writer is such a personal task and one tool doesn’t work the same way for each student. Tools are great, but they have to be explored and practiced in practical terms if they are going to be useful and help students grow as writers.

It has been close to 20 years since that first teaching gig. Looking back after all of those semesters teaching Composition, I now have a deeper understanding of how important story is as the foundation for our students as writers.

Students who grasp how to effectively incorporate story in their essays have a much easier time later on when the types of papers they write become more layered and complex. Story teaches them how to connect with their ideas and what they value, connect with their readers, and gain an understanding of how to structure an essay.

I have also come to appreciate the benefits of incorporating visual images into our courses and how both story and visual images can further shape our students as writers.

For years, I’ve asked students to read essays with a strong focus on story with a message, introduced them to the dramatic arc, and told them how important it is to write their story with a strong beginning, middle, and end.

It wasn’t until I met with a student about a first draft that the need to apply these tools really hit home. The student—I will call her Jessica—chose to write about a dramatic event that had a large impact on her life. She wrote about how the previous year, her house caught fire and burned to the ground. An event with the potential for a compelling story with a point. As dramatic of an event as this was, Jessica was not quite understanding how to tell or write the story in a dramatic way.

Jessica’s first draft left out important details and had no clear organization. The essay was difficult to follow. When I gave her feedback and asked her to tell me the story in her own words, she mentioned that she ran back in the house at the very last minute to try to rescue her beloved pet guinea pig named George.

I pointed out that one of the problems I saw in her draft was that she didn’t create any tension in the story. And that it seemed to me the guinea pig was an important and interesting detail to include. I reminded her of the dramatic arc we talked about in class and how it is the tension that makes story so interesting and allows us as readers to find meaning—elements that make for a good story. I suggested that she might want to try to highlight, for dramatic effect, whether or not her beloved pet, George, made it out alive. And how that detail was something that would spark interest and curiosity in her reader. I also suggested that she look for any visual images she had of her pet or the house she lost. I suggested by focusing on the images, she might get clearer on what she really wanted to communicate on the topic as she rewrote her draft.

The tools we share with our students are valuable. But we also have to seek new ways to get them to understand how to use and apply them in their writing. A tool is only effective to the degree that we find practical ways to put them in practice. When it comes to teaching composition, the task for our students is less about memorizing new material and more about practicing and engaging with themselves as thinkers and writers.

Jessica’s final draft was really well written. The final draft began with an introductory paragraph that hinted at the possible loss of her beloved pet. We didn’t learn until the last line that her guinea pig did, in fact, get out in time. The guinea pig served as the tension the story needed. Not only did she write an interesting essay with a strong story arc—she witnessed for herself just how important using the tool of story is to her progress as a writer. Through her willingness to revise, she found a way to tell the story in a way that was interesting and made a meaningful impact.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the way story forms the foundation for developing as writers and how visual images can shape and support our writing skills.