Image to Text – Manchester Art Gallery’s writing workshop at NATE

IMG_8248No matter how many creative writing workshop I attend, there is always something new and exciting to learn. At the NATE Conference, the schedule allows for a more engaging experience as the middle of the day is comprised of 2 1/2 hour workshops split into two sessions with a lunch intermission.

Emma Carroll, artist and Education Officer and Carole Page, academic (retiring from teacher educator to work with galleries) enthusiastically co-presented these inspiring strategies offered at the Manchester Art Gallery. I had the privilege to participate in the same activities as students. This builds teacher confidence when conducting similar writing experiences and took  me back to my encounters with the Wollongong City Gallery and Just Imagine, a writing competition between 2007 and 2010.

These gallery workshops have been happening for a decade, but were promoted as an important Continuing Professional Development for classroom teachers in light of recent changes to the GCSE where, from 2018, students will be required to respond to an image – in writing within a limited timeframe.

The room was arranged with large tables, yet we were encouraged to sit in small groups of three or four. Not only was the chosen artwork displayed on the screen, but we were each given our own writing booklet. As this did not resemble a traditional book – a folded A3 page with neat cut, an attached luggage tag and artwork postcard held together with a large paper clip – we were already feeling part of the magic. So, in this situation, not only are students invited to a new writing space (at the gallery), but also welcomed to write on whichever page they choose.

Screen Shot 2016-06-26 at 4.07.15 pmFirst, we were asked to choose a line in the painting and follow it – we were given a minute. As in Just Imagine, timed activities creates a sense of energy among students and supports their willingness to participate. Emma explained that it could be an artistic element – colour, tone, shapes, light, shade, or even look round the edges – perhaps depending on the artwork itself. This is designed to slow the viewer down and actually consider what they are seeing.

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Next, each table was given a sheet with one of the commonly asked ‘w’ questions (who, what, where, when , why) to compile questions to be asked. These could be impossible to answer, but …

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we then passed our sheets on and were told to choose a questions and write an answer. Again, this activity was timed to keep things moving.


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We were then allowed to settle on a question and could, as a group, develop a reasonable response. Interestingly, the group we received our sheet from had added another question to the original queries. Of course we chose to answer this: why has he got no reflection? This activity actually opens up more questions even though the premise is that your group will provide answers. This activity also points toward possible plot points.

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And so onto character: choose one from the image and find a space on your booklet and provide quick answers for these prompts

  • name
  • age
  • dislike
  • someone they respect
  • greatest strength
  • a deep secret
  • a regret
  • something they never leave home without

Discuss your character with another person in your group, and then a group member nominates another member to share their character. This promotes the idea of listening to another explain their character, and announcing that you’ve liked what you’ve heard.

There was a quick recap after break, and mention of the following expectations of gallery staff if teachers are thinking of organising a visit:

  • should be part of a larger unit with students to do more with these activities back i the classroom
  • a visit should be seen as a springboard for writing opportunities, rather than a final destination
  • teachers know their students best, so gallery staff will expect teachers to form groups that will work effectively and separate students who need to focus
  • artists don’t expect to manage student behaviours
  • teachers should visit beforehand to learn about the space and which paintings would be most suitable for their students and objectives
  • this will also allow teachers to be confident in the space which is appreciated by students who can quickly ‘read’ nervousness

We then began an activity designed to take us beyond the frame – stretching the image. Considering the artwork as a four quadrant space with each quarter representing a compass point, each group was given the task of sketching what would be behind, or carry on from, what could be seen. We were given ‘south’ which was the space behind the dark figure in the bottom left.

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We decided to extend the boardwalk and add a young female figure wearing a shawl that was pulled tightly over a baby held in the girl’s arms. There was also a suitcase beside her, and an awning was visible behind her shoulder.

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Next, each group nominated an envoy to share our vision with every other group, thus building up a much larger image that answered some earlier questions or gave alternative insights and perspectives. We were also asked, as envoys and as groups receiving information, about our feelings on this process. There were some challenges about ownership of already forming narratives, and ideas that didn’t quite fit, as well as the challenges of understanding a verbally explained description that needed a visual representation. This would be a powerful differentiation tool in the classroom and allow students to participate in different ways yet still develop a textual response.

Some groups with firm ideas found their narrative troubled, yet mostly there were moments of synchronicity where many descriptions actually fit within established ways of seeing the artwork.

These activities had so far helped with setting and character, so now there was work to be done on the language we would use. This time, groups were given an element such as weather, water, man or bridge, and asked to create kennings. Out sheet had question prompts to facilitate word lists that could lead us into unusual descriptions for enliven our writing.

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We shared these with the larger group, and were asked to write down one or two interesting kennings on the luggage tag of our writing booklets.

As the workshop drew to a close, we had 15 minutes to write a brief introduction to our own narrative, and once we had written four or five lines, we could raise our hand for an envelope of editing prompts.

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We could then choose to edit according to one of these four instructions:

  1. Add one of your kennings to liven up your writing
  2. Switch perspective – if you have written in 3rd person, now write in the 1st person and vice versa. What happens if you re-write in the 2nd person?
  3. Begin your paragraph with your last sentence. You can change the order of the words as much as you like to achieve the effect you want.
  4. Try removing words such as determiners, connectives, pronouns, participles and articles to achieve a more minimal effect. Consider what this means in terms of the sentence punctuation you will use to create meaning. Is it possible to remove all such words? Read carefully for meaning and effect.

As a final suggestion, always plan to have writing time at the end, even if only 15 or twenty minutes. This allows students to capture some of the magic and acts as a starting point when back in the classroom. Sadly, up to this point in time, the gallery has not collected any samples of student writing. This points towards an obvious future goal that would allow teachers and gallery staff to develop an understanding of the impact that workshops such as these may have on student writing. From my experience, students are fully engaged and more than willing to produce inventive writing from situations where they have choice and an opportunity to write off site.

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Click the painting to download a prezi of the workshop.

Download the workshop notes from Manchester City Gallery.

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