Every time I open up Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter, I’m given the option to post to stories or urged to open the stories of others. Pictures that tell stories, what a concept—that’s only been around since FOREVER. Long before we are able to string letters together to make words and words together to make sentences to tell stories, we used drawings—pictures to tell stories. But by the time students get older, despite them using camera phones to document every part of their lives, we mostly stop allowing students to tell stories with pictures. 


In You Have a Match: A Novel by Emma Lord, Abby Davis discovers through a class DNA project that she has a sister that her parents gave up for adoption, and that she and her sister will be at summer camp together. Abby is also a budding photographer, and even though her friend tries to help her grow an online social media presence, Abby doubts her work.


I viscerally dread the idea of sharing my photos with anyone. The thought of people out there seeing my work makes me feel so weirdly naked that I don’t even look at the account. Plus, if anyone’s actually following it, I’m sure they’re bored out of their skull. (10)


Her friend Leo, the foodie, who is pushing her to get her photos out there, has a much different photo story experience.


A zillion hashtags and one masterfully shot blob of cheese and noodle later, Leo’s lasagna ball Instagram is posted, and a large percentage of them are in my stomach. Leo sits on the couch, watching the likes trickle in, and I sit on the arm, hesitating before letting myself slide down with a plunk into the worn cushion beside him. (10)


Teachers can engage students in writing by returning to the idea of writing from pictures all the way to digital storytelling. From basic to a bit flashier, teachers can use the following ideas to get students writing.


Picture Writing 101

Have students choose a picture from their phone. Once students have a photo selected, have them tell the story of that photo. Encourage them to include details, dialogue, and action. After students write, teachers can guide students through the writing process. They can go back into their writing and revise by trying different introductions. They can work to incorporate various craft techniques such as brush strokes from Harry Noden’s Image Grammar.


Story Slides

Have students select or take a series of photos that they can combine into Google Slides or PowerPoint. Have students arrange the sequence of their photos and write the script that tells the story of the photos. As teachers guide students through the writing process, they can have students focus on transitions and the idea of writing/telling what’s not in the picture, the story behind the image. After students finish writing their stories, they can record themselves reading the stories with the images in Slides or PowerPoint. Through this activity, students work on revising, editing, and author’s choice as they decide which words/parts of the story go with which image. 


Advanced Digital Storytelling--but Not Really

Still using photos or videos from their phones (students can also take and record new video), introduce students to a program like WeVideo to try their hands at crafting digital stories. Teachers still guide students through the writing process because we don’t sacrifice the writing for the technology, but students have the agency to craft the stories they choose to tell. And teachers don’t have to be an expert in the technology before introducing it to the students—trust me, they often adapt and surpass our expertise with relative ease. Other options teachers can consider for digital storytelling include Adobe Spark or even 1 Second Everyday, which allows students to create a digital photo diary.


Too often, in an educational world of standards and standardized testing, we forget that engagement sparks students’ learning, which leads to academic success. Teachers can use photos to create arenas for student writing. To explore more on digital writing in the classroom, teachers can check out The 7 Elements of Digital Storytelling.  


Download the lesson below in a convenient pdf to print or save!




Michael Méndez Guevara is a former high school journalism and English teacher who spent his time in the classroom helping students see themselves as writers and fall in love with reading through the world of young adult literature. As an educational sales consultant with Perfection Learning®, Michael works with teachers and schools on improving their literacy instruction and providing resources to help students achieve academic success. He has taught elementary school, middle school, and high school and has worked as a district level leader and served on the Texas state standards revision committee that developed the state’s current literacy standards. He is the father of three adult sons, the youngest a student at the University of Kansas—Rock Chalk! Michael is working on a professional development book for literacy educators and currently has agents reading the manuscript of his young adult novel  The Closest Thing to a Normal Life. When he's not reading, writing, or running, Michael is fully committed to watching as much Law & Order as possible.