The following is one of fifty engagement tasks in Aaron's newest book Worksheets Don't Work. Each image is hyperlinked to a Google Slide that can be copied and edited as needed. The last section has been added to modify this task for virtual learning. To have upcoming blog posts in this series sent directly to your inbox, add your email address here.
Some say that a picture is worth a thousand words. For students that prefer processing their learning through a visual medium, the ability to view pictures, diagrams, and charts is essential. More than passively receiving learning, however, teachers want students to create meaning for themselves. Students should be actively involved in the formation of their learning tools and any notes or outlines that are created to summarize the content. For those that enjoy making meaning visually, that means that they need to be drawing as well.
Caption this is an alternative that leverages the artistic abilities of students and their penchant for understanding and remembering pictorial representations. Students using this method can draw, rather than write, a summary or synopsis of the major points of the lesson or chapter. Underneath the picture, students write a descriptive caption that emphasizes the key vocabulary and learning points. Students are tasked with learning and remembering a great deal of content. How they do that should be a choice they make based on their instructional preferences.
Why It Works
Students learn and process information in a variety of ways. While some do fine with lecture, others prefer to see pictures. Many students need to touch and feel something, whereas others need to talk aloud to order their thoughts. In embracing the truth that students all acquire information differently, the same can be extended for how they best show what they know. Even if teachers try their best to incorporate multiple modalities in how the lesson is taught, often all students are forced to produce the same assignment with limited buy-in.
Caption this acknowledges that some students think more visually than they do semantically. Instead of being natural poets, their heart’s desire is to draw, color, and create. When teachers can focus more on the knowledge students can demonstrate rather than how they show it, they open themselves up to a variety of processing techniques. If a picture is worth a thousand words, it seems like that’s more than enough for students when they need to demonstrate their understanding of a chapter or concept.
Though useful, just drawing a picture is sometimes not adequate. Most students’ work falls far short of the traditional artistic masterpiece. Thus, pictures are the beginning but not the end of this strategy. After drawing a picture, students must also put their thoughts into words with a descriptive caption. This serves as a bridging tool for those students who are more artistically-minded. While drawing might be their natural learning tool, schools in general place much more weight on words. Without diminishing those who are more visual than linguistic, creating a caption allows students the opportunity to strengthen their writing abilities alongside their fondness for drawing.
Though asking students to draw a picture and write a caption seems like it requires little to no preparation, there are a few things to mull over when using this worksheet substitute.
1. Think about the standards and requirements for the picture itself. Are there any specifications that students should keep in mind, such as adding color, using a certain amount of space on the paper, or even using a particular drawing tool (e.g., pen, pencil, colored pencil, etc.)? If there are any demands on the picture itself, make sure that students are aware of it and have the tools necessary to complete the task.
2. Along the same lines, decide how open to interpretation the picture will be. If there are required components to the picture, such as a certain person, object, or idea, include those for the students. For example, a picture drawn to summarize the rock cycle should include certain elements. These should be spelled out exactly so there is no debate later as to why a picture might have received a low grade.
3. If possible, create a simple rubric to capture these requirements for students. While assigning values using a rubric is still subjective, it cloaks the process in objectivity by setting down beforehand which elements are important and how they’ll be judged. It is not recommended to fluff a rubric with aesthetic descriptors, such as creativity, since they are extremely subjective and usually do not add meaning to the picture.
4. Since the purpose of the task is not just to draw but to add a powerful caption, guidelines for the caption should be made explicit before students begin to work. Teachers might want a caption to be a minimum length, such as two sentences, or include a certain number of vocabulary words. The more specific the requirements, the higher quality the caption and the picture will be.
5. Another consideration would be labeling within the picture. Some illustrations, such as a picture of the rock cycle, lend themselves to labels in addition to a caption. If labels are used, decide if they will be graded in addition to or in place of the caption. It would be disheartening for a student to work hard on a picture and add descriptive labels only to lose points because a satisfactory caption was not included.
6. As with other worksheet alternatives, caption this can be used with or without a grade. Make the determination before the assignment is begun so students know how/if it will affect their overall class grade.
The students in Mrs. Harris’ 7th grade math class had just finished learned the equations for calculating the surface area of prisms and pyramids. While they demonstrated the ability to apply the formulas, they still lacked a firm understanding of why anyone would need to know how to calculate surface area. She was afraid that her students might not be able to recognize surface area in word problems on the state assessment, especially if the questions didn’t use key words like surface area.
To promote a more well-rounded understanding of the content, she decided to do away with the textbook questions for the day. Instead, she designed a more open-ended task that would bring surface area to life for her students. She wanted them to search for images of real-world objects and buildings shaped as prisms. Once they found a picture of a pyramid, triangular prism, or even a rectangular prism, students would create an authentic word problem related to the picture.
“Students, you have a done a wonderful job the last two days on calculating the surface area of prisms and pyramids. Today’s task, however, is a little different. Instead of solving problems related to surface area, you’ll be creating one.
“I want you to search online and find a picture of a real-world prism or pyramid. If you’re completely out of ideas, you can use a picture of the famous pyramids of Giza. Please use those as a last resort, though. When you find your picture, you can copy and paste it into a Google Doc labeled Real-World Surface Area – [Your Full Name]. And for those already thinking about it, please include your full name after the title. Simply typing in [Your Full Name] might be funny but will make it difficult for me to know who it’s from.”
Mrs. Harris pointedly looked at two boys in the back of the room and they guiltily grinned back at her. “You will write a caption under the picture that will serve as the surface area problem. Create an authentic situation asking the reader to solve a problem that involves finding the surface area of some or all of the faces of the prism or pyramid. You’ll need to include measurements for the dimensions of the prism or pyramid. Try your hardest to make them realistic – if you use the picture of a building, it most likely would not have a height of 74 inches.
“One thing you’ll have to keep in mind when creating your caption is the difference between surface area and volume. If, for example, you find the picture of a railroad car and ask a question about how much spray paint it would take to cover the sides, that would be surface area. If, however, you ask how many jellybeans it would take to fill the railroad car, that is asking about the volume, not the surface area.
“Don’t hesitate to be creative. Your picture and caption should take up one full page of the Google Doc. The second page should contain the answer and a fully-worked out explanation. Some of the better submissions might even show up on our chapter exam.”
The focus of this worksheet alternative is the descriptive caption, not necessarily the artistic ability of the students. To that end, the picture itself does not have to be hand-drawn. Students can instead find images online or within a word processing software program, such as clip art. Teachers can even elect to provide the images for the students. Whether every student writes a caption for the same image or they choose from a variety of predetermined choices, the teacher’s selection or production of the images can cut down on the time it takes to complete the task.
While some students might struggle with creating a single drawing for a caption, others might be constrained by it. Another way to personalize this idea is to allow students to draw several panes in a series. Though it might seem identical to a comic strip, the difference lies in the captions. Rather than just providing a few speech bubbles per panel, students would still write descriptive captions for each one. The depth allowed by the captions, as they match well-drawn pictures, gives students the chance to explore the far reaches of their understanding.
After students have created a caption for an image, whether the image is hand-created or taken from another source, they can do something meaningful with them. Instead of writing a caption directly under the image, they can write one on a separate index card. After several captions have been made for several images, students can work in groups to match the captions with the images. Whether it be in the form of a memory match or a simple paired activity, students would benefit greatly from using logic to deduce which captions go with certain images or drawings.
Caption this can also be used for high-level interpretation in social studies and history classes. Students can choose a political cartoon, or have one assigned by the teacher, that is rich in symbolism and meaning. The cartoon should have limited text, instead relying on the image to convey its message. The students’ task would be to write a detailed caption of the political cartoon, delineating precisely the meaning of the various components of the image.
Modifying This For Virtual Learning
Students can use many digital tools to aid in writing captions for pictures and images. Using either free online sites like Canva.com that include stock photos and basic photo editing tools, students can easily provide commentary and captions directly on the photos themselves. If you don't want students to have to create an account with an online platform, they can use a program like Paint (Windows), Paintbrush (Mac), Paint 98 (iPad), or PaintZ (Chromebook).
Half the time the problem is not creating the caption but finding the pictures to practice describing. Two sites that I've used regularly are Unsplash.com and Pexels.com. These two sites offer high-quality, stock photos and videos (on Pexels) that are free to use, download, and do with what you like. Many other sites claim to offer free photos but only for an introductory trial period. Have your students cruise around on these sites and find a suitable picture to write a descriptive caption for.