At some indeterminable moment during my tenure as an English teacher, I became old. My 30th birthday brought with it a bad case of Out-Of-Touchitis, otherwise known as TSD: Tie and Sweater Disease. This condition is often unrecognizable to its victim until the disease has progressed beyond the point of treatment. As a prematurely fogied teacher addicted to cheap, faculty-lounge coffee, I was another hopeless case until one miraculous October day. I’ll never forget the moment that the fever of my disease broke and I took the first step toward making imaginative short story writers out of a hard-core, third-period English II class.
There I was, a windbag spewing the party line whilst picking lint from my sweater vest. “Character is one of the five basic elements that comprise a complete and therefore often effective story. . . . Using your imagination, draw on previous experiences. . . . Short story writing is heavily dependent on technique. . . . Can anyone identify the structural device. . . . “
I was droning on when a yawn in the front row claimed my attention. In the glassy gaze and slack jaw of this rude child, I saw my reflection. I imagined myself sitting in the front row, mesmerized by my own dullness and thinking about anything but the lecture: “The hands of the clock above my head are always moving, just really, really slowly. . . . I am so hungry. . . . I wonder what they’re serving for lunch today. . . . I wish I’d just give us the stupid assignment. . . . Why don’t I get to the point already. . . . yawn . . . “
I had planned to teach about the elements of a story for the next three weeks. My hope was that at the end of the unit, the students would write a short piece of fiction--double-spaced, spell-checked, and no smaller than 10-point font, of course. But if I kept trudging along in the same boring way, I knew the ultimate lesson would be a failure. And I would be a failure. It was a jarring thought that sent me tumbling to reality.
I’m not sure what happened next. Perhaps there was a power surge that caused the classroom lights to brighten, or perhaps the sun peeked out from the clouds. I paused in mid-lecture. I knew this was a clutch moment. I turned off the overhead, loosened my tie ever so slightly, and instead of reciting the virtues inherent in the requisite English II Robert Frost poem, I took a deep breath and set off down the road less traveled by English teachers.
I picked up an old magazine from a student’s desk. “I need everyone to help me cut up some magazines. I want you to cut out all the pictures of people you can find. Cut them up so that they are the size of snapshots. Also find pictures of animals, cars, even landscapes--anything that might be in a photo album. We’re going to make family albums, and you’re going to come up with names, histories, and stories for all the faces and pictures. In essence, you will create the character, setting, and plot behind every shot.”
And that’s how it began. For the rest of that first class, we cut up magazines and dumped photos into a box. By the next day, I had acquired more magazines from the librarian, more scissors, and old three-ring binders to use as albums. I was prepared . . . except for knowing what to do next and what to expect from the kids. Still formulating a plan, I had each of them randomly choose a picture from the box of cutouts. This went over well: The kids were suddenly brimming with imagination. “Hey, look--this is me and my wife. We’ve just gotten married, and we’re bungee jumping after having said ‘I do.’ My brother-in-law took the picture.” The class buzzed with humor and excitement--just the kind of atmosphere that had been missing.
To tap into the room’s newfound creativity, I had the students write one page that explained the picture and its context: This was the first photo in their album. After 20 minutes of writing, I had my kids pick another photo at random and write more. They took to the task with gusto. My students were creating. They were plotting. They were crafting. They were weaving intricate stories. They were doing exactly what a good writer does--building a story. And I told them so.
We repeated the exercise on the third day, and on the fourth, we turned to some examples of good essays and pored over them to uncover the elements and techniques that make for strong writing. Though our discussion roamed, I always steered it back to the issues of writing about life and the methods of painting a verbal picture. There is no writing separate from life, I stressed; each person is at once a single novel and a thousand stories. I also drove home the point that effective fiction employs, in a coherent and logical manner, the elements--the strings of related moments--that make up life.
At the end of the fourth day, I asked the kids to find five more pictures and write about them as homework. When we next met, they each had an album with at least 10 pictures and related stories--double the assignment. They apologized--"I thought I should show the photos that the couple’s son took at the airport when he last saw them before the plane crashed,” said one--but I had no complaints. My kids were writing wonderfully creative stories, and they were having fun.
Needless to say, I ditched my original plan for teaching short story writing over those three weeks. Once the students had a minimum of 15 pictures and related stories, I had them create family trees. Then I had them write and edit four short stories based on the photos of their “families.” Over the weeks, the albums took on life and became beloved creations.
At the end of the year, these students left my class remembering those three weeks as the most enjoyable. Many said they had never before liked writing fiction. We had a party on the last day of class, and everyone brought their albums and passed them around.
This character-building exercise is now a regular part of my class--the class of a youngish, somewhat hip, fashionably balding English teacher who learned that the golden rule of effective teaching is that if you’re bored, they’re bored. And life should never be boring.
A version of this article appeared in the January 01, 1999 edition of Teacher as A Picture Worth A Thousand Words