Paper, pens, and imagination are the traditional tools of creative writing. In Sarah Rowe’s writing class at Spencer High School in Columbus, Georgia, last semester, students also used pliers and copper tubing.
Rowe, 53, is a professional sculptor who doubles as an English teacher. In school, she strives to inspire a love of literature in kids and to teach them to express themselves through language. She’s also passionate about encouraging her students, many of whom come from military families stationed at nearby Fort Benning, to be creative. So it’s no surprise that, last year, when Rowe heard she would teach the English class that produces the school literary magazine, she decided to do something different. Instead of having her students make a glossy magazine with black words printed on white pages, Rowe decided they would craft a multimedia sculpture.
“I wanted my students to rethink, What is a book or a magazine? Is it only something between covers?” the teacher says.
First, the class asked other Spencer students and teachers to submit poetry and prose about (and in the guise of) guests attending a fictitious garden party. Rowe’s students edited the stories and penned their own pieces along the same theme. An eclectic mix of characters emerged—young people, old people, loners, and social butterflies. Then, the class constructed their “magazine,” a copper frame from which hangs clothing representing different people at the party. Woodshop students helped weld the frame; Rowe’s class collected secondhand garb and copied each character’s story onto a corresponding outfit.
The sculpture, which took six weeks to complete, was displayed in the school’s media center until the end of the school year. This year, the piece resides in one of the school’s offices, but it may be moving: A local museum might exhibit it.
Rowe’s colleagues say the teacher’s innovative take on creative writing was a success. “There is a human element that allows people to connect with the project,” says English teacher Jeanette Williams. “A project like this has endless possibilities.”
Rowe feels the sculpture opened her students’ minds. “They learned to see something in a different light,” she says. One student who had balked at the project—"I’m not an artist, I can’t do this,” he complained—worked hard at it and then surprised her with his creative spark on an unrelated assignment. Asked to keep a journal during the course, he handed Rowe not a notebook but a tennis shoe stuffed with balled-up scraps of paper on which he’d done his writing. “It’s a walk through my thoughts,” he told her. “He saw possibilities” in that shoe, says Rowe. “He’s not going to pass any standardized tests with that [perspective], but it’s what life is all about.”