Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Writing About Place

The most effective graphic organizer I have found to help students write about place comes from Wisconsin.   More specifically, from Wisconsin's super-amazing-blow-your-mind cartoonist and author LYNDA BARRY.   I had to shout it.   I had to.   I did.

I first fell in love with the mind of Lynda Barry while reading One!Hundred!Demons!  If I could travel back in time to 13, I would take a million copies of that book with me and stash them in every part of the landscape of my life that found me needing courage.   Like I said before, she's an artist.   The coolest kind of artist because she explains how to paint your own demons with instructions at the back of the book.

When I heard that Barry was releasing a book on writing, I was excited and curious.   I was pretty sure that it wouldn't be like anything I'd seen before.   It wasn't.   It's a series of collages that combine found objects with her original work.   It's an invitation to peek inside the darkest corners of her creative head space.   It's eye candy that resonates and plucks at the memories that you have been collecting all of your life.  It is What It Is.

The graphic organizer, "Stay Inside the Image,"  is basically like this.   Imagine that you have a small circle at the middle of your paper.   You are in that circle in a fixed position.   Now, picture that circle as being on the center of an X.   It would help if you draw this.   The X will create four sections: in front of me, behind me, to my right and to my left.   Finally, at the top of the paper is the "above me" section and at the bottom is "beneath me."

Students fill in this graphic organizer with details.   They don't need to use complete sentences.   Writers should choose a familiar place outside of the classroom and situate themselves in the image.  

You can model the exercise by using your classroom to fill in a grid that you have drawn on your white board.   What's above you?   Well, the ceiling, right?   Be more specific.   Square, white drop ceiling tiles with pock marks. New water damage stains over the teacher's desk.   Old stains that have been repaired and restained over the student computer.   Fluorescent tube lighting.   Black wires at the front of the room that hook to a mounted television.   Black wires that the back of the room that power the document camera.   In the center of the room is a small, beaded silver star ornament with a nickle-sized red heart at its center.

When it's time to incorporate a setting into a story, there's a balance between overburdening your prose with unnecessary details and losing your anchor completely which results in characters becoming "talking heads."   Remember that this is a prewriting exercise to access a place.   When this activity is shaped into a narrative, all of your details will not make the final cut.   This is also a great activity to help students start a fictional story, but it's easier for me to get students started with this new technique if we first base it on a real place that they have experienced firsthand.

Visit's Lynda Barry archive!  

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