My teaching workshops are usually in no/low tech areas...church basements, field houses, a
restored carriage house...none of which have Internet access, screens, etc. So I have relied on good old hands-on materials for my workshops. One of my favorites is Build a Character.
Over the years, I have amassed a library of what I brilliantly have labeled "Interesting Pictures." These are people pictures...no Grand Canyon shots, no funky Photoshopped stuff. Just plain old pictures of plain old people. Some of them are contemporary, some archival. I have found most of them online and printed them off. Since I am only making one copy for educational use, I am not violating anybody's copyright. Besides, if the copyright holder usually disables the ability to copy their work without paying a fee.
Because I mostly teach children, ages eight to fourteen, the people in the pictures are of similar age. There are a few "grown-ups" in some of them, but they are not the focus of the scene. I also try to keep the picture composition simple...no more than four or five people in the shot. The pictures should also be no smaller than 5 x 7 so they can be easily seen. I glue the pictures to construction paper, and then laminate each picture. That way they hold up for years.
But for the purposes of this exercise I am going to pretend I have never seen any of these people before. I will pick two of them to build into characters. (Surprise surprise...I am picking the two girls.)
Now it's time to play Twenty Questions. I actually have a list of fifty questions that I hand out with the pictures. I tell my students that they do not have to answer all fifty. They can add other questions they might think of as well.
Here is an example exercise.
1. Look at the way the people are dressed. Does this look present day, or as if it took place awhile ago? (Nailing down an exact date is not the purpose....it is a decision the writer makes to ground their story in a particular time.)
2. Name the girls. Let's call them Mary Ann and Melissa (which just happens to be the names of the actual subjects.) Decide how old they are.
3. What is the relationship of the two girls? Are they related? Friends? Total strangers who just happened to wind upon the same picture?
4. Look at the way the two girls stand. What does their posture say about them?
5. It appears that they are on a boat dock with the adults. Why are they on a boat dock? What is about to happen? Or has something already happened? Who are the adults? Are they important to the story of not?
6. What is Melissa's favorite game?
7. What is Mary Ann's least favorite subject?
8. Where are they? Are they in their home town? Are they on vacation?
There are forty two more of these questions, plus whatever your student wants to add to the list. Keep the "answering the questions" time to about twenty minutes. Once that time is up, see if your students can construct a five paragraph beginning to a story with the information they have "found."
This is meant as a story "starter" for those students who stare into space, trying to "think of something"
to write about.
Posted by Mary Ann Rodman