Friday, March 30, 2007

Magic Portal

One of the core critical thinking skills I try to give my students the chance to practice in various ways is the ability to shift your point of view. We're midway through The Poisonwood Bible now and they've got a pretty good sense of the cast of characters, so one of the assignments that I like to give them at about this point is to do an observation exercise in which each student chooses a character and then has to go outside the classroom building and spent ten to fifteen minutes observing the world outside through the eyes of that character.

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. In the first place, that stuff bores me, and in the second place, my parents would have about two hemorrhages apiece if I told anything pretty personal about them. They're quite touchy about anything like that, especially my father. They're nice and all—I'm not saying that—but they're also touchy as hell. Besides, I'm not going to tell you my whole goddam autobiography or anything.

I projected this passage on the board, and asked the students to imagine that they were going to be asked to continue this piece of writing from where it leaves off and to write their addition in a way which was consistent with what is already there. What are some of the observable features of the text, some of the things that you notice about the way that it is written, that would give you a clue as to how to proceed?

The students readily pointed out some of the obvious features: the first long sentence with its series of commas; the use of mild profanity ("crap" and "goddam"; the speaker's tendency toward overdramatization or overexaggeration ("my parents would have about two hemorrhages apiece" and "my whole goddam autobiography"); his skepticism about whether his story is worth telling in the first place ("If you really want to hear about it," "if you want to know the truth"); his reluctance to reveal too much. I pointed out that if they were to write a continuation of this piece and attempt to follow the same basic patterns they had already observed, they'd probably come up with a fairly creditable imitation of Holden's style of speech.

At that point I said something more or less like this:

Today we are going to be doing a magic portal exercise. In about ten minutes, you're going to walk through this classroom door, and when you walk through it you are going to be transformed by the power of your own imagination into one of the characters in The Poisonwood Bible. You are going to spend about ten to fifteen minutes outside on the quad, and you are going to make the attempt to try to see and hear what is going on out there not through your own eyes and ears, but through the eyes and ears of the character you have selected. When you come back to class, you will be asked to write a report on what you have observed, and the challenge is going to be to write that report in the voice of your character.

At this point I read them several examples that students have written in response to this assignment previously, and let them know that in addition to these models there is an online archive available they could look at later as well.)

Then I told them that what we had just done with the Salinger was a kind of rehearsal for the preparation they were to do next, which was to open The Poisonwood Bible, select a passage in which their character's style of speech and thinking was in evidence, and spend a few minutes making observations about that passage in the same way we had done together with the model passage.

After about five or six minutes, we got ready to leave the classroom. I told them they could take a notebook with them, or not, as they saw fit. I reminded them that to be truly in the spirit of the exercise they would have to stay "in character" from the time the left the room until the time they came back. That means that if you speak to each other, or if one of your friends happens to see you, you're going to have to answer them as your character would, and explain later what was going on. (Yeah, I know, not too likely. But some of the kids do rise to the challenge.) I told them I'd be on the front steps of the classroom building, and would wave when it was time to come in. If they looked over and I wasn't there, they would know they were late.

So then we all went out and spent ten minutes observing. I've done this exercise three times myself already, so I didn't do it again today. But I watched the students doing their thing. When time was up, we all came back to the classroom and I gave them ten minutes to begin writing up their observations, which I told them would be due in writing early next week. Just before they began writing, I projected one more example from the archive and pointed out how the writer had managed to capture both what the character had seen and that character's unique way of thinking and speaking.

This is an exercise that the students seem to enjoy doing, and the writing that results is generally writing that I enjoy reading. I think it's probably adaptable to pretty much any text which has multiple characters, and I like the way it gives the students a variety of things to do during the class period. The exercise gets at some basic reading and writing skills, and gives the students, if they take it seriously, which they generally do, a chance to step out of their own skins for a few minutes and see the world fresh. Not a bad way to end the week.

No comments: