My classroom runs on an unwritten rule: use and celebrate metaphors as much as possible. I’ve used the “driving instructor” metaphor in which I lead the instruction until such a time when I can hand the keys to the students. Oftentimes, a student will confidently ask for the keys (seriously… “Mr. G., I’m ready to drive the car now.”).
During a recent literary analysis essay, the students were the baby birds and I was kicking them out of the nest. It was time to see if they could fly (analyze) without me.
Metaphors demonstrate abstract thinking. They allow for creativity and fun. After a Star Wars marathon over the weekend, one student came into class furious because he can’t not see foreshadowing when he revisits his favorite films. He said, “Mr. G., you used to be like this bird on my shoulder that pointed out foreshadowing. But now, even when the bird isn’t there, I can still hear you. Get out of my head!” We stopped everything to celebrate that image right away.
And all was well until we started to read Elie Wiesel’s Night and a student’s metaphor changed everything I know about creative writing. There is a line in the memoir that reads, “Behind me, an old man fell to the ground. Near him was an SS man, putting a revolver back in its holster.” It’s a fantastic image and it is open to interpretation. Did the old man fall to the ground because he was shot? Or was the old man shot because he fell to the ground? We know he was shot, but we don’t know the order of events. Does Wiesel leave out Act I (getting shot) and only reveal Acts II and III? Or does he begin with Act I (falling), skip the shot, and finish with Act III (replacing the revolver)? As a whole, my students gravitated toward the latter.
I explained that Wiesel gives us the top bun and the bottom bun, but he doesn’t give us the meat. And that was where my metaphor ended…until a voice in the back on the room said, “we have to make our own burger!” Mr. G.: 0. Student: 1. Brilliant.
Make Your Own Burger
The student-created Make Your Own Burger metaphor is, by far, the Metaphor of the Year. It has prompted a new classroom poster as well as an entirely new outlook on how I teach creative writing. The instruction follows the metaphor exactly. Give your students the top bun, give them the bottom bun, and let them make their own burgers. It is prompt-based writing fused with backward planning. Call it Circular Understanding By Design. However you spin it, students start and end together, but their journeys are completely individualized.
I first used this framework with ekphrastic writing. Students were given two photographs, told which was the prompt and which was the goal, and given two minutes to write.
Using Photo 1 as the start of your story, continue writing until your story ends with Photo 2. Utilize both situational irony and tactile imagery in your response. Make your own burger.
Using the two photos above, I saw some wonderfully odd but creative stories.
After Frank snapped the first picture of the baby gorillas, he crouched lower into the tall grass to get a better view. The grass was damp and, as his knee sunk into the mud, he could feel the moisture soaking into his jeans. A large shadow moved behind him, and a hand grabbed his camera.
As Frank turned around, the mother gorilla aimed the camera at him and snapped his picture. She then turned the camera on herself and took the first ever gorilla selfie.
After returning home, Frank was able to sell the gorilla selfie and use the money to pursue his true passion: replacing office objects with potatoes.
- Setting-based writing: use photographs of the same setting taken 10 years apart.
- Character-based writing: use photographs of presidents from their first and last terms.
- Plot-based writing: use two unrelated headlines from a local newspaper, or try the Huffington Post’s collection of odd headlines. I would like to see the results of students starting with “Warning: Dangerous Cupcakes” and ending with “Firefighters Rescue Duck from Lake.”
- Dialogue-based writing: use the first and last lines from your next short story or novel. This is a great opportunity for prediction-making.
By making their own burger, students are given both direction and freedom. Complaints about not knowing where to start are eliminated. Even more refreshing is the fact that students know exactly when and how their stories will end. I didn’t have to contend with the anxiety that comes with a student not knowing what should come next in her story. Not only did I give students the key to the car, but I also told them where they were going.
What I didn’t expect was the students’ excitement when a peer included a detail that they included in their own story (nearly half of my class included a detail about a gorilla selfie). I didn’t plan for it, but students began to analyze each other’s writing. After students shared their responses aloud or with a partner, they began asking questions about why the author made certain choices.
As I look to expand this exercise, I’m wondering what burger making might look like in a more formal setting. Can I give students the same first and last sentences for a rhetorical or literary analysis? Could this be successful with persuasive speeches?
Overall, this is still a working metaphor and a working mindset. It will have to evolve as I try to apply it to new writing assignments and the top and bottom buns will need to become decreasingly connected as my students’ writing becomes more creative. In the end, though, if it builds creativity, it builds writers.
How do you offer both direction and freedom in creative writing? How would your students respond to making their own burgers? You can connect with me on Twitter @MGriesinger or on Facebook at facebook.com/movingwriters.