I thought it would be a good idea to give my middle school students a prompt that would force them to use descriptive techniques.
First, we discussed what devices they might use, and they suggested the usual – the figures of speech often mentioned in their grammar books – simile, metaphor, and personification. Another group of kids suggested incorporating the senses: sound, sight, smell, taste, and touch.
We were on a roll. I urged them to think of more ideas that would help them “show not tell,” and after some consideration, one child offered selecting the most appropriate point of view, and we discussed how stories change when told from third person or first person POV.
It was only then that I gave them their prompt – they were to write about their most embarrassing moment. We brainstormed a few ideas, and they giggled at some of mine. I gave them a timeline for this writing project and what components they needed to include for grades, and they set off to work.
They prewrote and drafted. They advised and critiqued each other’s work. They revised and polished into a final draft. I assigned grades throughout each step of the process, but now it was my turn to grade the final product.
One girl wrote about stepping off the school bus and finding her boyfriend’s legs sticking out from under his car. Since he was either changing the oil or tightening a bolt and could not defend himself, she thought it funny to unzip his jeans and open his fly before running into the house. Imagine her embarrassment when she found her boyfriend in the kitchen helping himself to a soda, and his best friend walked in from outside, bewildered and zipping his pants.
Another middle schooler wrote about running to his mother’s rescue when he heard her screaming bloody murder in her bedroom (there had been a lot of break-ins in the neighborhood lately) only to find mom having noisy sex with her new boyfriend.
A third child (remember these were eighth graders) recounted in full descriptive detail the “talk” her mom gave her about puberty. What should have been a memorable mother-daughter moment, ended up sounding like x-rated baby talk since Mom couldn’t bring herself to use the correct anatomical names for the body parts.
I obviously had not explained the prompt correctly. All three of these descriptive papers could get the students expelled from school and me fired from teaching.
I consulted with the principal and we discussed the phenomenon of unintended consequences. I counseled with the individual students and told them they would get grades according to the rubric for all their work, but their stories were inappropriate for the classroom. I met with the parents and explained what had happened and gave them the students’ papers. They could decide what to do with the stories.
I used the prompt again the following year, but this time I approached it with caution. I did not tell them about the previous year, but I explained that not all embarrassing moments need to be documented in 8th grade English class. They were to choose something appropriate that could be read aloud to the class and could be shown to their parents and the principal.
The students wrote about safe subjects – tripping, falling, running into things. The work was a lot tamer. Some were funny; some were clever, and the prompt achieved what it was supposed to achieve – the children practiced using several descriptive devices
But between you and me, I don’t remember any of them. I only remember that memorable first crop of uncensored naughty stories.