Timothy A. Grady
Each of the five strategies listed in this section address one of the five root difficulties students have in creating fiction, and thus align with the five objectives of this unit.
Establishing a Paradigm: Gardner's General Principle
As their is not a clear, simple paradigm one may borrow from psychology, cognitive science, or literary theory about the relationship between how words evoke images, how they interact with abstract ideas, and how all of that integrates into a narrative, it is fitting that we turn to the paradigm offered by a writer, not a scholar. John Gardner's simple, powerful statement, "The important single notion in theory of fiction I have outlined...is that of the vivid and continuous...dream" is enough for the purposes of teaching the craft of fiction, especially in regard to how it evokes image
. Gardner's principle, or "notion" as he calls it, that fiction is essentially a vivid and continuous dream, can act as general, abstract paradigm to present the ideas of this unit to students, ask them to reflect upon, assess and critique each other, and so on. The simplicity of this paradigm avoids the debate of more precise theories while also being more practical to the aspiring writer--it is clear, concise, and adaptable to nearly infinite different situations that might arise in the prose.
For clarity when dealing with students, one additional concept might be added to Gardner: the mental image. All one needs to know is that mental images (the type that arise from fiction) are a "quasi-perceptual experience" in the absence of "appropriate external stimuli"
. In other words, the right language evokes a simulation of real visual experiences in the mind. This is what John Gardner refers to as "vividness".
The Difference Between Reading and Writing: Collaborative, Social Learning
Despite the deficit of experience young writers face in crafting fiction and evoking image, they usually have a wealth of experience in reading/viewing fictional narratives, exploring amongst themselves the relationships between the words and images in those narratives (both made by others and themselves) offers a great opportunity to help heighten the young writers awareness of art as artifice and the readers point of view. Utilizing the classic word-image dichotomy, in a collaborative, social learning environment where students create narratives using words and images, while also reflecting on narratives created by their peers, the unit provides a means to deepening students' awareness of the how words can conjure images. Through comparing and contrasting, combining and deconstructing, their respective exploratory creations, the students gain a means to think about themselves as creators and an awareness of audience. Further, the students begin exploring the idea of technique and effect--that what they do as a creator/writer has specific effects on the audience/reader.
Techniques to Evoke Image Through the Text: McCloud's Classifications
Gardner writes, "we discover that the importance of physical detail is that it creates for us a kind of dream, a rich and vivid play in the mind," but for the aspiring young writer, the question is: how does one present those "physical details" so that they create a "a rich and vivid play".
Again, it would be easy to fall back on old artistic adages like "practice more" or "take risks", but that is obviously insufficient for effective teaching and learning. What the student needs is specific directions and techniques that they can experiment and practice with. Building off the work students will do in this unit by creating narratives with words and images, the classification of word-image combinations laid out by Scott McCloud in
provides an excellent starting point. McCloud outlines seven ways that words and images can be combined in the narrative form of the comic; amazingly, his classification of techniques works equally well with narratives that use only text: The ways McCloud outlines are 1) "word specific", where pictures show what the the text deals with but don't add to it, 2) "picture specific", in which the pictures do most of the work and words are only accents to meaning, 3) "duo-specific", in these combinations words and images both send the same message, 4) "additive", where words amplify the image presented, 5) "parallel" combination that have words presenting one message but pictures presenting something completely different, 6) "montage" combinations that integrate the words into images, and vice-verse, and finally, 7) "interdependent", in these combinations word and images are paired up in such a way that they create a composite meaning that neither one achieves on their own
. With the slight alteration of his word-image combinations to non-imagistic-text paired with mental image, his classifications hold and act as a beginner's tool box of techniques on how to evoke image. The combinations, based on McCloud's work, are by no means complete; they offer a concrete starting point for the beginning writer.
The Need for Continuity When Evoking Image: Peer Critique
Helping students to learn specific ways to use words to evoke image--to achieve "vividness"--is only half the battle. To stay true to the guiding paradigm this unit uses, that fiction is essentially a vivid and continuous dream, it is still necessary to help students develop continuity in the presentation/evocation of mental images in the fictions they create. This unit will use an arts studio-workshop model (as laid out in the next section on Cultivating Artistic Learning), a part of which is regular peer and teacher critique, both at the individual level and class-wide. The students will read and critique their peers work for clarity and continuity. They will approach each with questions such as "what is confusing or vague in the physical details", "where does the images evoked heighten or recede", "how consistent is the evocation of images" and so on. This method, capitalizing on student's various comprehension skills, ferrets out any potential weaknesses in continuity (students become easily lost, bored, or angry when the evocation of image drops off or is confused). It also helps to reinforce the critical distinction in the students' minds between themselves as writers of fiction and readers of fiction.
Cultivating Artistic Learning and Growth: Arts PROPEL Workshop
Though the twentieth century has seen the emergence of a wealth writing programs, most authors continue to learn their craft without discrete curricula. They write, share what they write, succeed or fail, receive criticism, and then write some more--all the while studying the works of other writers. While that seems relatively straight forward, it does not meet the sort of criteria that many curriculum units today demand: a sure-fire progression of operations that any teacher can methodically scaffold, and any student can master, to generate a common output. In response, unfortunately, a number of writing teachers have developed and proposed formulas for students to learn and follow; these formula are nearly always flawed, limiting, and kill much of the inherent joy of creating fiction (and not single highly successful author that I know of ever has anything good to say about them.)
The young writer, unsure of his abilities, uncertain of how to progress, seeks, as John Gardener notes in The Art of Fiction, a set of rules that will insure them success. No such hard and fast rules exist--none that can be absolutely relied on in any case. As soon as one writer tries to make a rule, another finds a way to break it successfully. Writing fiction is not like performing a math operation; each time an aspiring student encounters a mathematical problem requiring summation, he can turn with absolute assurance to the set rules for performing such an operation—not so with writing.
In response to this difficulty of how to train a student to create better fiction via the more skillful evocation of images, this unit will use a studio art format. Though examples are still used and techniques still taught in this model, the format encourages open experimentation and seeks to cultivate the learners' skills through critique. In many ways, the studio format, is a recreation of the master-apprentice method of old where the student learns to appreciate a certain seemingly subjective set of aesthetics and creative principles.
Assessing student performance in the studio format can be difficult, especially because there are subjective aspects to art. This unit will utilize the PROPEL methodology developed by Project Zero at Harvard as a means to accurate assessment. PROPEL focuses on student growth, reflection, and conduct as exemplified through a portfolio created in the process of learning. PROPEL recognizes the subjective nature of artistic creation, but also bolsters contemporary education's need for hard data; the methodology proposes sixteen different dimension by which to measure student growth in an art studio and a portfolio.
In general, PROPEL proposes four major areas that all of its dimensions of measurement and activity fall into:
(the ability of the student to create),
(the student's handle on formal knowledge),
(the facility of the student in thinking about art in general and specific pieces), and
(the affect and behavior of the student when engaging in the learning and work). The activities of a unit run through the PROPEL methodology flow from the four areas it works with: students make drafts or practice a technique (production), students analyze a famous work for literary elements (perception), students critique their own and others work (reflection), and students strive to collaborate and be resourceful (approach).
The structure and sequence of the classroom activities in this unit are based in the PROPEL methodology. There are periods of focused work, critical analysis, peer review and collaboration, and finally, space for students to demonstrate their independence and resourcefulness. Teachers using this unit should establish point scales and rubrics for each of the four areas of PROPEL, and then more refined scales and rubrics for the dimensions that they would like to use in each area. Practical experience using this methodology does offer a few important suggestions.
When using the PROPEL methodology, it is most useful to use small scales, say 1 through 5, to measure both dimensions of measurement and areas of learning. The simpler the rubric attached to each scale, the more likely it will be that students will understand, internalize, and use the measures and rubrics. To help students grasp the complexity involved with all these multiple areas, dimensions, rubrics, and scales, It is extremely useful to have students self-assess themselves with them and to write up explanations of their assessments; likewise, peer scoring is also incredibly powerful.