Today’s class was focused on observation.
One of the most important qualities for writers to have is a keen sense of what’s happening around them. Meg, in her beautiful post about her self-identification as a writer, tells us that she pays attention. She notices things – sometimes big, obvious things, sometimes just little details – and is able to turn those experiences into words. All of the really good writers I know (and I know quite a few) all share that ability to really see. They listen, they watch, and more than that, they think about what the things they see and hear (and smell and touch and taste) mean to them – or what they might mean to others.
I started today’s class by asking students to write for five or ten minutes about the first thing they notice about a person, and what that thing can or cannot tell them about that person. Several students struggled with the assignment – most of them are not used to being meta-cognitive – and it took them a while to get going with it. Truth be told, most of them figured out what they wanted to say after they decided that they didn’t have anything to write about – all the really good work was done in discussion, but I’m okay with that.
They turned that piece of writing in to me, and then we started talking about observation. What does it mean to see something? What kinds of things do you notice, and what may escape you that you might find helpful? What kinds of things do you think other people notice about you, and do those things tell others something about what kind of person you are? Do you ever people-watch? I asked my photography students to tell us about composing a shot; what’s worth burning an exposure for? Do they ever find something in their photographs after developing them (or loading them on their computers) that they didn’t realize was there when they took the picture? It was a really good conversation, and I drew nearly everyone into it.
Once we’d finished there, I threw some pictures up on the screen for them to see. The first was of a young man dressed in a black hoodie looking straight into the camera with a slight smile on his face. The second was of this picture, and the third was a close-up of an autumn leaf, chewed through by something, through which we could see more fall colors and a vast expanse of sky. I gave them each a moment or two to look at the pictures, then three minutes to write everything they could about them. When we were done, they talked about the things that they saw and it was wonderful to see them help each other through the pictures (“You said the boy looked friendly – where do you see that?” or “You think the dead guy is an American?! WHY?!”).
The real fun, though, started when I gave them this picture…
Last year, I did a unit on the literature of the Holocaust with my high school freshmen. We read Night and essays from Vierling; we watched Nuremberg and parts of Schindler’s List (because it’s just too horrible to watch in its entirety: though I think everyone SHOULD, I’m not sure that everyone should in high school..). Toward the end of the unit, I showed my students this painting by Samuel Bak and it was, perhaps, the most successful lesson I’d ever done. Until today.
There’s something about the depth of imagery in these paintings that just sucks people in, and my class was no exception. I hooked ALL of them – every last recalcitrant one – with this exercise. There’s SO much to see in Bak’s paintings, and even if one doesn’t immediately associate the images with the Holocaust (only one of my students made the leap, and then only hesitantly), the works tend to leave people with a creeping sense of being ill at ease, that something’s not quite right, but it’s hard to say exactly what that something is.
Watching my students work their way through this painting was so satisfying to me as a teacher. They abandoned their “I see angels” “I see a violin” easy stuff and really dug into what it was they were actually LOOKING at. They noticed tiny things (“is that a machine attached to the guy on the left?”) and they questioned what the images meant. Like I said, only one girl came close to making the connection to the Holocaust, but I’m not entirely sure that was important. They were really seeing, and were exited by the implications of what they saw.
If you teach English, or history, or art or psychology or ANYTHING that you can work the paintings of Samuel Bak into your curriculum, I highly recommend you do so. You will not be disappointed.
I never have been.