Making the Mundane Interesting

I tell my students:

I’m going to read a story to you, but there’s a warning: it’s a disturbing story. It’s not suitable for all audiences, and I’ll understand if anyone wants to leave before I begin. Seriously.

Anyone want to leave? No? I don’t want to get any angry emails from your parents about this, ok? Ok.

Everything in this story is based on true events. This is real, it’s horrifying, and it happens every day. I’m going to relate the tale from the perspective of one who experienced it first-hand. Here it is:

We are all transported together, in the dark, packed tightly like animals being led to a slaughterhouse. We are selected, one by one, and taken from the group. This is always done individually. We never go together. Isolating each one of us from the rest of the group is necessary to the process.

You’ll be led to the machine – shining, metallic, imposing…terrifying. Imagine a wall of cold steel rising up before you. Polished, so you can see yourself, mirrored. You’re powerless to stop them. You can’t move. They’ve gripped you so tightly that escape is physically impossible. There are openings on the wall – different sized openings because, of course, we are not all the same size, are we? I suppose they do this to make sure we fit inside just the way they want us to. There is no other way in – and no way out. No exit is needed because no one ever comes out the other end.

You will be placed inside the machine – not entirely at once, no. Just a very small part at first. It’s pitch dark inside as you’re pushed in, up against something cold and metallic. It feels like teeth. Gears. Razor-sharp. Then it begins.

There is a squeal and a shriek as the gears begin to rotate. It’s only a small nick at first, but then the gears chew and grind, tear and shred at you, clawing away tiny slivers of pulp and flesh. As every millimeter of you is ripped and torn and sliced, they force you further into the machine, allowing the gears and teeth to devour you in the most horrific way imaginable.

They do this because they want to expose your insides. They want to see your guts. That’s the purpose. That’s their sick endgame. Every once in a while, the gears will stop, and they’ll pull you, shredded and ripped, from the machine and examine you. If you’re not sufficiently maimed – if you’re not ground up enough for their liking – they’ll put you back and tear your flesh further until you are. Because when the gears have finally torn a certain amount of your flesh, when they’ve ripped enough of your body open to expose your entrails, they’ll pull you from the machine…

…and use you to write an essay.

At the last line, I hold up a pencil. There’s a brief pause before the realization sets in – a collective sigh of relief and a few enlightened “OOOOHHHHH!”s.

This is “Making the Mundane Interesting.”After reading my example, we break down the metaphors in the piece, looking at how each description takes an aspect of a mundane activity – sharpening a pencil – and makes it more interesting through imagery, metaphor, and other figurative language techniques.

The students choose their own mundane activities or objects and create a piece that uses the same narrative and figurative language techniques to create something more interesting. I encourage the students to keep the true nature of the activity hidden until the very end.

“Keep the audience guessing,” I tell them.

I usually introduce this writing assignment in 8th grade. By this time, we’ve discussed narrative techniques, metaphor, and the “Brush Strokes” from Harry Noden’s Image Grammar – all excellent tools to make the assignment more effective. This piece is also a great way to model Common Core language standards for 7th grade (phrases, clauses, sentence structure, coordinate adjectives) and 8th grade (gerunds, participles, infinitives, ellipses) in the context of writing.

This is one of the most popular writing assignments in my class, and it tends to get even the most introverted students to share their work with the group. (:

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