The short story unit in English 2 is one of my treasured favorites, culminating each year with the Big Screen Pitch: an in-class event where students pitch their own original short story ideas to a big-time movie executive (me) willing to invest millions in producing this summer’s next big blockbuster.
While dressed in their best attire—meaning no jeans, T-shirts, or sneakers—these aspiring young screenwriters present their plots, settings, and desired actors on story boards or PowerPoints. The artistic bring in friends to model the costumes. The ambitious create stunningly professional movie trailers. The astute bring brownies, pizza, or popcorn for the class to enjoy during their presentations. Their enthusiasm and creativity are on full display. It truly delights my heart.
Even more so because this particular surge of creativity was hard-earned indeed.
The one type of story that instantly awakens my students’ attention is the milieu (MILL-yoo) story, in which the most important aspect is the setting. This is because milieu stories include the fantasy genre, since the time and place usually have such a deep impact on the characters and culture.
The minute I mention the word “fantasy” in class, the whispers circulate: “Oh, I am going to write about a boy traveling to another dimension and…”, “My character is going to be a superhero from a distant planet who…”, “Mine is going to be in a futuristic society where…”
Then I lower the boom. “This being said,” I declare, “I have only one stipulation for the writing of your own original short stories. No fantasy allowed.”
The room falls silent. Mouths drop open.
“You mean, no time traveling?”
“That’s what I mean.”
“No alternate universes?”
“What about kids with superpowers?”
“Do you know any kids with superpowers?”
This goes on for another five minutes or so before someone finally asks what everyone is already thinking: “So… what are we going to write about?”
So glad they asked. Enter the genre of historical fiction. First, I instruct them to select a country on this planet existing sometime in the known past or present. Next, select a specific year or time period in which this earthly country existed. Now they have a real setting which they can research thoroughly, providing everything they need for a believable backdrop to their story: from the geography and the weather to the laws, customs, beliefs, and fashion. Pay attention during your research, I tell them, and I promise you’ll see your story idea bubble up to the surface.
The results are remarkable and humbling. These students venture into the jungles of Vietnam, the arena of the Roman Colosseum, the crematories at Auschwitz, and hidden rooms during the Siege of Masada. They show me the cherry blossoms of Japan, the mammoth pyramids of Egypt, the dusty trails of Oregon, and the sooty streets of London. I even revisited the unrelenting flames of Bastrop that destroyed my house, courtesy of another student who had also lost his.
With extra rows of chairs to accommodate the crowd of visiting family members, the environment morphs from a classroom into a theater, from an ordinary day into a indelible memory. Two years back, my son narrated his great-grandfather’s story as a French-American pilot shot down over occupied France during World War II, surviving six months in the forests at night and nervously blending into a nearby village overrun with armed Germans by day. It was a tender moment when I saw my own father, whom my son personally invited, struggling to hold back tears.
Perhaps this is why the Big Screen Pitch is so dear to me. It sets safe boundaries and grants complete freedom within them. It allows students to shine and their loved ones to watch. It changes everyone involved.
It encompasses everything I love about being a teacher.