This year, we wrote out an exploded moment instead of just watching one be narrated in a video.
Last Tuesday, I planned an activity for my seventh- and eighth-grade classes that worked so well, I knew I had to share. We exploded a baseball moment.
“Exploding a moment “ is what writing teacher Barry Lane calls it when writers take an important moment from a narrative and approach it like a filmmaker treats an important movie in a film… in slow motion. When we visualize the moment in slow motion and then describe the moment in slow motion, we automatically describe it in such detail that the reader views the event with the same intensity and importance that the writer does.
In the past, I have always shown one of Lane’s videos where he replaces the sentence, “I poured the milk over my cousin’s head and it made a huge mess and milk went everywhere,” with a thoroughly engaging and highly detailed “mind movie” of the milk incident that explodes across a full page or two. We visualize the milk running in rivers down the cousin’s face. We visualize the milk dripping onto the table and then puddling on the floor. We visualize the horrified expression on the cousin’s face as she blinks to keep the milk out of her eyes. Here’s that video, which we watch only to 2:40.
This year, I decided to show another of Lane’s videos where he hits a baseball out of the ballpark. It’s a three-second moment and then it’s over. But then he follows that clip with the same scene in a slow-motion sequence that extends for about one minute.
As I previewed the video, I got the idea to play the slo-mo part in class and stop the video about every five to ten seconds so students could describe what they saw in each snippet.
With a short talk where we recalled the spilled milk video to review what we already knew about “exploding a moment,” we reacquainted ourselves with the concept to use in our “slice of life” essays that students had started the previous day.
Then I played the “baseball video where Lane introduces and discusses using the “explode a moment” technique to describe especially important moments during decisive events in our lives, such as hitting a home run in a championship game.
After the introduction, we watch the slow-mo part and then I ask students to get out a sheet of notebook paper and a pencil or pen. I explain that I will play a short segment of the slow motion portion and then stop it. At that time, they’ll write about what they just saw. And that’s exactly what we did last week.
After about every third snippet, I asked a few kids to share the last two to three sentences they had written. They had fun doing that, plus it was fun to see how different kids described the exact same video.
When we finished the activity (at the 1:39 point), several students shared their writing, which filled the front and back of a sheet of notebook paper. Only a few kids had less than a page. Most of the students couldn’t believe how much they had written.
We discussed how “exploding a moment” in slow-motion helps the readers visualize the story and how sometimes that kind of visualization involves a lot of writing.
Watching the video five to ten seconds at a time takes quite a bit of time. In fact, when I do this again, I’ll adjust my bell-ringer activity at the beginning of class so we end the activity with about twenty minutes left of class so kids actually have time to get out their laptops and work on their drafts.
Last week, when we finished, there was about eight minutes of class left… not quite enough time to get out their slice-of-life drafts in order to apply the technique.
That last eight-minutes of class last week would have been a prime time to share a handout I made the next morning called, “Explode the Right Moment.” I used parts of a book by Gary Provost called 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing.
My handout basically suggests using the “explode a moment” technique judiciously. In other words, choose the right moment to explode.
In any story, there will be only one to two key moments to explode in this way. For example, don’t explode your character’s walk to his car if the walk isn’t important to the story.
Find an important moment and explode that moment only.
Some kids have trouble finding such moments. I let students know I can help them find “explodable” moments if they need help.
Three more key tips I remember from last week:
- Let kids know that, although Lane suggests exploding the big moments of our lives, this technique works equally well with the small, yet important, ordinary moments of our lives. That’s why I think it applies to “slice-of-life” writing especially well.
- Don’t play the video segments over again and again. Perhaps once is fine, but any more than that and kids get the idea that they don’t have to be watching carefully.
- Make sure kids stay “in the moment” for now. Some will be tempted to write about, for example, Aunt Julie watching the home run from the stadium bleachers and dreaming of her former baseball playing days. Encourage students to stay on the field and not to over-invent for now. The point is to describe the hitting of the ball, the build-up before the hit where the pitcher and batter are eyeing each other up, stepping back and forth, taking a few test swings, and all the other tiny worthy details that create a vivid, fleshed-out version of the hit.
I heard probably one or two “That was kinda fun!” comments in each class and I thought about how neat it would be to have other one-minute videos available of some activity done in slow motion. These could be a band walking onto a stage at a concert, the first time seeing a baby sibling, opening a special Christmas present.
Using videos such as these would allow this to be a recurring activity where we could continue to build our skills in seeing the intricacies of a moment in order to write about them fully and completely.
I may even do this activity with my sixth-graders in a couple of weeks as they continue to work on their memoirs. I’ll share about how it works with them when I write about that unit soon.
Thanks for reading! Let me know how you use Barry Lane’s materials in your classes. I have the entire “Barry in a Box” set, but frankly, the DVD set was somewhat disappointing in quality and navigation. I just use what videos I can (such as the two mentioned in this post) by searching for them on Youtube. Follow me for more news from my middle school ELA classroom.