WITS Voices: Moody Autumn Gourds
November 14, 2018
By Alex Madison, WITS Writer-in-Residence
In honor of the season, I thought I’d share a lesson I’ve taught seventh graders at TOPS K-8 during my two years with Writers in the Schools—it involves strange, bumpy, warped, and moody autumn gourds.
I use these gourds, plucked from the QFC produce section, to teach my students how description can convey personality and mood.
When I brought the gourds into the classroom for the first time, I feared the students wouldn’t find the gourds particularly inspiring. But last year’s students passed the gourds around the room almost reverently, running their fingers over the strange pimply bulges. This year, presented with a new batch of twisted gourds, some of my students bit into them, seemingly in direct response to my suggestion that we not try to convey the sense of “taste” here. (I now have it on good authority that raw gourds sure don’t taste great.)
I asked the students to generate a list of sensory descriptions of the gourds, then I presented them with my own writing, exemplifying how a narrator might describe the gourd differently depending on their mood.
We discussed how, when we write descriptions, we can’t use every possible sensory detail—we have to make choices, and our choices help create tone and reveal character.
Here were my descriptions:
Mood #1, joy and excitement: I have just made a new friend!
The gourd was plump and jolly looking, with skin the color of a late summer sunset. It had silly bulges all over, and cheery orange-green stripes radiating from the center like sun rays. Its neck was an inquisitive dinosaur. It was strange but lovable –– one-of-a-kind and fascinating, just like my new friend. I picked it up and tossed it into the air, light and hollow, bouncing effortlessly.
Mood #2, shame and guilt: I realized I’ve been mean to a friend.
The gourd was hunched and crinkled, with blemishes rising like endless arts all over it. It had a pale orange sheen, like the face of someone who wants to puke. Parts of its skin were pinched in, and it hung its netlike it wanted to hide from the world. When I tried to roll it across the table, it wobbled embarrassingly. It couldn’t even follow a straight line. It couldn’t get anything right.
You might recognize a more classic version of this assignment, which involves describing a lake from the point of view of a man after heartbreak versus after falling in love . . . But we are in seventh grade here, and there is no lake in the classroom. Instead, we have gourds.
My students and I discussed the writing moves I’d made to convey mood, and then we looked at descriptions in some published mentor texts as further exemplars.
This year, my students have been reading Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street, so I paired this lesson with the vignette “My Name,” in which the narrator, Esperanza, declares that her name means “sadness,” “waiting,” “a muddy color,” “the number nine.” We discussed what we learn about the narrator when she compares her name to “songs like sobbing.”
At this point in the lesson, it’s time for my students to write. Last year, I brought in piece of Halloween candy and invited them to describe their candies in a way that revealed a character’s moods.
With apologies to this year’s students, I didn’t bring in candy again. I’d thought that the imaginative possibilities Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup and the Tootsie Roll were too quickly exhausted—no match for my students’ expansive minds. This year, I gave them freedom with a fairly open prompt. I think for my students at this stage in the residency (only my third visit), the openness was too much, and paradoxically stifling. Next time I teach this, I will invite all of my students to describe the same place or idea or object (dare I suggest a gourd?) and enjoy the freedom that can come from creative restraint.
Alex Madison grew up in the Seattle area. She writes fiction and nonfiction and holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her work has appeared in the Harvard Review, Indiana Review,Salon, The Rumpus and elsewhere. She has taught high school language arts in Highline Public Schools, creative nonfiction in Singapore, and fiction writing at the University of Iowa. She also teaches prose classes at Hugo House.