The Homestead Grays by Addison N. Scurlock
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Ellen E. Hyatt

Photography changes how writing is taught

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Ellen E. Hyatt

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Ellen E. Hyatt, an English teacher at Charleston Southern University and fellow of the National Writing Project, explains how photography can inspire creative writing.

Just as a photograph documents "what we do," a teacher’s response to a photograph helps to teach students how to begin the writing process. A photograph that helps me illustrate what I do during the early steps of the writing process is Addison Scurlock’s “The Homestead Grays.”

An untamed brainstorm of words or brief phrases—whatever comes to mind when I look at this photograph—produces not only the obvious “baseball” and piles of expressions related to the game (bases loaded, fly, two-run homer, three-run inning, pinch-hitter, slugger, kiss it goodbye) but also results in my recalling days of vendors shouting “beer here” at stadiums and crowds breaking into “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”

The brainstorm bounces around to Forbes Field and Negro leagues and community life in Homestead, once a world renown steel mill town in a section Pittsburgh, PA. Eventually serious social issues of race, unemployment, crime, and boarded buildings show up in the brainstorm, ironically alongside strange phrases like “my mother’s glasses and the umpire at Jimmy’s game,” natural wonders like cloud roses, and spearmint gum in my grandfather’s lunch box.

The point is the photograph spurs thoughts and stimulates ideas. In other words, the photograph motivates and inspires writing. And it is through writing that students can learn more about a subject, reflect upon their lives, and express themselves. In this manner, the Scurlock photograph is similar to Mary Oliver’s “world” in her poem “Wild Geese”; it “offers itself to your imagination.”

This process illustrates to the students how—because this one photograph has prompted a plethora of ideas—there is no possibly of writer’s block. Instead, there are all these wonderful “offerings” to choose from, and I am free to decide what I want to write about.

After the incubation period from brainstorming about the photo, a situation emerges. I show students the first draft of an essay. It turns out to be about my dad’s love of baseball and how his devotion to the sport precludes conversations during the broadcast. I, living eight hundred miles from him, have to know the game schedule or else my long-distance calls are futile. When a game is on, he answers the phone, “Game’s on” and hangs up.

I show the students how I think the paper will end: Because my father is approaching ninety, I frequently think about his last years. I am wishing that his final day will be enjoyably spent in his recliner in front of the television and his team will be winning.

Then, the twenty students taking my course begin their writing process and renditions to “The Homestead Grays.” Their five-hundred-word essays will give new meaning to the Chinese proverb, “One picture is worth 10,000 words.”

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