If you can find it, it's a nice development after the activity to look at what Carver did with the line. The first line is "He was running the vacuum cleaner when the telephone rang". However, if you want to simplify it, you can change it to "He was watching TV when the telephone rang." I like this activity because it encourages creativity, in a subtle way.
- Ask the students to work in pairs and to make up a list of as many people as possible who could be telephoning. Give them no more than 3 minutes for this. Some students will look blank and need help, others will immediately launch into a list. If your class contains both types of student (as most classes do!) then you'll need to take a couple of suggestions from the faster students to help the slower ones.
- After the 3 minutes, ask the pairs how many ideas they've come up with, then ask each pair to choose the best, that is, the one that will easily develop into an interesting story. Write these ideas on the board and then get the students to select the best choice.
- Ask a student to choose a letter at random, let's take M for example. Give the students 3 more minutes to come up with another list of callers, all beginning with that letter. At first the students tend to think that this will be too difficult but they usually come up with a good list, for example, mother, mother-in-law, milkman, medical doctor, mad scientist, mathematician, monkey, Mexican, model, Mr Matthews, Mike, mystic, etc. Encourage the students to be as inventive as possible with the letter m, using it as a noun or an adjective or even a phrase.
- Ask the students to decide why the caller is calling. For a change of focus you can do this activity as a whole class. Ask them to agree on one of the callers from the list and then repeat the brainstorming process. For example, if the students choose ‘mad scientist’ write up all the possible reasons he or she could be calling, for example, he would like to buy one of your bothers or sisters for a very high price for research that could save the human race, she meant to call the prime minister to warn of an alien plot, he suspects you might be a superhero and would like you to come down to the lab for tests, she has forgotten her key and wants to know if you can let her in the building etc.
- Finally students need to decide what the person who picks up the phone does in response to the call. Again, for a change of focus students could do this individually as they should be very comfortable with the process and be able to work alone. Ask each student to choose their favourite reason the caller is calling and give them five minutes to note down as many possible endings as they can think of, following the same procedure as in groups and whole class.
- When the time is up get students into small groups to share their work and as a final round up ask a group member to share one of the story endings in open class.
Ask the students to write it up for homework or in class. This should encourage any of your students who say, "But I just don't know what to write!"
Finally, in the actual Carver story the caller is a wrong number. Occasionally a student will suggest this as an idea and it’s nice to say, “That is how the story starts, how do you think it could develop from there?” I think it shows an essay doesn’t have to be about bombs and explosions to be interesting, and shows how spending a few minutes planning means the story almost writes itself.
(Thanks to David Brining for telling me about Raymond Carver.)