An urban tale

… or the glass elevator

This has been one of my favourite story-writing activities for a long, long time.  My dad first introduced me to it – or the underlying technique – when I was running a creative writing option on a full-time language course in the UK.  He led creative writing workshops for adults writing in their L1.  I’d phone him up and ask to “borrow” ideas.

This particular technique basically brings together a disparate group of people and somehow traps them and forces them to interact.  The story grows out of the tension between the characters.  The device that my dad used with his writers based in rural Wales (and writing in Welsh) was to trap the characters in a snowbound country pub overnight. Each character has their own story, their own reasons for travelling in the snow, different destinations they’re rushing to get to. Slowly each one’s story unfolds through the conversations that take place between the characters.

This is fairly complex as a task. Ideal for a weekend workshop, not so ideal for a two hour class.  I needed to take the basic idea and make it my own.  The location, likewise, was perfect for the courses my dad ran, a familiar backdrop, so easy to picture and easy to describe.  It certainly wasn’t a familiar location for my students, mainly Asian, exclusively city-dwellers, so, inspired by a string of blackouts in major North American and European cities, I created a new backdrop and a new device.

Smith Tower and a hill of skyscrapers, rainy night city: Seattle, from high above on beacon hill, 12th and 13th floors PAC-MED building,, Washington state, USA

image by Wonderlane

Here’s the basic lesson plan. (If it sounds familiar it may be because, when it comes down to it, all stories have been told before or it may be because you’ve seen a version of it in a coursebook. It appeared in the advanced Inside Out student’s book in a unit called Stories ).  Urban worked really well for my class, you may need to think of a new location and device for yours?

1  setting the scene

Ask students to think of a large city that’s familiar to them. Ask them to think of one of the tallest buildings and to imagine they’re somewhere near the top of the building. Ask them to describe what they can see to a partner, starting close by and then opening up to the whole panorama.

2 visualisation

Ask your students to place themselves in the picture you’ve described and take them through this short story:

You have just left a room on one of the top floors of the building. You close the door behind you.  You walk along the corridor to the lift. You press the buttons and wait. The elevator arrives, the doors open and you step in.  It’s a glass lift, on the outside wall of the building.  It’s late evening, the sun has just gone down, all the lights in the city are going on.  You are mesmerised by the view. You don’t notice anything else around you.  Suddenly the lights go out.  Not only in the lift, but across the whole city – only the car lights are still on.The lift bumps to a stop.

Allow a few seconds of silence as everyone bumps to a halt with the lift. Ask them to write down two or three adjectives to describe how they feel.

3  character profiles

Group students in 3s or 4s. Tell them that they are all in the lift together. Working together they create three or four character profiles (one for each student in the group). The four characters must be significantly different from each other in at least one way. They do not know each other. The students must decide why they are in the situation, where they were going, what they’d been doing immediately before and what mood they’re in. (I’ve written about using and creating character profiles here as well).

4  writing stage 1

Each student chooses a character and then describes the moments leading up to entering the lift, the lift setting off and then the power going off from their character’s point of view. They concentrate on the actions and the character’s thoughts.  They write simply and directly,  in the present or past, as they prefer.

Regrouping:  The students read each other’s texts.  They then discuss what happens next. What is each character’s immediate reaction to the situation?

5  writing stage 2

Students return to their texts and describe their character’s reaction to the power cut.

Regrouping: the students read each other’s texts and iron out any discrepancies.

6  final writing stage

Tell the students that the power comes back on. Students describe their character’s reaction.

Final regrouping:  Students read each other’s texts and write a comment at the end of each one.

Throughout all the writing stages I’m at hand to facilitate, help students find the words they’re looking for, craft their sentences – if they want.  And at the end we talk about what they want to do with the finished product.  Sometimes we work with corrections, sometimes we don’t.  Sometimes we publish them, sometimes we don’t.   Each author can decide to do what they want to do with their own story.

What I love about this activity is that the location and actions are so controlled that it frees the students up to concentrate on creating a voice for their character, on choosing the right language to express the thoughts and emotions of the person they’ve chosen to become.  The weight of deciding on the plot has been lifted from their shoulders, and at the end of the lesson they can walk away with a completed short story that they often feel very proud of.

Here’s one a Taiwanese student wrote.  She decided on a non native English speaking character, she said it was because then she wouldn’t need to worry about making mistakes. Very clever 🙂

The Glass Elevator Hsiu Hsin

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26 Responses to An urban tale

  1. Sandy Millin says:

    Hi Ceri,
    Another great lesson plan, as always. I was just thinking that if I ever teach completely coursebook-less, I would never need to plan another lesson with all of the ideas from Twitter / blogs! 🙂
    Your student’s story put a smile on my face too – you can really picture the scene and feel how scared the characters are.

    • Ceri Jones says:

      Hi Sandy,
      I love that story too. She was one of the weakest students linguistically but she really used everything she had – and got lots of praise and recognition from the other students.
      Thanks for taking the time to read it 🙂

  2. annaloseva says:

    Hello Ceri,

    amazing idea to be used in classroom! I like the level of students’ personal creative input, that’s what we should encourage, isn’t it?

    Thank you for the great link you’ve provided me with)


    • Ceri Jones says:

      Thank you, Anna!
      Yes I loved teaching that course. I really learnt about how a simple starting point can lead so far – and the importance of scaffolding and support in generating and creating ideas. And I’m now also a firm believer in the value and importance of writing in any language learning situation.

  3. Anna Pires says:

    How incredibly wonderful that we were both working on the ‘Glass Elevator’ at the same time. Definitely one of my favourite lessons & one of the reasons I love Inside Out.


  4. Guido says:

    I got stuck in a lift the other day. Too bad I was alone.

  5. Ceri says:

    yes, please! but with judicious use of punctuation marks/symbols

  6. This story is new one for me!
    I think the way you changed the setting from the one your father chose is the route I will follow – must think of a more meaningful situation for them. I’m sure many have never been in a high-rise building!

    • Ceri Jones says:

      High rise isn’t really appropriate for my situation either at the moment, but students have a schemata for it from movies and TV. I think most students do. But ideally something that’s nearer to home would probably be better. For me it’d be a cove at high tide maybe, or a beach shack in a sudden summer storm.
      Mmm … must try one of those out soon 🙂
      Thanks for making me push this further!

  7. seburnt says:

    I love the modern (or urban) spin on this wonderful writing activity! I can really see how students would get into it, especially since they are producing the character profiles from scratch themselves. I would love to try it out on some students sometime.

  8. Hi Ceri,

    Awesome! Can’t wait to introduce this to my students! Thank you for sharing and inspiring me; sometimes as a teacher we can get so fixated on preparing students for final exams, that fun ideas get stifled. Will definitely be trying this one out though.

  9. kylieliz says:

    This is a great activity! I love the structure. You can get the students thinking more because they can think about less! Awesome! Hopefully I’ll get a chance to work this into a lesson!

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  12. Hi Ceri

    Loved this post and Hsiu Hsin’s story btw 🙂 What struck me about the story is the extent to which it may well personalise the learners own life and struggles / frustrations with language learning. Firstly the way she decides on a ‘non-native speaking character’, as you point out ‘very clever’. And then in the lift where she feels uncomfortable in not being able to understand and even offer help to the other characters in the lift. Then she points to the circumstances of her having to work as a cleaner and her worries and concerns for her family.

    I was wondering Ceri if you use this sort of writing technique as a means of personalisation of learning in connecting the lives of the learners to their classroom learning? It’s kind of like a role-play but where the learners can go into role but at the same time connect with their rea lives and bring the outside into the classroom.

    I’m so pleased I’ve discovered your blog.

    Best wishes

    • Ceri Jones says:

      Hi Richard,
      Creative writing is such an incredibly rich learning tool. It works on so many different levels. I have never used it as a direct counselling tool as you suggest but it’s fascinating what comes out of these simple, scaffolded tasks where the learners have the freedom to play with who they are and what they want to say. Rewarding for both sides 🙂

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