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Teaching Guide

Teaching An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

Twist and shout.

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Before M. Night Shyamalan reinvented the twist ending, Ambrose Bierce popularized it with this shocking short story. But unlike a Shyamalan film where the twist ending is pretty much all there is to it, this story has so much more.

Unfortunately, one thing it has more of is…boredom. But that's why we're here: to turn those long stretches of seemingly endless description into something a little more tangible.

In this guide you will find

  • quizzes to guide students toward important parts of the story before their eyes start to glaze over.
  • assignments with a twist to help students visualize the setting.
  • modern connections straight out of The Twilight Zone.

And much, much more.

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  • 13-18 Common Core-aligned activities to complete in class with your students, including detailed instructions for you and your students. 
  • Discussion and essay questions for all levels of students.
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Instructions for You

Objective: Believe it or not, this activity is going to help your students appreciate (yeah, we said it) all of that lengthy description Bierce uses to set his scenes. Often, when tasked with reading an image-heavy text, students say things like, "Why can't he just get to the point?" We know. We've heard them. Plus, we remember what it was like to be a student reading an image-heavy text. Oh, we love it now, but then? If we had an emoticon for shudder, we'd put it here.

Anyway, in this activity, students will use Bierce's ample imagery to visualize the scenes and translate all that description into film-ready sets, costumes, or storyboard art, which will give them not only a better grasp of the imagery itself, but also a better appreciation for its thoroughness and purpose.

This activity should be done after students have read and discussed the story. It can be assigned in class and completed through a combination of class work and homework. Students will need at least a week to complete the whole project, but probably not longer than two. So, altogether, spread out over the course of 1-2 weeks, this activity should take 3-5 class periods: 1 class period to assign, discuss, and get started; 1-2 class periods as "work sessions;" and 1-2 class periods for students to present their work.

Materials Needed:

  • Text of An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge
  • Computers with online access 
  • Art supplies (pens, pencils, markers, and paper/posterboard; more sophisticated supplies for some students)*

*You can supply minimal art supplies for in-class work sessions (or perhaps schedule a few work sessions in your school's art room, if it is available). If students choose to pursue more sophisticated avenues with their work, they can be responsible for finding their own materials.

Step 1: We're sure your students noticed (and complained about) how descriptive Bierce's writing style is. We get paragraphs and paragraphs on the military procedure, the bridge, Farquhar's appearance, and the sensation of being hanged, right down to the most minute detail. Bierce's style is likely to leave your students wondering, "Is all this really necessary? What's the point?" Well, those sound like perfect questions for the students to answer themselves, so let's get down to it. Start by having students brainstorm a list of especially descriptive passages. We've got a few clues for you on our writing style page.

Step 2: This is students' chance to break into film—not as an actor, but as one of the behind the scenes artists who makes the world of film possible. Their job will be to help a major motion picture production company (isn't that a fun phrase?) create a modern film version of An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. Each student will choose to work as a set designer, costume designer, or storyboard artist. Check out the descriptions and examples for each role below to help students decide which project they'd like to take on.

Step 3: Once students select their roles, they'll use those pesky descriptive passages we discussed in step one to design sets, costumes, or storyboards in order to bring the story to life on film. Another option would be to put students in teams with one set designer, one costume designer, and one storyboard artist and have them work together to design all the aspects of the story.

We recommend giving students some time in class to work on their projects (especially if they are working in groups), but stress that they will also need to complete some of the work at home. You can decide if you want to require actual models of sets and costumes, or if students will create posters or digital projects instead.

Step 4: Okay, full disclosure: It's show biz with a fair amount of literary scholarship mixed in. We can't be all Hollywood at Shmoop—though if wishing made it so… right, back to literature. Along with their artistic projects, students should write a one-page explanation that provides text evidence for their choices and discusses how their projects reflect the descriptions in the text. In these reflections, students should also consider the big question we started with: What's the purpose of Bierce's writing style? (Hint: It's NOT to make the process of turning the story into a movie easier.)

Step 5: Presentations! You have a few options here: Students can give traditional oral report style presentations either individually or in small groups. You could also set up science fair-like booth displays and allow half the class to man their booths while the other half walks around and then switch. Or you can come up with your own brilliant presentation style. However students present their work, when all is said and done, take some time to revisit the purpose of all of this with a few follow-up questions. You can address these in discussion or through a written reflection or more traditional essay:

  • After completing your own project and seeing everyone else's, do you have a better picture of what happens in the story, and how it might look on film?
  • Everyone was interpreting the same story here—everyone was working with the same images, yet there were still differences between individual presentations. Why do you think that is?
  • Do we need all these descriptions and detail? What would be missing from the text if Bierce was less detailed? How would our experience of the story change?
  • What do you think is the purpose of such a descriptive style? Consider the way time works in the story and the surprise ending. Why is this style right for this particular story?

Instructions for Your Students

Yeah, yeah, we know: Description is so boring! And this story is a doozy of a descriptive text. We feel you. We really do.

But hang on; imagine, for a moment, that you're a director reading over a screenplay. The way the writer of that screenplay has set the scene is going to be very important. It will determine whether you blow your budget on special effects à la Star Wars or if you have to import fourteen buffalo to an island off the coast of California so you can make it look more like the Old West.

The point is that when you're trying to figure out the visuals—how something should look on screen or stage or television—all that descriptive detail becomes crazy-important. Essential even. In this activity, you will use Bierce's ample imagery to visualize the scenes and translate all that description into film-ready sets, costumes, or storyboard art. Once you've plowed through the imagery as a Hollywood artist, we'll reassess Bierce's style to try and better understand his purpose with all this detail.

Step 1: We're sure you noticed (and complained about) how descriptive Bierce's writing style is. We get paragraphs and paragraphs on the military procedure, the bridge, Farquhar's appearance, and the sensation of being hanged, right down to the most minute detail. And we know you're wondering, "Is all this really necessary? What's the point?" Well, those sound like perfect questions for you to answer yourselves (it's the old turn-your-questions-into-a-lesson trick), so let's get down to it.

We'll start by brainstorming a list of especially descriptive passages. Remember those parts where you were like, "Alright already, get on with it!" Those. We've got a few clues for you on our writing style page.

Step 2: Ready for a new career? Hope so, because you've just been hired by a major motion picture production company to help create a modern film version of An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. (What can we say? This story never gets old.) You're responsible for helping to stage the scenes—to bring them visually to life—which you can do as a set designer, costume designer, or storyboard artist. Check out the descriptions and examples for each role below to help you decide which project you'd like to take on.

Step 3: Once you select your roles, you'll use those pesky descriptive passages we discussed in Step 1 to design sets, costumes, or storyboards in order to bring the story to life on film.

Think things through for a moment (hint: this is pretty much always a useful step to take before plunging in). What you do next will depend on which role you chose:

  • If you're working as a set designer, you'll want to come up with an overall look for the story—how the landscape will appear, what kinds of props will be needed, what time of day it is, what the weather should be like, etc.
  • If you're going to be a costume designer, you'll want to figure out what everyone in the story should be wearing. What do the soldiers' uniforms look like? How is Peyton Farquhar dressed? What about his wife and the scout in Part II? How will the sergeant's uniform be different from the captain's and those of the sentinels?
  • As a storyboard artist, you'll need to draw out several frames, comic book style, to represent the major action of the story. Your visuals will help the director figure out how to shoot the action, where close-ups might be necessary, or where it might be better to shoot from a wide angle to get the big picture.

Once you've done a bit of planning, break out the markers, the colored pencils, your favorite graphic design software, the sewing machine, the knitting needles, the Plaster of Paris and Papier Mache—whatever you need to create your sets, costumes, or storyboards.

  • Set Designers: Use your old Playmobil or Fischer Price landscapes to create set models. Grab some clay and sculpt the bridge and trees. Build with LEGOs. Sketch or paint your scenes. Put that origami class you took last year to good use.
  • Costume Designers: Sew doll-sized costumes for multiple characters or sketch out several and sew a life-sized costume for one. Make paper dolls or draw costume patterns on posterboard. Put all of your finished drawings in a notebook or portfolio to make it look professional. Glue fabric swatches and accessories to a presentation board, make a collage.
  • Storyboard Artists: Use charcoal or colored pencils, oil pastels or watercolors. Put that 64-count box of Crayolas to work. Cut up old comics or magazines to create new panels, collage style. Use your favorite design software. Cut, paste, print.

Whatever approach you decide to take, have fun with it. And give yourself enough time to make it excellent. It will be more fun for everyone that way (including you).

Step 4: Okay, full disclosure: This is show biz with a fair amount of literary scholarship mixed in. We can't be all Hollywood at Shmoop—though if wishing made it so… right, back to literature. Along with your artistic projects, you will write a one-page explanation that provides text evidence for your choices and discusses how your projects reflect the descriptions in the text. In these reflections, you should also consider the big question we started with: What's the purpose of Bierce's writing style? (Hint: It's NOT to make the process of turning the story into a movie easier.)

Step 5: Presentations! Whether you're presenting oral report style, standing up in front of the class, or booth style, like at a science fair, be sure your visuals are ready to go. Think about how you'll display your projects, what you want people to know about them, and what you'll need (signs? text descriptions? index cards? clothes hangers? an easel?) to present everything as clearly and cleverly as possible.

When all is said and done, we'll try to figure out the purpose of all this description with a few follow-up questions:

  • After completing your own project and seeing everyone else's, do you have a better picture of what happens in the story, and how it might look on film?
  • Everyone was interpreting the same story here—everyone was working with the same images, yet there were still differences between individual presentations. Why do you think that is?
  • Do we need all these descriptions and detail? What would be missing from the text if Bierce was less detailed? How would our experience of the story change?
  • What do you think is the purpose of such a descriptive style? Consider the way time works in the story and the surprise ending. Why is this style right for this particular story?

WANT MORE HELP TEACHING AN OCCURRENCE AT OWL CREEK BRIDGE?

Check out all the different parts of our corresponding learning guide.

Intro    Summary    Themes    Quotes    Characters    Analysis    Questions    Best of the Web    Write Essay    
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