Picture A Box – Helping Year 9 Write Historical Narrative

“Picture a box. It’s made of wood. Maybe pine. It’s simple. Three feet long, two feet wide, two-and-a-half feet deep and open at the top. Now picture yourself climbing inside. Sit down. Feel the wood against your back. Run your fingers along the rough surface of the boards. Maybe you have to hug your knees to your chest just to fit inside. Picture someone closing the box. Nailing it shut. Picture the darkness.”

This the beginning of an episode of a wonderful podcast called The Memory Palace (1) by the writer Nate DiMeo. It is a collection of short historical vignettes mostly taken from 19th- and 20th-century American history: some are big important stories; some are small personal stories; some are famous; many are obscure. His calm, inviting delivery, so closely mic’d, is laid over subtle and beguiling music beds to give the whole thing a charm and an intimacy that makes it feel very special.

And it is always brilliantly, brilliantly written.

Because you’re hooked. Straightaway. You want to know what happens next. What is the box for? Why are we getting in it? What will happen next?

What happens next is that DiMeo tells us the story of Henry ‘Box’ Brown(2), a man born into slavery in 1815 who escaped from the American South to freedom by having himself shut in a box and posted to freedom in Philadelphia.

Brown’s story is remarkable on its own but, by introducing it to Year 9 through DiMeo’s telling, it can used to help them construct their own historical narratives. In the process, helping them bump into ideas about historical research, the limits of historical knowledge, writing with doubt and writing with an audience in mind.

A Bit of Background

I have often struggled with homework, particularly at Key Stage 3. It is obviously important: we don’t have the curriculum time to do everything that we need to do in lessons, it helps students develop good working habits and it increases parental involvement in their child’s historical studies. However, it is really hard to do right. Bits of ‘finishing off’ unfairly punish those who need most help and/or work the slowest while, at the same time, removing any opportunity for challenge for the most able. It also suggests that learning history outside of the classroom is some sort of punishment. If the task is too small or too easy, it is a waste of time. If a task is too big, the conscientious will drown in it and everyone else will give up or turn in perfunctory or slap-dash work that is not worth your time marking.

Then there is issue of where homework sits vis-à-vis the in-class curriculum. If you use homework tasks that are about the topic you are teaching you can cause yourself all kinds of problems: ill-defined research tasks can lead to more misconceptions than are helpful and can de-rail a carefully planned lesson; tasks that ‘pre-teach’ or ‘flip’ a lesson create chaos when they are not completed by all students leaving the uninterested, the disadvantaged and the unwell excluded from your lesson; and staff-created quizzes or set-tasks are great but incredibly time-consuming.

To address these issues, we often set homework as ‘projects’ that (sometimes) run alongside the taught curriculum. One such, is a family history research project where students are asked to find a story from their family’s history that is worth telling.(3)

But what to do with these stories? How can we turn a bit or research into actual history? And what other things can we teach at the same time?

The First Homework

Without giving away what they are going to be asked to do with it, students are asked to find a story from their family’s history ‘that is worth telling’. We emphasise that it doesn’t have to be a ‘big’ story about war and heroism (although that is great) but can be a small, personal story.

On the day that it is due, the following lesson takes place…

The Memory Palace

The lesson starts with the story.

With the minimum of background information, we play the students the ‘Picture A Box’ episode of The Memory Palace asking them to write down as many details as they can. (This is partly to try and ensure focus, but also to help them see how DiMeo does his story-telling tricks.)

We pause the audio sparingly; we don’t want to break the spell that is being cast. Most of the time, this is just to give students time to make some notes. However, there are a couple of times when a few ideas might need to be elucidated. For example, near the start, DiMeo describes Brown as having a wave of hair ‘like Frederick Douglass, when he was young.’ This image is not familiar to most of our students and needs an illustration. (4)

At the end, we ask students to tell the person sitting next to them what the story was about.

When this question is then asked again from the front it serves a dual purpose. First, it is a recall exercise and a comprehension check but also it helps draw out the way in which DiMeo tells us one story, that of Henry Brown, in order to make us think about a wider issue – the question of what freedom means. This revelation can happen naturally but often requires a prompt question such as: “The story concerns Henry Brown, but what is it really about?” or “What would your English teacher say this is about?” or “What does Nate DiMeo want us to think about, other than Henry Brown?”

Once we have established that this story is resonant of a wider theme (5), we can on to think about how DiMeo goes about telling us the story. The next question is either: “What is the most important part of the story?” or “Where does Nate DiMeo start telling the story? Why?”

The most important part of the story is the escape from slavery. It is the box. We know this because he starts with the box. The ‘picture a box’ line isn’t just a beautiful oblique ISM (6), it is also the crucial turning point in Brown’s life. The box marks the transition from one part of his life to another; from slavery to freedom.

However, DiMeo is too clever to just use that image once. He hooks us in with the description of the box but, immediately, drags us back in time to Brown’s birth and early life. We learn about his belief in the importance of love deal that leads him to do a deal with his ‘good’ master that, if he was allowed to marry, he would work hard for the rest of his life in return for a promise that he and his wife wouldn’t be separated. We learn of that master’s death and the betrayal of that promise by his new, more callous, owner. We stand with Brown as he watches his wife and children disappear. We hear about his plan to escape with the help of a, ‘man named “Smith”, who knew another man named “Smith”, who knew a man in the north who would help Henry Brown.’ We hear how he stuck his finger in sulphuric acid to give himself an injury that would allow him a small time off work in order to make his escape.

And then we taken back to the box. DiMeo almost repeats his description from the opening of the story but this time the narrative carries on forwards with Brown enduring a torturous journey to the north.

But that is not the last time DiMeo will use this idea – it will come back again.

Brown starts a career as a speaker at abolitionist meetings, telling his remarkable story. This, according to DiMeo, provoked ire from Frederick Douglass, because Brown’s drawing attention to his escape closed down that same route of escape for others.

DiMeo then tells us: “And then Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act and Brown was not only a fugitive slave, who could be legally kidnapped and taken back to his owner in Virginia, he was a famous fugitive slave.”

It is good to ask the students if they know what the Fugitive Slave Act was before playing then those few seconds again. We use this to point out that DiMeo expects us to understand many things about slavery, American geography and history but he doesn’t expect us to know about the Fugitive Slave Act. However, he doesn’t let this get in the way of his story. He tells us everything we need to know in one subordinate clause: “who could be legally kidnapped and taken back to his owner in Virginia”.

Brown is forced to flee to Europe where he and ‘Smith’ tour Britain and Ireland with the box telling their story. The success of the show meant that Brown had enough money to buy the freedom of his wife and children but Brown chooses not to go – ‘Henry Brown was a free man, and he was free to choose.’ (‘What would your English teacher say this is about?’)

When Brown returns to America he has a new wife and another child. He performed as a stage magician. One of his tricks involved disappearing from the stage through a box…

‘Picture a box…’

At this point, it is worth making more of that phrase. DiMeo can’t know every detail of the story he is telling. However, he can still write effectively and historically by inviting us ‘picture’ the box. There are many occasions where he asks us to imagine something. In this way, he is able to convey an image and emotion without making claims he cannot wholly verify. It’s a hell of a technique.

At the end of this lesson, having allowed the students to marvel at DiMeo’s mastery, having encouraged them to think about how effective the recursion of box is, having helped them see the ‘bigger theme’ of freedom, having shown them how DiMeo so causally shares his historical knowledge, we reveal that their task will be to turn their family history story into one in the style of Nate DiMeo.

Students are invited to think about a number of things:

  • What is the ‘bigger theme’ of their story? (Love, friendship, betrayal, the way information is lost over time, the fragility of memory…)
  • What is the most important event in their story? (In other words, where should the story start?)
  • What contextual information do they (and the listener) need to know for the story to make sense? (What is their ‘Fugitive Slave Act’?)

Providing answers to these question is their second homework. (7)

The Third Homework

Students research more of their story and/or the historical context and submit it as the second homework. This is then fed-back upon. (I use MP3 feedback because I speak more quickly than I write and typing just involves printing or emailing which is a pain.) This is the point that a teacher can remind the student of all of the techniques that were discussed in lessons and try and help them write their particular story.

The third homework is for them to record an MP3 of their story with, if they can manage it, musical beds like those used in The Memory Palace.

We don’t give much guidance on the technicalities of this. Partly because there is such a plethora of recording and editing software out there for a multitude of platforms, it would be futile for us to insist upon Audacity/Garageband/Voice Record Pro… but also because learning how to solve technical issues in the age of the internet is something that they should do anyway.

The Results?

Have been stunning.

This year I have had submitted some of the best homework in 15 years of teaching. Students have combined great story-telling with historical research. They have thought about the audience for their narratives and they have considered how they can write about things they do not know without failing to tell a story.

I would share them here but, given how reluctant they have been about sharing them with other people, I haven’t even asked.

Thank you, Nate DiMeo!


(1) The words are DiMeo’s but, as I transcribed it, the grammatical choices are mine. If there are mistakes or you have a quibble, it is my fault not his.

(2) Do yourself a favour and listen to the episode before you read my ham-fisted account.

(3) For those for whom this is difficult, teachers are encouraged to have a few examples of interesting famous people’s stories that would do as a stand-in: Douglas Bader, Harriet Tubman, Walter Tull, people from the local war memorial…

(4) At this point, students have studied a bit of c.19th US history.

(5) ‘Resonant’ in a ‘Christine Counsell 5Rs‘ sort of way.

(6) See https://www.history.org.uk/secondary/resource/30/making-history-curious-using-initial-stimulus-mat for explication of oblique ISMs.

(7) To be honest, I have juggled these tasks in many different ways. This represents what I think has been the most effective order so far.

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