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Douglas von Hollen
Objectives and Strategies
- Why use the short story?
- Why use contemporary literature?
- Why use women authors?
- Checking for Prior Knowledge
- Initial Lesson
- Introducing Basic Terms
- Narrators and Gender
- Role Models
- Homework and Independent Study
- Teaching Plot
- Discussing Plot
- Cooperative Learning
Lessons and Activities
Terms and Vocabulary
____In this unit I explain the specific benefits and advantages to teaching components of the short story and other literary terms while using a selection of contemporary texts representing a wide variety of women writers. There are several advantages to benefit from by using this combination of material. Some side effects may seem apparent while others do not. Specific advantages lie in using short stories, contemporary literature, and the writing of women.
____As I suggested before, when reading short stories our students are confronted with a less daunting task to complete. I think all would agree that many adults remain today intimidated by the mere size of big thick books with hundreds of pages. Our students too are often intimidated by the size of many novels. When offered smaller less imposing stories or sets of stories to read, students will feel more that they already have the skill and time to handle the expectations. When they are given novels in September, many feel overwhelmed and quickly begin slipping behind. The short story offers us a genre that students perceive as accessible and compatible with their busy lives. After all, they can be read in a short time.
____For these reasons I have chosen to produce a unit designed to teach the basic structural components of the short story using samples of contemporary writings by women of diverse cultures and styles. In the course of the unit, many literary terms will also be taught. A list of those terms and descriptions follows. Depending on grade level and skill, this list of terms can either be reduced or expanded. The stories which I have selected to use also can be altered or substituted to suit the needs of any particular class. What remains essential is to search out texts that will entice and engage the interest and participation of the students. Survey your students to keep track of what they are interested in. Ask them which stories they had fun reading, and reuse them; the ones they did not like, stop using. Also keep in mind that these components and terms need to be presented to students in a fashion that helps to ensure their success not only at the end of this unit, but at the end of this year and the end of their senior year as well.
Very often children who already understand a concept have a more productive time explaining those concepts to their peers in a more intimate setting. This is a legitimate form of cooperative learning. If you have students in the class who can teach others what you want them to master, let them help, in many cases they will also benefit. They will benefit by practicing and reinforcing their knowledge on the subject, and questions they are presented with from their “student peer” will help them identify gaps in their understanding which they might not have perceived previously.
Once prior knowledge is established, begin with a short short story which can be read and discussed within the remaining class time. I plan to use the vignettes “Hairs” and “My Name” from Sandra Cisneros’ book The House on Mango Street. These two very short stories contain strong character descriptions in the first person. At this point I focus on just a couple terms and concepts. It is important to only offer students one or two potentially confusing ideas in each lesson. For example, if the majority of a class does not recall what the differences are between first and third person point of view, they must have a solid understanding of those terms before they are expected to learn and comprehend the differences between “omniscient” and “limited points of view.” However, if the instructor and the majority of the class is already confident of their comprehension of those first and third person distinctions, then terms like “omniscient” and “limited point of view” can be introduced to the students immediately. “Hairs” also has several examples of metaphor and simile which could be introduced if a class is ready to jump right in. “My Name” also raises the issue of the significance of names of both fictional characters and people. This is a theme I return to frequently in my class: what does a character or a person’s name suggest about that individual, if anything?
Introducing Basic Terms
A good set of terms to begin the first lesson with are character, narrator, setting, and point of view. Students usually have some familiarity with these terms, but it is necessary that they become confident in using these words before moving on to plot. For this part of the unit I plan to use some more selections from The House on Mango Street. This book is composed of a series of what are short and loosely connected vignettes from the perspective of a Mexican-American girl. These vignettes are easy to read through and offer examples of everyday events as literary material for example riding a bike in the city. I also anticipate using Gwedolyn Brooks’s “spring landscape: detail” from her book Maud Martha to illustrate description of setting. If students cannot explain the differences between the narrator, main character, and secondary characters, it will make later discussion of theme, conflict, and characterization much more confusing for students and teacher alike. As stated above, if a higher grade level class already has a greater knowledge of these terms, then more specific terms relating to point of view can be introduced earlier. Generally, I hold terms like “omniscient” and “limited point of view” until later in the unit when students feel confident with their understanding several less imposing words. These selections by Cisneros and Brooks will also serve as models for student writing at the end of the unit.
Narrators and Gender
To address the specific focus of this unit, women writers, I will use a brief text which can be read in ten minutes. Select a text that does not overtly suggest the narrator is a woman. Furthermore, the story should have a dominant narrator/character whose gender may be male or female. I suggest Grace Paley’s “Mother.” The purpose in this is to begin addressing potential assumptions and stereotypes which students may hold regarding the writing of women. After reading the story in class, check for understanding in respect to who the narrator is, which point of view is being used, and who the characters are. Once this discussion is finalized, ask students to respond to the question/prompt “Was this story written by a man or a woman, and what makes you come to that conclusion?” Allow students to write for five to ten minutes in their personal journals. Student responses should offer a good indication of what students may consider as typical male or female writing. One of the goals of this unit is to dispel those assumptions. For that reason, it is important to begin this discussion on what women write about from the first lesson. This way, students will be more likely to focus their attention on the similarities and differences between the stories by different women that they will read over the course of several weeks. Regardless of which texts are selected for use in class, questions about student expectations from women writers should be brought up regularly.
Another theme of my unit will be the introduction of positive role models in the literature we read in class. As I mentioned earlier, it is important for young readers to see examples of superior women’s writing. All of the stories I will read with class obviously can be considered examples of great writing by women authors. I expect that this alone will inspire some of the young writers I have in my classes to recognize that they too, regardless of their ethnic or social/economic background, have the capacity to be authors themselves. This might seem like a high expectation. However, if only one student finishes the year with an urge and a firm belief in herself as a potential writer, I could ask for little else. My hope is that each year several young writers will leave my classroom with confidence in their ability to communicate both in the written and the spoken word. Regardless of the style of writing students choose to practice, whether it be fictional or non-fictional, prose or poetry, if students leave the course with a invigorated belief in their own abilities to succeed, then the time spent in the English class was productive and beneficial to their growth and development as individuals.
____In addition to presenting my class with strong role models who are writers, I also intend to present them with characters who are models of independence and who are in control of their own destinies. I plan to use two stories by Charolotte Perkins Gilman to specifically address this topic during the unit. One of the stories is “Deserted.” This story describes a woman who does all the stereotypical “housework” for her family and also takes care of her husband’s financial concerns. Because of her husband’s personal debts, she ultimately leaves him, taking their children and all their assets, informing him that if he mends his ways she will gladly inform him where she is with the children and welcome him back. The final line of the story, “It made a new man of him” suggests that her choice of actions where successful.
The other Gilman story I intend on using is “Five Girls.” This tale concerns five educated women who decide to always stay together and not allow love relationships to separate them. By the story’s end, it becomes apparent that they have fallen in love over time and become wives and mothers; however, they have stood by their convictions and required their husbands to move into the house they all occupy together where additions are made on the house to accommodate the growing families. The importance of both these stories is they show female characters who are successful working professionals who refuse to compromise their original convictions for the desires or conveniences of their husbands.
Homework and Independent Study
After the first lessons, students should be sent home with another brief short story to read independently. This will be a student responsibility three to five nights per week, depending on class needs and abilities. While answering comprehension questions they should also be required to identify all the components the class has covered thus far. For example, they should identify the point of view as completely as their knowledge allows. This means it is not necessary for all students in one class to do identical work. Although the majority of the class may be asked only to identify the narrator, characters, and first or third person point of view, more advanced students should be pushed to label a protagonist and antagonist in the story. From the first day they can be expected to identify “first” or “third person” narrative, or, if the class is more advanced, the limit or omniscience of the narrator’s point of view. These expectations should be consistent though out the course of the unit.
As new terms are added to the students’ vocabularies, they need to be expected to use all the terms they have learned collectively. Once students have mastered the differences between points of view, character types, and setting descriptions, they need to be held accountable for that information later in the unit when the focus has gone beyond plot and is looking at themes, symbols, and motifs. An effective way to explain it to students is as a matter of detailed explanation. If they want to discuss theme or characterization, and they will be required to, they need to speak in terms of narration, point of view, and conflict. All these terms are interrelated. They build upon one another. Thorough knowledge of the simpler terms helps students to talk about more complex terms with confidence and authority. In other words, once they have mastered the more basic terms like character and setting, they need to keep using those words as part of their new vocabulary when discussing stories.
When students are comfortable with identifying and discussing components including characters, point of view, and setting, then the stages of plot can be introduced. Depending on the skills and dynamics of particular classes, it may take from one to several lessons for students to master those terms and use them confidently in writing and discussion. If they are not comfortable with those terms of reference, they will be at a significant disadvantage when the class moves on to learn about plot. The most difficult obstacle in selecting good contemporary short stories for plot discussion is finding those that have clear examples of the five stages of plot common to traditional short stories.
It is very easy to find traditional short stories in anthologies that go through all the five stages of a plot. The problem lies in the fact that the vast majority of these stories are what students and teachers alike frequently deem boring stories. We continue to use them as a matter of convenience to ourselves; they are there ready to use, and they are easy to teach due to the following reasons: 1) They all have clear exposition sections where the reader is introduced to the setting and the characters. 2) The conflict is clearly stated introducing rising action and building suspense. 3) The climatic event is usually an obvious physical event such as the defeat of a villain by the hero. 4) Falling action is brief and involves replacing or rebuilding what was disrupted during the conflict. 5) Resolution is evident from the common fairy tale type of ending wherein it is suggested that protagonist and her supporting characters will live happily ever after. The shortcoming of these stories lies in the fact that they have been used for decades and are understandably tired examples of literature that our students are also tired of.
There are many factors that influence many contemporary writers to depart from the traditional plot organization. Regardless of their motives, many fine examples can still be found that include all five steps. In many contemporary stories resolution is either not complete or at times absent from the conclusion. While traditional short stories leave us with our questions and concerns regarding the characters answered, many contemporary stories leave us with lingering questions and concerns about the characters’ fate. The latter type of story can also be taught in this unit, but it is best to save examples of these “incomplete” short stories for the end of the unit. Otherwise, great confusion will arise when discussing the resolution of a story that to the students may not be able to identify as an “end.” Most of these five stages can, however, be found in a large array of contemporary short stories. A few stories I plan on using in my class that have a solid resolution are Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”, Toni Cade Bambara’s “Raymond’s Run,” Gwendolyn Brooks’ “death of Grandmother” and “Maud Martha spares the mouse” from Maud Martha, and Hisaye Yamamoto’s “Seventeen Syllables.” Although all these stories have good examples of resolution, they also leave the reader with a couple questions. I am doing this purposefully. By discussing these stories resolutions early in the unit, students will be asked what might happen next if the author where to write a continuation the story. I have learned that this approach makes it easier for young readers to then read stories later in the unit that leave the reader with nothing but questions. Reading stories with little resolution early in a unit on short stories leads to confusion and frustration among many students who are accustomed to “happy endings.”
When covering plot, I use graphic tools to help students visualize the stages of plot. Diagrams like Freytag’s Pyramid or sequence charts are very helpful in aiding students to see how the independent parts of a short story work together. Freytag’s Pyramid is a very common graphic organizer used when diagramming plot. Freytag’s was originally designed to discuss the stages of a play, but it is frequently seen in middle and high school texts in this format(Cudden 359).
____________ ____ ________(climax)
|(rising action)||(falling action)|
Exposition is when the reader is introduced to the setting and characters. With stories that begin immediately with action, confusion may arise. “What happened to exposition? This author started with rising action! You said yesterday that stories begin with exposition!” Situations and responses such as these are good signs. It shows that the students are reading carefully and learning the basic framework of a plot. Occasions like this can also be used as a teachable moments. I reiterate with my classes throughout the year that writers in the last century have challenged what the “acceptable” approaches to composition are. Many writers have chosen for one reason or another to “break the rules” and offer readers a new view of things. Then, inevitably, the next question arises, “Then why do we have to learn to diagram a plot if writers don’t pay attention to the rules?” My cliché response to this is, “You cannot break the rules until you know what the rules are.” I use early and late Williams Carlos Williams poems to illustrate this in my poetry unit. Many people assume he always used lower case letters, but he did not. For his own reasons he found working within the boundaries of the “rules” limiting or insufficient, and he made a deliberate decision to change his style. I explain the same is true of short story authors; some have chosen to break the rules, but they knew the rules they were breaking. In the case of the author who begins with action, the reader has to understand that the exposition of setting and character is interwoven with the rising action.
I have found in past short story units that diagramming with Freytag’s Pyramid can be challenging for some students. It is often necessary to go through diagramming several plots before students feel confident doing the work independently. Another method is to use sequencing charts. Theses are very much like story-boards. Students are given charts that have six to nine empty boxes with arrows from one to the next showing the direction of the story. The first boxes are filled in with details from the exposition of the story. The next few boxes contain the introduction of conflict and the rising action. The climax should be described in one box. The following boxes show the falling action, and the last box should describe the resolution. I have found it is most effective to leave the boxes unlabeled, have the students put the events of the story into the boxes they feel are essential to the story, then go back over the chart and label each box or boxes according to which part of the plot it/they illustrate. This seems to work well with visual learners. I also allow students to draw the events of the story in the boxes if they prefer that to writing. All students work with both Freytag’s Pyramid and sequence charts. This ensures that the learning styles of all students are addressed. When I test students on plot, I then offer them the option of using the method they feel most comfortable with. What they are assessed on is their ability to identify the five parts of plot in a story accurately.
During this unit I will also take advantage of cooperative learning strategies. I have knowledgeable students coach those who are struggling with identifying parts of the plots and any other terms or concepts the class may be working on. This is very similar to a tutoring process. Within the lessons on plot, for example, more key terms need to be introduced, and students need to learn to use them with the same confidence they use setting and character. I have observed that when students help or are helped by their peers, their confidence builds more rapidly for all parties involved. When we work on lists of terms in the unit, I use larger groups. In groups of four to five, students are given short lists of words, usually the same number as there are students in the group. Each student is expected to master one or two terms. It is then that individual’s responsibility to teach their term(s) to the members of their group. Once this stage is complete, there are a couple options. Each student can then be asked to explain their term(s) to the whole class, or the members of the groups can be jig-sawed into new groups. The numbers do not always work out for this, but then I fill in any gaps with myself. Once students are jig-sawed into new groups without any of their original partners, it is each student’s responsibility to teach their new group all the terms they learned with their last group. Normally, I warn the students that they will be quizzed at the end of class to motivate on task behavior.
Along with the stages of the plot they will need to understand: internal conflict, external conflict, specific types of conflict for example, human v. nature, suspense, and characterization.
Once students are confident with discussing plot and the related terms, it is time to begin introducing more specific literary terms which they need to learn and use. Less traditional short stories can be incorporated into the lessons at this point, if it is apparent that the students are prepared to discuss the differences. If they are still struggling with identifying the exposition, climax, or resolution of stories, they are not ready and will only be further confused by moving on at this point. The choice of terms to introduce to students at this stage in the unit is contingent upon the teacher’s goals and the ability of the students. Terms I expect my seventh grade class to learn include: theme, symbol, tragic, comic, satire, parody, allegory, foreshadowing, prose, fiction, and mood. If particular students master the expectations easily, then those students should be challenged to learn and use terms such as: sub-plot, metaphor, simile, motif, leitmotif, and flashback.
Initiation: Journal Responses
Begin with the prompt, “What do you know about short stories? What are the parts or components of a short story? What short stories have you read? What questions do you have about short stories?
Allow students 5-10 minutes to respond in their journals. When they begin exhausting their ideas, have them stop and share their knowledge and questions as a group. When questions do arise, check for other students who might have the answers. This is a key to knowing the class skill level (i.e. where to start from). Explain that the class will be studying short stories for the next several weeks, and that at the end of that period they will be experts on the genre of the short story.
Activity: Reading a short short story in class by a women author.
Distribute the text to students without letting them know the name of the author.
Read the story as a group. Ask about who the characters are, the setting and the point of view which the story is written in. If students do not know these terms, then teach them at this point. Always allow knowledgeable students to explain concepts to the class first.
After students have identified the above details, have them do another journal response. This time they must respond to the prompt, “Was this written by a man or a woman? Why do you think so? What evidence in the text suggests this to you? Give specific details.” After students write for a couple minutes ask for their ideas. There responses should be varied, and that is the point of discussion. How do we know the gender of a writer without knowing their true name? Is there any legitimate way to tell?
|Assessment: Question students as to what they learned in the lesson that they did not know||before or that they had a question about during initiation. Ask peers to verify the||accuracy of students’ comments. If they are mistaken, allow peers the first||opportunity to correct the mistake before you step in as instructor.|
came out in the discussion at the end of the activity regarding the gender identity of writers and the pitfalls in making assumptions without evidence or using stereotypes.
|Initiation: Give students a list of vocabulary they are expected to understand. Have||them highlight any of the words that they do not feel comfortable with. Ask them to||share their list with the class. Have students answer peer questions verbally if they||can.|
|Activity: Place students in cooperative groups according to class size and dynamics. Give||each group a set of words. It will be each group’s responsibility to learn their words||completely in 5-10 minutes. Once the groups have accomplished that, they will be||responsible for returning to the large groups and teaching the class the meaning of||the words they were assigned to learn. This can easily be adapted to any skill level||by limiting the number and complexity of the words given to individual groups.|
|Assessment - Students should be quizzed either verbally or in written format to check for||understanding. Verbal is preferable at this point. Student groups can also be asked||to assess other groups effectiveness in instructing the class on their assigned words||and offering clear explanations.|
|Closure - Remind students of the importance of knowing all these terms and helping each||other to understand the tasks being assigned. Take a few minutes to randomly||question a few students on the significance of specific words.|
|Initiation - Have students respond to the prompt, “If you were to write a short story, what||type of a story would you write? What characters would you use? Where would it||be set? What theme would you incorporate?” After they have had time to write, ask||for verbal responses from the class. After hearing their ideas, explain that they will||be writing a short story of their own.|
|Activity - Students will plan, draft, revise, edit, publish and share their short stories. In||addition they will be required to write a reflection on their story addressing questions||such as, “What point of view did they use? What types of conflict are in the story?||Do you have a complete resolution? Why did you choose to end the story the way||you did?”|
|Assessment - This project will be graded as a performance based assessment. Students will||gain or lose points depending on the inclusion of all necessary components of a||short story. For example, if they have no forms of conflict in their story, without a||clear explanation why they omitted conflict in their story, they will loose points. If||they offer justification in their reflection as to why they omitted conflict, then they||do not||loose those points. This allows for students of all cognitive and skill levels to||work on the same assignment.|
|Goal: Students will understand the difference between complete and incomplete resolution||and create their own resolution to a story.|
Students will respond to the ending of the story. (What do you think will happen next? If you were the author, what would you add to the story or how would you continue the story?)
Students will then create a continuation or resolution to the story.
|Activity: After reading the story in class, students will respond to the prompt in their||personal writing journals. “What questions do you have left after the end of this||story? Do you think this story is really over, or do you think there is more to be told||about these characters? What do you think might happen in a sequel?|
|After sharing student responses in the class, students will be required to create a||continuation or conclusion to the story. In preparation for this project, students will||be placed in small groups to work on story boards depicting the stages of their story.|
|Then, using their story boards, they will have the option to either write a story or a||dramatic one scene performance to present to the whole class when completed.|
|Assessment: Students will critique their peers’ work based upon each group’s||effectiveness in bringing resolution to the story. They will also be assessed upon||their creative efforts and ability to work as teams.|
“Beginning, middle, and end” is the simplest method of describing plot. This way of looking at stories is straightforward and easy for students to grasp. I have found most students are familiar with these terms when I check for prior knowledge at the beginning our short story unit. This is a good point to embark from. I expect all my seventh graders to fully understand the next set of terms for referring to plot.
____“Exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution” is a more expanded and detailed way of looking at the components of a story’s plot. There are obvious parallels between the simpler approach above and this one. “Beginning” matches up nicely with “exposition” as does “end” with “resolution.” Exposition is generally when the reader is introduced to the characters, the setting, and often preexisting events or conflicts. Resolution is when there is nothing else left to happen. Resolution is a more precise term to use, because it does not suggest the utter finality that the term “end” does. There are many ways to consider the resolution of a story. A tale can come to complete resolution. This we often refer to as the happy ending. Many stories end without complete resolution, however. This is why it is preferable to refer to the conclusions of stories as coming to a certain degree of resolution.
____The middle of the story can then be separated for more careful inspection into the rising action, climax, and falling action. Rising action begins with the introduction of conflict to the plot. At that point suspense begins to build if we are sympathetic to the characters. Further complications and conflict add to the rising action until the climax brings the action to a high point. Usually, the climax is marked by an event that will change the characters and the direction of the story significantly. Falling action follows. In short stories this aspect of the story is sometimes difficult for readers to pinpoint. The events during falling action show the characters adjusting, or failing to adjust, to the changes that have been brought about in the course of the story.
____There are many terms associated with plot. Any number of them can be incorporated into lessons or extension exercises. I expect my seventh graders to learn the majority of these terms.
- ____characters- the fictional persons presented in a story
- ____main character - the character the action of the story centers around
- secondary or supporting characters - characters the protagonist has interactions and conflicts with, but who are not central to the story
- narrator - the voice telling the story, often a character in the story but not always
- ____protagonist - the main character, also hero and heroine
- ____antagonist - the character opposed to the protagonist, the villain
- ____conflict - the difficulties the character(s) confront in the story
- internal conflict - when the character has difficulties with a goal she set for herself external conflict - when conflict is caused by something outside the character’s control; human v. human; human v. nature; human v. technology
- types of stories - tragic, comic, satiric, and romantic
- point of view - first person, third person, omniscient, limited point of view
- sub plot - a second story within the main plot of the story (this is often easier to teach through novels, but many short stories employ sub plots)
- suspense - anticipation built by events in a story and our predictions as to what might happen.
- flashbacks - scenes in a story that recall events that occurred before the exposition of the story began, i.e. scenes from the character’s past
- foreshadowing - clues in the story suggesting what might befall the characters
- symbols - signs the writer uses to represent other ideas or aspects of the story
- prose - the common, ordinary way of writing discourse, not poetry
- fiction - literature which is not factual
- theme - the message behind the story
- motif - a repeating or common device, occurrence, or stock character that is common to many different works of literature (the court jester of many fairy tales for example)
- leitmotif - a repeating saying, image, or symbol that reoccurs within an individual piece of writing
- setting - the location, time, and circumstances of the story
- mood - the overall feeling of the story: happy, tense, suspenseful, joyful, calm
|1972. This is a good story to begin with when discussing stories that end, but still||leave the reader with questions lingering. It can also raise questions for a discussion||of responsibilities to family and to self.|
|BROOKS, Gwendolyn. Maud Martha, New York: Harper and Brothers, 1953. This book||contains many chapters that can be extracted from the book and taught as short||stories. They are tied together, but are written as episodes in the life a young||African-American and her experiences growing up.|
____This book is a series of short chapters or vignettes that can be used as short stories either separately or in groups. The chapters are loosely tied together, but all deal with the same neighborhood and there are several reappearing characters. The book is written on a level easy enough for young children to understand, and it contains themes that can be discussed with older students as well.
|CUDDEN, J.A. Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, New York: Penguin,||1991. This is a comprehensive guide to more than two thousand terms concerning literature and criticism.|
|GILMAN, Charlotte Perkins. The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Stories, New York:||Oxford University Press, 1998. Many of the stories in this collection are more||appropriate for older students, however several stories are simple enough for||younger readers as well. A good source for readers who need a challenge.|
|JACKSON, Shirley. “The Lottery.” Story and Structure. Perrine, Laurence editor, New||York: Hardcourt Brace Jovanich Publishers. This story is more modern than||contemporary, but it is an excellent example of near complete resolution. In||addition, most students enjoy the story and it can lead to compelling discussions||about culture and ethics.|
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