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What the Story is About is Not the Story

Saturn Ring Blues
I had  mini-breakthrough in teaching story writing to my sophomores this week.  They are supposed to write an argumentative essay that uses a personal anecdote as its evidence.  This is a complicated essay to teach (particularly since the prompt is totally intimidating) because the essay requires TWO skills: argumentation and narration.

So, how do I teach story writing, a huge topic area, in the tiny amount of time we're given to teach this essay?  Hmm.

I gave the class this story as an example of what an argumentative essay supported with a personal anecdote might look like:

Most of the people I know like to talk, but they aren’t very good at listening.  Sometimes I think they’re just waiting for me to stop talking so they can say what was on their minds, rather than really paying attention to me.  I, however, am a good listener.

I learned this one day when I was fifteen, I came home from school and my big sister was sitting on the couch, crying.  She’s always been a very happy person, so I wasn’t sure what to do, but I knew she might feel better if she could talk about it.

My sister had been my rock when I was growing up.  She told me jokes when I was depressed; she helped me clean my room when I thought the job was impossible, and she gave me advice when I needed it, so it surprised me that she would be crying.

“It’s nothing,” she said, wiping her wrist below her eyes.  “I get emotional some times.”

I scooted close to her so she could lean on me if she wanted.  She did.  She’d switched shampoos the last time we’d gone shopping, and I could smell flowers in her hair.  Her breathing had little hitches in it, like tiny sobs that I could feel but not hear.

I didn’t say anything.  In the kitchen, the refrigerator buzzed, a sound I’d normally not hear, but the only noises were my sister crying and that refrigerator.

Finally, she took a deep breath and said, “Matt is moving to Florida, and he’s not coming back.”

Matt was her boyfriend, but I didn’t know what to say to her.  What words would make a difference?  He was leaving, and nothing would change that.  I kept quiet.

“He’s such a great guy,” she said, and then the floodgates opened.  Once she started talking, she didn’t stop.  She told me about when they’d met, and the first time they’d held hands, and the time they went hiking in the National Monument and got caught in the rain.

Eventually she said, “He told me that we could Skype and text, and if he came back to Grand Junction or if I was in Miami, we could see each other, but I know how these things go.  In a couple of months he’ll have moved on with his life.”

She sighed.  I could feel that she’d made a decision.  “And so will I,” she said.  “I’ll move on too.”

My sister gave me a hug, gathered herself, and stood up.  She’d long ago quit crying.  “You’re a good listener,” she said.  “Thanks.  You really helped.”

I hadn’t done anything but pay attention to her.  I learned then that sometime what’s happening is not about me.  It’s about someone else, and if I’ll just keep my mouth shut, I can help.  People have important things to say if I’ll just listen, so I’ve become a good listener.  I’m glad that I have that skill.

So, we were talking about what makes this an effective story, and I realized that when kids answer the question, "What is the story about?" they leave out all the stuff that makes it a good story.

Here's what I mean.  When a kid answers that question, he will say something like, "The story is about a girl whose older sister is broken hearted because her boyfriend has moved away.  The younger sister wants to help, but she doesn't know what to do.  She just listens, and that's the best thing she could do.  Her sister feels better at the end, and the narrator has learned what it means to be a good listener."

Not a bad summary, right?

But summary dropped out everything that made the story a story, like the smell of flowers in the older sister's hair, the feel of the older girl's sobbing in her breathing, the sound of the refrigerator buzzing in the kitchen, and all the dialogue.

Kids who have trouble telling effective stories are pretty good at writing down what the story is about, but really bad at putting in the sensory/descriptive details that make a story a story.

Pointing this out seemed to make a difference with a bunch of kids, and the practice narratives they turned in that day showed a ton of improvement. 



( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
Dec. 6th, 2013 08:00 am (UTC)
formula and rhetoric
Jim, Am involved in teaching and deal with very much the same kinds of questions. I don't know your view on this but I don't think there's anything wrong with writing up a rhetorical formula, along the lines:
1. Turn the topic statement (or prompt) into a question
2.Anecdote - tell a personal story that relates to the prompt
3.Write a paragraph which from which shows what you learned the anecdote
4. link that back to the topic statement
One problem is that I find is that students don't get writing modeled much through junior school and this kind of formulaic approach can be a big help. I think this was why in ancient times rhetoric was such a big part of the curriculum.
( 1 comment — Leave a comment )

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