Donald Davis explains in “Writing as a Second Language” that hearing and speaking are easier and more natural for most students than reading and writing. I therefore used storytelling to help my sophomores write their own personal narrative stories. We began with a week of idea-gathering, listening to appropriate stories: Mike Anderson’s “Raising Chickens,” Elizabeth Ellis’ “Flowers and Freckle Cream,” Donald Davis’ “LSMFT,” Carmen Deedy’s “Bending Steel,” and my story “Bill’s Iguana,” on video from the Carnival Cruise talent show. It’s amazing how much more attentive students are to their teacher on video. I also told my two real-life cruise stories, “Mary Becker Green, the Ghost on the Delta Queen” (true) and my Carnival Elation tall tale. When I had to stay home sick on Friday, I called Randy S., my first-choice sub, to take my place. He’s strict, but fun (as I try to be), and since he’s written two books of first-person stories, he was the ideal person to help my sophomores with their own personal narrative stories.
Students began looking for stories in their own lives and took turns telling their stories to a partner. Partners helped take notes on the story, making sure to get down the best details.
I’d been choosing different stories for classes, depending on the time available. Terra Nova testing this week altered class times on some days, eliminating seventh period altogether on some, a challenge to keep them caught up with the others. I told one class Elizabeth Ellis’ “world’s shortest story,” because we only had a little time. One young man said he wasnt satisfied because the boy shouldnt get away with throwing rocks at birds. I told them a family anecdote of my brothers with their pigeons. They let the birds fly, and Dave was looking up exclaiming, "Look what mine can do," when it . . . did . . . right in his wide-open mouth. We have added one more word to make it
Bird (or is that Bird, Boy??)
As students continued working on their autobiographical narratives the next week, we scheduled peer editing of their papers as well as listening to and reading more autobiographical stories. We listened to some Donald Davis (“Miss Winnie and the Typhoid Shot”) and some more Bil Lepp (“Buck Ain’t no Ordinary Dog”). Bil has some real fans here now. One young man found the Buck-Dog.com website for his mom. Carmen Deedy’s “Mother Mouse” was a real hit, especially with the ESL students, who were looking forward to Carmen’s arrival in May. I told “Real vs. Make Believe,” a story that uses several events from my life to discuss the theme of fiction vs. non-fiction. We also read Asimov’s “The Fun They Had” with cyber-educated children speculating about all the fun students must have had going to school together.
A seventh period student asked for “that frog story” (“Wide-Mouth Frog), so I put it on my Friday agenda, but that period ran out of time, so they had to wait until Monday. The story has actually attached to itself the activity of making a frog with one’s hands, the story/joke of campers with bells and scientists studying bear scat, and Kermit’s quip about “time’s fun when you’re having flies.” It actually worked well with the story from their lit book, “Half a Day” in which a child goes to school and is an old man by the end of the day. To help them understand surrealism, we took a mini-fieldtrip around the art wing to visit a mural done by a senior in ‘91. Looking at the Dali section of this history of art mural helps them go into the story not expecting it to make literal sense, those melted clocks give a bit of foreshadowing that time is fluid, an essence, not a solid. A student in first period made the interesting point that the main character could have Alzheimer’s, and while I had never thought of it that way before, it made very good sense, and brought up more good discussion.
The next writing assignment was to interview an older relative and write a story from his/her life. I gave them pages of questions to ask, mostly from Steve Otto and the research librarian at McClay, who is doing a “life story” project. One student suggested the dynamite question: ask your grand-parent what your parent was like at your age -- I love it!! We listened to Donald Davis’ story of his dad selling potatoes, and once they got into the story, there wasn’t a restless, bored, or chatty one among them! I told the story of my grandmother’s “magic” doughnuts.
Students listened to Jackie Torrance before they did peer editing, “Strawberry Pie” or for those who had already heard that one, “My Granddaddy’s Haint.” I think they found it inspiring for their own work. I selected readings that would also help them: “Through the Tunnel,” “Kaffir Boy,” and “A Walk to the Jetty.” With the latter, we talked about that day when our parents watch us walk away for a new life. I mentioned my parents driving me to college, and that I just realized that, while they let me know they were happy and proud of me, they probably cried when they drove away. I also shared information I read recently, that most college grads return to their parents’ home for a time, to find work and get established, but that they should not probably be still doing that at 50.
A few turned in papers early, and judging by the early entries, I knew they were going to be wonderful. (I ask them for that -- “If I have to read 120 of anything, it really helps if they are interesting,” and they smile). One paper, though, brought me to tears, a brother murdered brutally -- something no sister, and no mother, should have to ever go through. It put all minor problems of my life into sharp perspective.
In fact, these were so good that I couldn’t grade them fast. My usual “rule” is to complete all grading over the weekend and return papers Monday, but I found I wanted to savor these papers. I told them not to worry about their grades, and that they would get them back, probably next week, because I couldn’t rush such wonderful reading, and that they should then save them to share with relatives for years to come. Smiles of pride!