"Why We Broke Up" with Beowulf: Using YA Fiction to Tell Our Stories and Understand Stories from the Past

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SWBAT discuss a passage from "Why We Broke Up" as effective narrative.

Big Idea

We all have stories to tell about people, places, and things we value.

Teacher to Teacher: Lesson Overview and Context

Ready. Set. Write. These three words set the tone for my pedagogic philosophy about writing: For students to improve their writing, they must write often (preferably daily) and they must write in quantity.

I expect students to be ready to write daily. Additionally, rather than announcing an essay assignment at the end of a literature unit, I focus students attention on preparing for major writing assignments throughout our study of literature and weave focused writing instruction into the literature units. 

As a teacher, it's my job to help students find their writing voices and to show them they have important things to say.

In its original context, it is 

Lesson 4 in "Once Upon a Time" In My Life: Teaching Narration and DescriptionUnit. 

However, it is a lesson I teach in conjunction with Beowulf, too. Although the narrative/descriptive unit can stand alone, apart from the literature unit, one of my goals is to show students the relationships among genres. 

In this lesson, students

  • Watch Daniel Handler, author of Why We Broke Up, interview strangers in Grand Central Station about their breakup stories.
  • Read and discuss an excerpt from Why We Broke Up, a YA epistolary (written as a letter) novel with objects from Min's and Ed's relationship as the trope holding the narrative together. 
  • Discuss the "breakup" between Beowulf and his men (except Wiglaf) that occurs at the end of the epic.
  • Compose a quick-write about an object that is important to them. 


*While I have had students write about objects before, this lesson is in part inspired by Lee Ann Spillane's work, and the PDF excerpt from the novel is one Lee Ann shared w/ me. Lee Ann is the author of Reading Amplified (2012), published by Stenhouse Publishing. 

Meeting Daniel Handler and Hearing Break-Up Stories

10 minutes

To engage students in the lesson and to set both the tone and scene of Why We Broke Up, I played a short video in which Daniel Handler asks passersby in Grand Central Station "Why did you break up?"

After watching the video, which elicited quite a lot of laughter, I asked the students, "How many of you have had your little hearts broken?" They don't like to confess their heartbreak, so I tell them, briefly, about receiving a "Dear John" letter when I was in college and how heartbroken I was from it. 

Then, I tell students that Why We Broke Up is a "Dear John" letter, an epistle, from Min to Ed. I show them the first page of the book that begins, "Dear Ed." I use a book review from my often dormant book blog as a backdrop for my book talk introduction to Handler's novel. 

Bitter Black Ale and Breaking Up: Reading a Passage from the Novel

25 minutes

Distribute copies of the excerpt from the novel to students. Excerpt from "Why We Broke Up"

Ask students to be prepared to discuss the passage and to think about the following:

  • What do you notice about the use of dialogue?
  • What object is at the center of the excerpt?
  • What characters are directly in the conversation? 
  • What character is talked about in the conversation?
  • How does Daniel Handler create tension in the scene?
  • What in this passage can you try in your own writing?

Ask for a volunteer to read. If no students volunteer, the teacher should read the passage aloud and ask students to follow along and mark their papers based on the questions as this will help guide the following discussion.

After reading, either allow students to talk naturally about the passage or pose the questions as discussion. 

My students thought the picture of bottle caps indicated that the passage is about the Bitter Black Ale. Some were shocked that the teens in the book had been drinking, and that led to a discussion about behaviors that happen but that we often deny. 

One student said, "I found the dialogue distracting." 

I asked, "Why?" 

The student responded, "Because it was everywhere." From that comment we were able to talk about the natural way people speak, which is often in fragments rather than in complete sentences. In turn, we discussed the author being male and the narrator being female. 

Eventually, students understood that the object at the center of the passage is the tie. I asked, "How does the tie show us the tension in the relationship?" 

They answered: "Because Min wants to tie the tie and he doesn't want her to." 

I asked, "Do you think the tie is a symbol?" Students decided they didn't have enough information to answer the question. 

Several asked me to reveal plot details, but I told them they have to read the book, which we have in our school library, to find out. 

I did show them several pictures in the book and explained that Min has a box of objects from her relationship with Ed and that she uses these to tell the story, beginning with the breakup. I also explained that as the novel progresses, we learn about Min's and Ed's relationship in a nonlinear way, which leads to our understanding of why they broke up. 

Breaking Up with Beowulf: Connecting YA Fiction to Epic Poetry

15 minutes

After discussing the passage from Why We Broke Up, I told students there is a breakup in Beowulf, too. Students looked confused. I continued: "Breakups in relationships happen all the time. Have you ever had a good friend with whom you had a falling out? Have you ever had a relationship with a relative go south?"

Then I asked: "Who breaks up with Beowulf at the end of the epic?" That question was met with silence, so I read a passage from Beowulf, lines 2631-2653. This will help students recall that only Wiglaf remains faithful to Beowulf.

I asked students the following questions about the texts we have worked with in the Beowulf unit and in the narrative/descriptive writing unit?

  • What objects are important to Beowulf? To Wallace Stegner in "The Town Dump," with Min in Why We Broke Up? In the documentary "The Story of Stuff"?
  • How do these various texts talk about loss as it relates to the things we value?
  • How do places and objects affect our memories? 
  • Is it possible to experience a break-up with a place or a thing as well as with a person? 

I explain to students that the texts we have worked with--Beowulf, "The Town Dump" (lesson: S.I.F.T.ing Mentor Texts:  "The Story of Stuff" and "The Town Dump"), and Why We Broke Up--all use objects to construct meaning. That in Beowulf, we learn how important Beowulf's sword and Hrothgar's mead hall are to the Anglo-Saxon culture; in "The Town Dump" we learn about the value of a place and the objects there to construct a town's and individual's history, and in Why We Broke Up we read about objects that create memories of a relationship. 


Quick Write: Object Narratives

12 minutes

As a concluding activity, give students the following prompt:

Quick Write: Think about an object that matters to you, one that is important to you. It can be anything. Now, spend ten minutes writing about the object. Remember, keep writing, even if your writing takes you away from the object you started with and into another direction. 

As students write, I spend time writing, too. I wrote about my car, a 2005 Mustang that I refer to as "my midlife crisis car." 

After students write, ask for volunteers to share. Students will want to talk about their writing rather than read it to the class. I insist that they read their selection for several reasons:

  • When students hear their writing in their own voices, it helps the student develop their writing voices and helps them see gaps and mistakes in the writing. 
  • It allows me and other students to ask questions and give positive feedback to the writer.
  • It gives me the opportunity to suggest to the student that the passage will be a good jumping-off-point for their big narrative.
  • It helps me get to know my students and show interest in their lives. 

One student shared about his love of his "weights" and the way he has developed strength over time. This student is a wrestler and has been very successful on the mat but is very quiet in class. After he finished, I said, "I know what you mean. I love the way weight training makes me feel."

Another student shared about an abusive relationship and her breakup. She's also a quiet student, and the class was touched by her honesty and braveness. One student stayed after class to tell me this. 

Another boy read about his car and how "it isn't much, but it's mine." That gave me the opportunity to say, "I wrote about my car, too." Kids like hearing that they picked the teacher's topic. This is true even for senior boys. 

Still, other students who didn't share wrote about important activities in their lives, including camping Student Example Quick Write and Student Quick Write Bowling

When we finish sharing, I encourage students to consider using this quick write, their heart map passage or something else we've discussed in class as the basis of the upcoming narrative/descriptive essay.