In the last couple of lessons, I engaged students in activities to get them thinking of different aspects of storytelling. They identified varied functions of storytelling, identified the function served by various stories we have read and viewed, and discussed the question of truth in storytelling. I now want them to be on the other side of the equation and tell their own story. I am only giving them two class periods to finish this. I believe that the cognitive demand of this assignment is less than that of an argumentative essay and I expect them to finish this in the time allotted.
In the previous lesson, I played a two-minute clip of a character in the film “Smoke Signals” telling a quick story where it is clear that the power of the story lies largely in the way the storyteller chooses to tell it. Today I begin by playing another story for them, from a different source. Together, I hope students will be inspired to tell the best story they can in the short period of time I am giving them.
I tell students that they should have made a decision already as to the story they will be telling in writing. I let them know we are listening to a personal story today to get us inspired and set the right storytelling tone. The story is from “The Moth,” a non profit organization “dedicated to the art and craft of storytelling,” as stated in their website. One thing they do is organize events where people get on stage and tell a personal story to a live audience. These stories are recorded and they are accessible on their website for anyone to listen. Here is a quick tour of The Moth website. The story I choose to play for my students today is one told by Ernesto Quinonez about his experience with a bully in his 7th grade class. I chose this one because I felt my students would relate to it in several ways: my students were 7th graders only 4 years ago, the topic is bullying, the author speaks of experiences of racism I know my students have faced, and there is humor. The audio is eleven and a half minutes long. I let the story play and then pause a minute and a half into it to point our certain things. At this point, there are a few elements of good storytelling I want to highlight for my students. After students gasp in disappointment because they want to listen to the story and after I tell them that they will get to hear the entire thing, I explain why I paused it. I ask them if they believe this is a good example of storytelling. I know they will overwhelmingly say that it is. I simply want them to verbalize it. They do. I tell them I want to point out the specific elements of good storytelling I hope they are aware of. There is humor. There are vivid details like the way the bully approaches them when he is about to attack. There is figurative language such as the description of Mario’s dad’s hands as “milk crate hands” capable of ripping a phone book in half. I let students know that this author is doing something that good storytelling does, which is to select specific moments and stretch them out. I acknowledge that this concept is difficult to understand without an example. I ask them to remember Thomas and the way he made an entire story out of Victor’s mother cutting frybread in half. That is an example of a moment stretched out. I also let them know that they are about to hear an example of this in the next part of the story. What I am referring to is the author’s description of the scene in the cafeteria as a scene in a National Geographic magazine or video. I play that for them. I then let them hear the rest so they can just enjoy the story, which is one central purpose of storytelling.
Before students begin drafting their story, I want to establish clear expectations and answer questions. Students have questions like, “How long is the story supposed to be?” and “How many paragraphs?” My first answer is that they just need to tell us a good story. It is up to them to decide how many paragraphs and how long. However, I do not want any to be tempted to write only one paragraph and claim that was a sound decision. I tell them that it would be difficult to tell a full story in less that one page. I do a think aloud to illustrate. I say, “If Thomas, the character in “Smoke Signals,” was to write the story of the frybread we viewed yesterday, he would probably need at least one written page. That would be a pretty short story, but it would be very good storytelling. I would be happy with something like that from you guys.” I do point out that this would be difficult. We are to understand that Thomas is a gifted storyteller. I assert that they will likely need at least one page and a half to tell a full story. I then give them specifics. These are specifics we have already discussed but I want to make them clear. I tell them their story must have tons of details, must attempt to get the reader to picture what is going on, must attempt to get the reader to experience what the author experienced, and must use precise vivid language. I also tell them that this may seem like a lot. I clarify that this does not mean they have to describe every single person and place and event in detail. Rather, they are to select good points in the story to slow down the narrative and describe someone or something in detail, like the author we heard today. This is a choice they have to make as writers. I now want them to start drafting.
I ask students to work in absolute silence as they begin drafting. I let them work for about 15 minutes without interruption. They need silence to write. Then I begin to read over their shoulder to get an idea of the directions their stories are taking.
One trend I see immediately is a lack of attention to the beginning. I interrupt students to remind them of the importance of a “hook.” We have talked about this before so I just have to remind them to make sure the beginning of the story engages the reader, me in this case, and makes me want to read the rest. To illustrate, I again use the story of the frybread. I say that I can imagine Thomas beginning a written version of this story with a line we heard in the film, “Her frybread walks on water.” I state that this is a good story “hook.” I ask them to imagine if he would choose to start with something like, “This is a story about Victor’s mom and her frybread,” which is the way several students have already chosen to start their written story. They all easily acknowledge that the first line I suggested would be a powerful story “hook.” I also take this time to read aloud a good example I read in the group. Good examples are always useful. I read the first sentences of a story one of my students is writing about her phobia of clowns.
Have you ever had a really bad experience with something that every time you think back, you get the chills? I'm coulrophobic.
Coulrophobia refers to a fear of clowns. This student knows the word for that phobia and uses it in her introduction, which works to keep the reader interested. Once I finish reading the first part of this story, I assure the class that this is a story I want to keep reading and instruct them to rethink their beginning.
I let students get back to drafting in silence.
I ask students to continue drafting at home tonight. I remind them that tomorrow will be the last class period they have to work on this story.