What Makes a Short Story?

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SWBAT identify and list the elements of a short story.

Big Idea

Use the literary text If You Give a Pig a Pancake to teach your students the elements of a short story.


Lesson Context and Background:

In Lesson 1, we made the study of books much more personal for the students by demonstrating to them that stories are in fact being written by real live people, just like themselves.   Then in Lesson 2 we took the children on a journey which required them to look “Under the Hood” at a book's physical “Pieces, Parts” which surround the story within it.  In Lesson 3 we will further develop the students understanding of what this thing called a “Book” is by showing them that there actually is a “Rhyme and Reason” method used by each author to write their favorite stories.

So, there was the question of, "How do I make the fundamentals elements of Plot, Setting, Character and Sequencing events into a lesson that will be memorable, fun, and also provide a intuitive source of knowledge that the students can draw upon when the expectation is placed upon them to develop these elements to the next level?"  With that question firmly set in my mind, when I wrote this lesson, I could not help but to think back so many years ago to my own reading of the story The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster when I was a child.  To this day, almost 45 years later I can still remember when all three of the main character's were suddenly pulled out of their car and then mysteriously transported to a strange new place called the Island of Conclusions.  The author's explanation for how that happened made such perfect sense to me, even as a child:

"You jumped, of course," explained Canby. "That's the way most everyone gets here. It's really quite simple: every time you decide something without having a good reason, you jump to Conclusions whether you like it or not. It's such an easy trip to make that I've been here hundreds of times."

I find it somewhat mind boggling and yet terribly inspiring that I could read any book at that young age and then still be able to recall in such excellent detail one specific element of the story.  The author had almost effortlessly embedded in my mind a very real understanding of what jumping to a conclusion meant. I cannot say that was his absolute intent, but I do believe that it was an allegorical masterpiece that could be used just as easily to embed other ideas as well!  With that in mind I formulated this lesson with the lofty goal of having the students in my class remember what happened on this day, 45 years from now.

My choice for the literary text that was going to help me do this amazing thing had to meet all the same criteria: hard to forget, fun, and a source of intuitive knowledge for the future.  Enter Laura Numeroff with her “If you give a...” book series.  Who could forget any of these stories?  Each book, totally and uniquely fun, exasperating in their demands of the reader (who envisions themselves inside the story as the other main character fulfilling this endless grocery list of demands), and adventurous enough to make you turn the pages quickly to see what the animal main character would do next.  Yes indeed, the students would remember this story for a very long time.  But which one?  There are so many to choose from.  Clearly, it had to be Laura Numeroff's If you give a Pig a Pancake.  The Plot was clear, the Setting both easy to relate to and familiar to children, the Main Character was both lovable and easy to remember, and the Sequencing of Events perfect because of their linear simplicity and for have a predictability level that while not obvious, was always just within reach of a well-thought out guess as to what would happen next.

Lesson Overview:

Moving forward into Lesson 3, the ultimate goal of this unit remains focused on the idea of very gradually peeling away the “mystique” that surrounds this wonderful source of both knowledge and adventure that we call a “book.”  I knew when I began writing this lesson on the elements of a short story, that Lesson 3 was going to require a little more conceptual thinking on the part of the students than did Lesson 1 and 2 which focused a little more on the tangible.  Without a doubt, even at the First Grade level, the elements of plot, setting, character and sequencing events can be a little daunting, especially if the scope of the lesson is not limited and focused directly upon the most fundamental aspects that you would expect your students to comprehend and retain.  I felt that it was imperative for me as an educator to keep foremost in mind that what I would teach them today would be the essential raw materials that they would need to gradually move up the ladder of understanding and knowledge.  Without question, in their not too distant future, students will be required to read, comprehend, and analyze the literary texts that will be continuously increasing in both length and complexity. Admittedly, this is a genuine concern since the Common Core goals and standards are designed with that idea very much in mind, and I saw myself and this little lesson as perhaps the most important of all since it would be laying the groundwork for their future.



5 minutes

I had my children gather at the rug area and once they were seated and ready I told them that today we were going to learn a little bit about something called a short story.  I wanted that term to produce a clear, concise mental image that they would always remember and visualize in the future, and so I then showed them the cover of the text If You Give a Pig a Pancake (Laura Numeroff) and slowly thumbed through all 32 pages.  I then reached down for my hard back cover of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (about 870 pages) and thumbed through it just slowly enough to make the point about its length as compared to the other book.  I then used the magic cup (Demonstration: Magic Cup) to call on one student to come up and examine both books.  The student thumbed through the pages of both and had that weary look when he considered the Harry Potter novel.  I then asked this student to hold up the book up for the class that he thought the class would be able to read in just one lesson.  At first he looked at both me and the class as though he was suddenly the victim of some trick question, but then relaxed and held up If You Give a Pig a Pancake somewhat triumphantly and exclaimed, “I could read this one Ms. Collins.”  I then asked the class for a thumb up (Demonstration: Thumb Up, Thumb Down) if they agreed or a thumb down if they did not agree.  It was 100 percent unanimous the class overwhelmingly agreed with a thumb up.  I then asked the class; “Okay, so then we are agreed that the book If You Give a Pig a Pancake is both a short story and can be read in just on sitting?  Thumbs up/Thumbs down?”   I received unanimous thumbs up. 

I showed them the cover of the book If You Give a Pig a Pancake, by Laura Numeroff, and informed them that in preparation for their Collaborative Activity exercise, that we would first slowly read the entire story together.  I then slowly read the entire book to the students, as they patiently listened (and clearly enjoyed) until the story was finished.

I then honed in on the basic components of the book. I started with a question pertaining to where we could locate the title and the author of the book and then gradually moved the questioning to the areas of plot, character, setting, and finished with sequencing events.  I made ample use of the magic cup during this time more so to provide that one last opportunity not only for review and clarification, but as always, to also gain my own personal sense of how the children were doing conceptually with this new material.  While I had to lead the children to some of the answers that I was looking for, particularly when we were discussing the element of sequencing events, most of the students had a reasonably good grasp of the new concepts that they had just learned and that they were ready to move on to the Collaborative Activity.  I was also anxious to see how well they were going utilize their Elements of a Short Story Handbook to aide them during the activity.   

Guided Practice

20 minutes

With the children now seated at their desks, I explained that stories all have certain “elements” that are used by the author as the building blocks from which they could construct and write their story.  I further explained that Elements were very much like the parts of a house, in that, for example, if someone tried to build a house with just walls, the builder would just scratch his head and then finally realize that it was impossible to do that.  First the builder needed a plan, and then the foundation or floor needed to be built, after that the frame for the walls needed to be added, then the walls put in place.  It is the same way with stories, I told my students.  Authors have a plan and build their story around it.

At this point, I passed out the blank copies of the Elements of a Short Story Handbook to each of the students and displayed the Elements of a Short Story-Powerpoint on the Promethium Board. Using the PowerPoint Presentation, I explained the various Elements (Plot, Setting, Character and Sequencing events) of the short story and had my students fill out the various blanks inside their Elements of a Short Story Handbook.  When this portion of the activity was finished, I further checked the class for understanding of the various Elements by using the magic cup to call on students to see how well they retained the information we had just covered.  For example, I called upon one student and asked her, “Which Element of a Short story refers to the Time and Place where the story is happening at?”  This student was able to correctly identify setting as the correct answer.  Watching their body language, I could easily tell that this news was being especially well received by them.  I felt strongly that in view of the fact that these concepts were all so new and virtually unexplored by the children, that anything I could possibly do to remove the intimidation factor and to keep this lesson light and airy, the better they would retain it.  I wanted the Elements of a Sort Story Handbook to become a win-win for all of us. 

Collaborative Activity

15 minutes

To further help my students understand the elements of the story and to identify them, I had my students pair up with a student of their choice and handed them each a copy of the Story Cube and Story Cube Response Sheet.  After explaining how to cut out and put the cube together, I instructed my students that they would use the cube to answer questions about If You Give a Pig a Pancake.  I further explained they would be taking turns rolling the cube and after reading the question to their partner to answer it on their answer sheet.  I further encouraged them to use their Elements of a Short Story Handbook to help them determine the answers.

The students in the video, Using the Story Cube, are not only enjoying the activity, they used their handbooks to check each other's answers.

Independent Practice

15 minutes

Once we finished the collaborative activity my students transitioned into the independent part of the lesson.  I feel that journal writing is a good way to monitor student understanding of the lesson and that it also helps my students retain and understand what they just practiced.

The prompt I put on the Promethean board: Explain what the elements of a story, characters, setting, plot, and sequence.

 As each reading group met with me during the leveled differentiated reading group time I checked each journal for completeness and understanding.

Ticket Out the Door

5 minutes

For a sticker my students identified the story elements from If You Give a Pig a Pancake.