Preface: Crawling out from the mind-cave where I’ve been reading and responding to my students’ stories for the past two weeks, I devote this post to reflecting on the process that brought me to this celebratory moment. My eighth graders and I have just brought to a close an in-depth study of the journey motif in literature, culminating in their writing ten page journey stories. The stories serve as a summative assessment of my students’ learning, which will represent them in their final portfolios. Additionally, they’ve turned out to be truly memorable and affecting pieces of literature from young writers.
Chapter 1: (Setting the Scene, Often With a Hint of Conflict)
The journey began with reading. My students–who came to me with very little reading experience in middle school, and even less enthusiasm for the endeavor—have been reading novels all year. Some I assign to the whole class or specific groups, and others the students select for themselves. By the spring, they realize that it is impossible to pass eighth grade English without really reading whole novels. They’ve seen me modify assignments for certain students based on their needs and allow extra time for those who slacked off initially; they’ve witnessed me enter the school carrying giant bags from Barnes and Noble full of books I know they will want to eat up, but they’ve never seen me bend on the basic requirement of reading.
Chapter 2: (Conflict—A Call to Action)
The final and longest book in our cycle of novels that all deal with the theme of adolescent coming of age is The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm by Nancy Farmer. It is a 300-page saga, taking place in Zimbabwe in the year 2194, in which the military general of Zimbabwe’s three children escape from their sheltered existence, where they are home-schooled and robots do everything for them; they are kidnapped four different times, before they finally, heroically, make it home. It is also the book that, superficially, is least familiar to my mostly Brooklyn-born West Indian-American students. In past years when I worked with mostly English language learners from Latin America, this book was a clear favorite. I am surprised when my new students fuss over the book and fight hard not to read it. While some begin to enjoy it as they progress through the book, others count it among their least favorite books ever! Nonetheless, the discussions are heated and quite interesting. I allow any and all criticism—just as long as a student can find evidence for it in the text. (8th graders are often better than I am at policing that!)
Chapter 3: (The Plot Thickens–Unfamiliar Territory)
In my previous work with ELL’s, I found that the complicated saga of The Ear, the Eye and the Arm, could be more easily comprehended if the students understood and were able to anticipate its basic plot structure. I used two classic picture books I had studied in a Children’s Literature course at Bank Street taught by Madeleine Ray: Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak and Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Steig. Both books are journey stories with conflicts and plot structures that parallel those of The Ear, the Eye and the Arm. They are also complex works of art by master writers that bring about high-level discussions among students of any age. I have my students graph the intensity of the story of Where the Wild Things Are in order to teach exposition, conflict, rising action, climax and resolution/denouement. I have them diagram Sylvester’s journey in groups in order that they connect the movement of the journey with the intensity of the story. Everyone loves a good story, and these activities pull the more reluctant readers in.
Chapter 4: (Climax, Point of Highest Intensity)
After the picture book studies, and as students are almost finished reading the novel, I bring in some theory. I show a clip from Bill Moyers’ interview of the late Joseph Campbell about his theory of The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Campbell breaks down the “hero sequence of actions,” connecting this with both the journey motif and the universal coming of age story. I pause the DVD incessantly, so students can take notes on every word. My colleague jokes with me, “They are really on the edge of their seats watching this old white guy talk about stories!” Indeed they were. By the end of the interview clip, my students have reached an “Aha” moment that we have been working toward all year long in our studies of literature. They’ve finally moved beyond the simplistic notion that all stories can be broken down into a “problem” and a “solution,” which is taught widely at the elementary school level in New York City. They replace this with the concept of a character “leaving in one condition,” facing hardship, and returning with newfound experience and wisdom. The original conflict may never fully resolve itself, but the character is now better equipped to deal with it.
Chapter 5: (Resolution/Denouement–Character Returns Home)
I assign the journey story. I have students create a bare bones outline with me, based on what we’ve learned from the novel, the picture books, and Joseph Campbell. I type up the outline and provide it for each student, along with a folder and loose-leaf paper. Each student is charged with using the outline to create an original fictional journey story with five chapters, each one approximately two pages. Students have already practiced writing fictional scenes that balance description of setting, dialogue and action in a past unit (connected to a different novel study), so we only review the rules for punctuating dialogue and add a lesson on interior monologue. Students write fervently, creating main characters with compelling conflicts…the stories that emerge are well crafted and exciting to read. They are structurally sound, and with a few exceptions [main character drops dead or everyone suddenly moves to Pennsylvania and lives happily ever after], the endings are not forced. They demonstrate understanding of that most important piece of the journey story—the main character matures, not miraculously, but through experience.
Afterward: I realize that the sweat and tears involved in pushing my students to read, both inside and outside of their comfort zones, was worth it. They have transformed into real writers. They can create suspense, irony, and vivid characters; many of them naturally use symbolism, balance dialogue with interior monologue, and description with action. Have I explicitly taught all of these things? No. They have learned many of them through the experience of reading fiction, responding honestly, and investigating how both successful and unsuccessful stories are made.
In addition to the pride I feel for my students’ success with writing, reading their stories helps me to know them better. I thought I knew my students well before, but now [taking some symbolic license here] I know who they imagine themselves to be, where they want to go, and some of the challenges they must overcome along the way. And they have taken the significant step of imagining the journey and allowing it to play out on paper.
[First image taken from http://www.nlpu.com/Hero’s%20Journey3.jpg. Second image taken by me.]