Some days I walk away from my classroom thinking, “Why do I bother?”
This was one of those days.
Since the middle of last week, I have been trying to teach my students how stories develop. I found a Story Plot Graph online, reproduced it for each student and explained each part of the graph: Introduction, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action and Denouement.
I help the students fill in each part of the graph with information from Hatchet, the novel we are reading in class. I showed them how stories have to begin somewhere, and that Hatchet begins with a 13-year-old boy named Brian, whose parents are divorced (something most of my students can relate to), and who is carrying within himself a great and terrible Secret. These are the bare-bones elements of the Introduction.
Then I moved on to the Rising Action, where the main character encounters a problem—or more than one—that he has to solve. In Brian’s case, he has more than one problem. As he flies to Canada to in a small bush-plane to visit his dad for the summer, Brian watches in horror as the pilot has a heart attack. Big problem—because Brian can’t fly a plane. As convulsions wrack the dying pilot’s body, the pilot’s foot jams the rudder pedal, which makes the plane veer off course—another problem. And then there’s the not-so-small matter of the plane running out of fuel.
My students remembered these problems from our reading of the story, and together we wrote them in the Rising Action box of the Story Plot Graph.
Then comes the Climax, the high part of the story, at least as far as we’ve read. There was only one thing we could think of that would qualify as high excitement—the plane crash—so we put that in the Climax box.
Then we selected a couple of things to put in the Falling Action box: Brian claws himself loose from the seatbelt, and Brian ends up on a beach with his legs in the water.
We left the Denouement box empty, because what I know (and the students don’t) is that the resolution of the story comes when Brian is finally rescued after nearly two months in the wilderness.
OK, so here’s the thing: I went over this material twice before I finally decided that the students were ready to be quizzed on it. Friday, I gave them the option of working alone or working with a partner. (I have some students who absolutely will not work with anyone else.)
Just before the quiz, we filled in all the boxes together again—for the third time. Then I collected their Story Plot Graphs, gave them fresh copies, and said, “You’re on your own. Good luck.”
Luck wasn’t with them, because the results were abysmal.
Over the weekend, I got the bright idea of giving the students a bank of phrases that they would need for completing the Story Plot Graph. I said emphatically that the phrases were all mixed up and that they would have to sort them out and put them in the right boxes:
Brian can’t fly plane
Brian escapes crashed plane.
Brian knows The Secret.
Brian lives in New York.
Brian: flying to Canada to visit dad
Brian: on a beach with legs in water
Brian’s parents: divorced.
Main character: Brian
Pilot has heart attack
Plane crashes into a lake
Plane flies off course
Plane runs out of fuel
Just before I gave the quiz—again—I read all the phrases, we put each one of them in the proper box, and then I asked the students to complete a fresh copy of the Story Plot Graph.
Again the results were abysmal.
We’ll be working on formulating clarifying questions tomorrow, because I just can’t stand to face the Story Plot Graph for a fifth consecutive day.
However, we’ll have to return to it, because my students haven’t mastered the art of describing the plot and its components.
I hope I get some bright ideas how to make this lesson more accessible to my students before I have to teach it again.
Otherwise, I just may weep.