‘Why Bother?’

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.

Posted on September 27, 2010, in comprehension, teaching. Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. Don’t give up. They’ll give you a very pleasant surprise. Reminds me of when one of my favorite teachers was my Latin teacher. I was an abysmal student of Latin. I think I actually made him weep several times after class. We’d go over those declensions and conjugations over and over, and just when he thought I got it, I’d always mess up on quizzes, etc…. He never gave up on me and I decided to look for a tutor, he actually volunteered to tutor me himself, after class. I actually surprised him and did well at the end of the semester. Whew!

    Latin is a language,
    Dead as Dead Can Be,
    First it Killed the Romans,
    Now It’s Killing Me.

    Oops! Sorry that slipped out. Heh heh heh.

    I’m still alive.

    Your students are going to do well. 😉


  2. I know you’ll get through it; I’m sorry it’s so tough!

    I have a meeting tomorrow with a student who is ill-equipped for my class — so ill-equipped that our conversation is going to have to cover what an essay is. Your post resonated with me. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for your kids; they have a caring teacher, and I hope their lights come on.

  3. I relate! I relate! I relate! May I make a suggestion!
    Perhaps change the writing exercise to an acting/drama exercise! Put your graph on the board! Select role players for each part on the graph! Students will see the action and connect that with the graph! The fun element will make them less tense about learning!
    For some reason, testing tensions encourage mistakes and forgetfulness!

    It’s tough being a teacher, but when the students let that light switch on, o how it is worth it!


    • magicalmysticalteacher

      You mean have one kid say, “I am the Introduction Box,” and another say, “I am the Rising Action Box,” and then have others line up behind the respective “boxes” where they belong–that sort of thing? If that’s what you mean, I’ve never tried anything like this before…but after almost banging my head against the wall for the last few days, I’ll try anything! 🙂

  4. remind me…what age group are you working with???

  5. One thing I do that helps is to put page or paragraph numbers by the literary element you are trying to teach. If they can see an example of the element in the book, story or poem it helps cement it in their brains (assuming they are actually turned on!).

    So where you have the introduction you can put the page number for them to refer to, that sort of thing.

    I hope it makes sense.

  6. Surely things are better by now!

  1. Pingback: Body English « Magical Mystical Teacher

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