I have an essay titled “Holiday Parties and the Dead” up at Connotation Press: An Online Artifact. You can check it out here.
This week, I have been re-reading John Barth’s The Friday Book: Essays and Other Nonfiction, which is John Barth’s ninth book (and first book of nonfiction, though the subject throughout is fiction).
The Friday Book, along with Barth’s story collection Lost in the Funhouse and Jorge Luis Borges’s Collected Fictions, were the books about which I wrote my critical thesis as an MFA student nine or so years ago, and this current re-reading is the ninth stop in an (aforementioned here) reading (or, in some cases, such as this one, re-reading) of Barth’s entire bibliography, an effort that has now lasted several years (due to [also aforementioned] all of the side roads that those readings/re-readings have suggested exploring) and that (among many other things) I have “written into” my current metafictive work-in-progress.
In the introductory remarks to one piece in The Friday Book, Barth recounts a panel discussion on teaching creative writing, at which Wallace Stegner was a panelist and during which Stegner, in occasionally equestrian terms, gave the following description of teaching, or approaches to teaching, paraphrased by Barth and numbered by me:
“The writing teacher, Stegner declared, can be (1) an authoritarian who breaks his colts with a two-by-four; or he can be (2) a rebel who by his unorthodoxy tries to stimulate originality in his charges…; or he can (3) abdicate responsibility and let go the reins entirely, admiring everything his students do and being correspondingly loved by them; or (4) he can really teach, declaring his principles and stating his standards and obliging his students to demonstrate that any innovation they make is better than what they give up to make it.”
I’ve been a teacher for twelve years. Not a newbie but by no means a veteran. I’m somewhere in the middle of the labyrinth, still making my way, appalled at the flawed navigational decisions I made upon entering, each turn around each corner now simultaneously producing greater understanding of where I am and where I’m going but more questions about the same.
At various points in my twelve-year career, I have been each of the four teachers described above, some more often than others, but, after a couple thousand days in the classroom, each often enough.
My observation, though, is that good teachers (despite a protean nature day-to-day, mostly early in the career) will tend toward the fourth type—toward “really” teaching.
I believe (and hope that my belief is true) that I am mostly (nearly completely) the fourth type.
I used to teach night classes part time for University of Phoenix. At their twice-a-year general faculty meetings, they would give awards to the teachers who gave the lowest grades while getting the highest student reviews. U of P was (is, I suppose) a somewhat ridiculous institution, but I thought that that measurement had merit.
I get along reasonably well with my students, including with (sometimes particularly with) those who struggle the most in what I believe (and hope my belief is true) is a rewardingly difficult class.
There are teachers whose students love them despite rigid expectations and rigid adherence to those expectations, and then there are teachers whose students love them precisely for the lack of such standards, or for the inability to adhere to any.
It’s important (I think) to always be honest with students (brutally honest, when that is called for).
And establishing unmovable principles and standards and applying them with the rigor they demand is a type of honesty.
And to not do so is not only dishonest, according to Stegner (according to Barth), it is not even really teaching.
For most of my twelve years teaching high school English, I’ve taught a lesson on the 5-act structure of Shakespeare’s plays.
I even put it in a book.
But I don’t think any of it is right.
Two weeks ago, as we waited in a church pew for our oldest son’s preschool graduation ceremony to begin, my wife, Liz, and I got into a debate about the climax of Hamlet, said debate beginning with my above-repeated admission that what I’ve been saying to students about Shakespeare’s 5-act structure I no longer believe to be true.
What I’ve been saying—off and on for twelve years—and what I also included in a chapter on Taming of the Shrew in our book, Method to the Madness: A Common Core Guide to Creating Critical Thinkers through the Study of Literature (co-written by Liz and me; she wrote the Hamlet chapter), is that Shakespeare’s 5-act structure can be roughly mapped onto the familiar plot diagram as follows:
Act I = Exposition
Act II = Rising Action/Complications
Act III = Climax
Act IV = Falling Action
Act V = Resolution/Denouement
I, of course, am not the first nor the only teacher to teach this. It all started with Gustav Freytag, a 19th-century German novelist and playwright, who diagrammed the five story parts above (exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution) using a triangle, now known as Freytag’s Pyramid, which looks like this:
As an example, Freytag mapped the 5-act structure of a Shakespeare play onto his pyramid (said mapping making its way from Freytag through generations of teachers and teacher resources to me, around twelve years ago, and on to my students, some of whom now teach, and into an additional teacher resource, co-written by me).
The last couple of times that, out of habit, I drew the above diagram on my whiteboard, I knew there was something wrong with it.
This was perhaps because it did not square at all with the diagram I had been drawing for students during my short fiction unit.
About halfway through my teaching career, I figured out that Freytag’s Pyramid, as shown above, is problematic when applied to fiction writing, particularly short stories, and particularly when trying to help students draft well-plotted short stories.
I started drawing this, instead:
The biggest difference between Freytag’s diagram and this one is the latter’s lack of symmetry (reason to follow).
A similarity is that they both begin and end with a flat line.
The flat line on the left-hand side represents the ground situation (I also discovered, about halfway through my teaching career, that I’d been teaching exposition wrong, telling students that it’s the part of the story in which the author introduces the setting, the characters, and the conflict. All of that is true, but what is more helpful to students who are drafting stories is to tell them that the exposition has two vital components: the ground situation [the state of things, often teeming with potential conflict, before the conflict is incited] and the inciting incident [just what it sounds like: an incident, often but not always the addition of a character, that incites the conflict and sends the previously flat-lined diagram angling upward]).
The flat line on the right-hand side represents the new state of affairs after the conflict has been resolved and the knot unraveled.
This post-denouement state of affairs does not/should not/cannot return to the same state of affairs represented by the ground situation. A change must have occurred, otherwise no story has been told, hence the lack of symmetry in the latter triangle (this is not original; it is a modification to Freytag’s triangle suggested by John Barth in his metafictive story, “Lost in the Funhouse” [and probably elsewhere, too, by others]).
The other big difference between the two triangles is the elimination, in the latter, of the falling action, one discovering when studying (or simply consuming) stories that the resolution often comes on the heels of the climax (another reason for the lack of symmetry: there is usually much more story before the climax than there is after it).
What I like to say to students about the above-drawn diagram is that it is a formula that allows for infinite variations. It is inexhaustible. And it is.
I said the same thing to a roomful of teachers at February’s CATE Conference, where Liz and I were leading a workshop on teaching contemporary short fiction.
After I had said the above and had used one too many Pixar movies as an illustration, a participant, as a sort of friendly challenge, asked if we could apply the same structure to “The Flowers” by Alice Walker (a one-page story describing a single incident), which we had earlier in the workshop read on the lookout for concrete details.
I wasn’t prepared for such a challenge, nor had I previously attempted the suggested application, but the clever teachers in the room quickly discovered, despite all of the differences between “The Flowers” and Finding Nemo, that the structure did indeed fit both. Perfectly.
So, then: Shakespeare.
Liz’s and my church pew debate came at the end of a week in which I had listened to dozens of high school juniors, during their oral examinations, explain that the Mousetrap (Hamlet’s play-within-the-play, manufactured to reveal Claudius’s guilt) is the climax of the play.
When, in our pew, I asked Liz what the climax of the play is, she answered that it is the Closet Scene, particularly Hamlet killing Polonius.
The students’ reasons were fuzzy (for many, they were unstated altogether; the reason that was the climax was that their English teacher had said so).
Liz’s reasoning, on the other hand, was fully- and well-articulated (she is brilliant in many many things, but particularly astute when discussing Hamlet): that, to poorly paraphrase, by killing Polonius (believing he is killing Claudius) Hamlet demonstrates the resolution that, two acts later, allows for resolution.
Both the students’ and Liz’s proposed climaxes occur in Act III (scenes 2 and 4, respectively) and therefore fit the Freytag map of Shakespeare’s 5-act structure.
Freytag supposedly leaned heavily on Aristotle, but it is precisely the lessons in Poetics that lead me to question Freytag and my own previous teaching.
Aristotle says that the Complication (what we often call the Rising Action) is a causal sequence of story events (or scenes) in which, scene to scene, the stakes (and thereby drama) increase and increase until we arrive at the climax (which Aristotle describes as a reversal in fortune [bad to good, good to bad, etc.]).
After this final reversal, Aristotle says, there is nothing but the unraveling.
How, then, can this causal sequence reach its peak in Act III, with two acts to go?
From our pew, I argued that the climax of Hamlet is the duel in Act V. It all builds to that. Hamlet dies (final reversal), after which there is only the unraveling (Fortinbras takes over, honors Hamlet, etc.).
Freytag, those juniors, and Liz are right about one thing, though: Act III is climactic.
That is because each act has a climax (or reversal, or turn [bad to good, good to bad, etc.]).
Aristotle says that lengthier works need at least three turns to keep the audience interested (Walker’s one-page “The Flowers” needs only one), hence the three-act structure often found in movies and plays and novels (most of the novels I’ve taught are divided into three parts, or three books, or their number of chapters is divisible by three).
When we map this 3-act structure onto our modified triangle, it looks like this:
Three turns, probably alternating (good to bad to good, bad to good to bad, etc.).
Shakespeare’s structure is similar, but with more acts. Five turns, each building toward the final reversal in Act V:
So, right or wrong, the above is my new way of drawing Shakespeare’s 5-act structure. It makes sense to me. At least for now.
In our pew, after the third time I said, “Aristotle says,” Liz said that John Green says that Aristotle got almost everything wrong. I was about to say something in response, but the ceremony began.
It’s been pretty warm lately, so yesterday we decided to take the boys to the park. We loaded up some snacks and some soccer balls and made our way to Micke Grove Park, where we played and played all morning and had a great time. It really is a nice park.
The park also has a zoo. And next to the zoo is Funtown. Funtown is a mini amusement park. A park within the park.
I remember going to Funtown when I was a kid. I remember it being fun. And being excited to go there. My kids were excited, too. And they had fun. But, as an adult, Funtown was…interesting.
Funtown resembles sort of a post-apocalyptic amusement park. Like, if, say, seventy percent of the population died in a plague, and afterwards there were still amusement parks, the amusement parks would be like this.
Or, if you’re familiar with George Saunders stories, Funtown is like an amusement park in a George Saunders story.
Micke Grove Park, and everything in it, including Funtown, is operated by the county’s Parks and Rec Department, and, when compared to, say, an amusement park that is not funded by a county but rather by a megacorporation, like, say, Disneyland, Funtown is a vivid demonstration of the haves and have-nots.
We were the first to arrive. Funtown had two employees. Later we would learn that there were three employees, but one was running late. One of the employees was a nice lady who sold us tickets. The other employee was a youngster, as was the employee who would arrive late. The youngsters were nice, too.
As we were buying tickets, Liz and I saw on a sign that Funtown had mini-golf. We’d been talking about taking the boys to play mini-golf, but the nice lady informed us that the mini-golf course was currently closed. They were having a problem with some geese.
“Yeah, a bunch of geese took it over. So it’s not safe. But we think we can get it open again this weekend.”
Here’s a picture of the mini-golf course. You can’t see any geese, but you can imagine them, hiding out, ready to strike.
There are about nine rides at Funtown. They’re fairly typical rides: tilt-a-whirl, roller coaster, carousel, etc. But the challenge, for a Funtown employee, given that there are nine rides (plus a ticket booth, and a concession stand) but only three employees (and one is late) is that if some family is hanging around a ride looking like they want to ride it, then one employee has to drop whatever they were doing and go operate that ride.
Our first ride was the fish. It’s fish that go around an octopus, which the kids thought was great.
But about the time we finished with the fish, two more families arrived, which made it much more complicated for the two employees. Luckily the second youngster showed up, late, but then a fourth family showed up, too, and someone needed to sell them tickets.
So we and one of the other families decided to sort of stick together, ride-wise, to make it easier.
Next was cars. Cars that go around and around. First Tom tried to pick this purple car, but, as indicated by the caution tape and the sign, it was unavailable.
The sign says: “This car is down (sad face). Don’t ride me.” A pedantic English teacher might point out that the point of view of this sign is inconsistent.
The tilt-a-whirl, nearby, was in a similar situation: at least one tilty-car had an Out of Order sign taped to it (but no caution tape).
Then we went for the train ride. It’s a little train that runs all around the perimeter of the park. We sat in the first car, right behind the engine. The instrument panel reminded me of the 1958 Cessna Luscombe my grandfather used to take me flying in when I was little.
Once the passengers were all loaded, before departing, the youngster reached under the driver’s seat and pulled out a hammer. Then he crawled under the engine and banged on something a few times. Then he got up and looked at me and said, “I have to do that to start it.”
After a few tries, it started right up, and we were off.
Here’re three pictures. One picture is of the youngster banging with the hammer, another is of Liz watching the youngster bang on the engine that will next transport her entire family around the park, and the third picture is of the youngster driving the train.
And here are pictures of Tom and Sam, delighted with the train ride:
The train ride included a view of the bathroom, which you get to by going out the back gate, past the dumpster, and this fenced off area where they collect all of the broken Funtown stuff:
The train also passed the roller coaster, the theme of which is Giraffe, or perhaps Safari, and these two guys, who were working on The Scrambler, seemingly trying to figure out what was wrong with it (we didn’t ride The Scrambler):
We would encounter these two guys again later, at this airplane thing that Sam rode:
During the ride, Liz overheard the guys talking. It turns out one guy was a (the?) manager, and the other guy was an inspector. The manager guy told the inspector guy that they could only afford to re-paint one or two rides a year. The planes were due for some paint.
As soon as Sam got off, the guys swooped in. They had been watching closely, and something apparently didn’t look right:
Here’s the thing: when you go to Disneyland, the employees are all very nice and helpful. They seem, genuinely, to want you to have a good time.
But the employees at Funtown, all three of them, were also very nice and helpful. And they also seemed, genuinely, to have wanted our boys to have a good time (which they did; they talked about it all afternoon).
The difference is, the nice and helpful Disneyland employees have a lot more to work with. They know they have a good product, backed by a corporate machine (as opposed to a parks and rec department). The nice and helpful Disneyland employees don’t have to crawl under the train and bang it with a hammer. They don’t have to hand-crank the roller coaster to get it going. And they generally don’t have to battle geese for territory.
A few weeks ago, Liz and I flew down to San Diego for our second CATE (California Association of Teachers of English) Conference.
Last year, the conference was in Santa Clara (a not-too-long drive for us), and we gave a presentation based on a chapter of our book, Method to the Madness. The presentation was titled, Creating Critical Thinkers through the Study of Literature (which is also our book’s subtitle).
This year, our presentation was based on another chapter of the book and was titled, Contemporary Short Fiction: the Key to Unlocking Potential and Leveling the Playing Field for Students of All Ability Levels (long title). We had given a longer version of the presentation to Tracy Unified School District in January.
The presentation began with the rationale for building curriculum centered on quality literature (fiction, poetry, drama, creative nonfiction). There was (still is?) a misconception that Common Core equals less literature in the English classroom and more “informational” reading. This, of course, is a misunderstanding that the framers of the standards have addressed: “Said plainly, stories, drama, poetry, and other literature account for the majority of reading that students will do in the high school ELA classroom. […]The Standards could not be clearer: ELA classrooms must focus on literature — that is not negotiable, but a requirement of high school ELA.” (David Coleman & Susan Pimental)
Next, Liz gave her pitch for using contemporary short stories in the English classroom, particularly as an opening unit, such stories being accessible to a variety of students (including those with attendance issues). These high-quality stories can be taught in a single class period (or two), and they offer students the opportunity to engage with a wide variety of voices while allowing the teacher the opportunity to establish (or remediate) essential skills.
We had prepared to use three short stories—Sticks by George Saunders, The Flowers by Amy Walker, and How to Talk to Your Mother (Notes) by Lorrie Moore—but we only got through the first two.
Each of those stories (Sticks and The Flowers) fits onto a single page, but each story is very meaty. We asked our participants to read and annotate each story, and, despite (as mentioned) each story being only one page, they each led to a wide-ranging academic discussion of the significant choices being made by the author.
(Note: all of the above was great, great, great, and a lot of fun, because our participants were so great, and also because Liz is so great at this.)
We ended with a discussion of narrative structure (the traditional plot curve, which is sometimes incorrectly perceived as a restraint to creativity and voice [a view I once embarrassingly held] but that instead allows for infinite variation).
We were getting short of our time, there were several slides to go, and I was sort of floundering, describing the plots of Pixar movies. Liz would later say that when I gave a third such example, she knew I was in trouble.
But a participant saved me by asking if, when learning about this narrative structure, which is so obvious in Pixar movies, students can apply the elements (ground situation, inciting incident, conflict, complications, climax, resolution) to something like The Flowers, which is so short and describes a single event.
This was exactly where, despite all floundering, we were supposed to be headed, and, as a group, we tried it. It turns out, despite being only one page and describing only one incident, The Flowers “fits” the narrative structure perfectly (infinite variation).
So, we modeled lessons on two one-page short stories (Sticks, by the way, Liz describes as the only “magic bullet” for English teachers: a two-paragraph story that students always like and always have so much to say about). Each story is accessible to a variety of students, and each story provides the opportunity for critical reading, critical thinking, analytical writing, and academic discussion.
Several people came up at the end to buy books (which was very nice), and a few told us that it was the best presentation they had been to all weekend (but maybe they say that to all the presenters).
This essay will be published at Connotation Press: An Online Artifact on January 15th.