3-Act Analysis of The Office, Season 4, Episode 9, “Dinner Party”

I love the TV show, The Office. So does my wife. And thanks to Netflix, we can watch it at any time. We’ve seen every episode, multiple times.

A strange thing has recently happened, though. My tenth-grade students—all of whom had my wife last year, but independent of our influence—are watching The Office.

I’ve been teaching tenth-graders for thirteen years now. Usually I don’t know anything about the things they are interested in. When I started teaching, it was Twilight. Now it’s Fortnite. But here’re these fifteen and sixteen-year-olds who are obsessed with The Office and who, like this forty-year-old, have seen every episode. They wear Dunder Mifflin t-shirts. They paint portraits of Dwight in art class. They play Office trivia.

A few weeks ago, near the beginning of a unit on Oedipus the King, we were discussing Aristotle’s Poetics and applying three-act structure and reversals to the novels we’ve read (plus a couple of movies we’d all seen).

One of these Office devotees raised her hand and asked, quite earnestly, if this could be applied to “Dinner Party” from Season Four (yes, she cited the season and episode title). Her reason for asking, she reported, was that she had been thinking about it and the episode seemed to be all bad; she couldn’t place the reversals to good fortune.

I asked for 24 hours, came home, watched the episode, and here’s the answer, delivered to the student the following morning:

The Office Season 4, Episode 9: “Dinner Party”

The runtime is 22 minutes. Like most episodes, it begins with a pre-credit opener. Often, these are separate from the main plot, but not this one. In this one, Michael elaborately tricks Jim into revealing that he and Pam have no plans that night, forcing Jim to agree to come over for dinner. This is the INCITING INCIDENT (at minute 1).

Credits

Act One begins with Jim and Pam’s arrival at Michael’s condo. In fact, all of the Act divisions are marked by the arrival of a new couple. Jim and Pam arrive at minute 3. Andy and Angela arrive about one-third of the way in (end of Act One). Dwight and that lady arrive about two-thirds of the way in (end of Act Two). They all literally cross the threshold, which signifies a change or entry into a new world. At the end of Act Three, two cops arrive.

In Act One, Jim and Pam get a tour of the condo, which sets up the ready-to-boil-over antagonism between Michael and Jan, demonstrated by their growing passive aggressiveness. We see this develop throughout the party, and we can all see that this relationship is over.

In the Act One climax, Andy and Angela arrive. REVERSAL: the party seems to be progressing toward its conclusion (how much longer could it last?), but Jan reveals that the dinner won’t be ready for hours (good to bad).

At the midpoint of the episode, Jim seems to have resolved the entire conflict by faking a flooding, but in a good to bad reversal, neither he nor Pam (who comically betrays him) gets to leave.

The awkwardness of the party game (caused by M and J’s passive aggressiveness) leads to a parallel reversal. Pam is able to escape the ugly scene to the kitchen (the archetypal female haven) with Jan and Angela, but, in a good to bad REVERSAL, she is erroneously confronted by Jan about dating Michael. In a parallel scene, the boys escape to the garage (archetypal male haven) but, in another good to bad REVERSAL, Michael awkwardly asks J and A to invest in Jan’s candle business.

Act Two ends with Dwight and the lady arriving. The major REVERSAL here is that Jim and Pam now have more buffer and some entertainment (Pam says, “Awesome!”), but the arrival instead leads to a bitter and personal fight between Michael and Jan about having children.

Act Three begins with the dinner scene, and the climax is Jan breaking the little plasma TV with a Dundee, followed by the cops arriving.

The denouement (unravelling) is the musical montage (Hunter’s song) of all the couple’s after the party.

Using 4 Minutes of Toy Story 2 to Teach Anagnorisis and Peripeteia

My three-year-old watches a lot of Toy Story. Daily, you could accurately say, sometimes to the chagrin of the six-year-old, the thirty-five-year-old, and the forty-year-old he lives with. But a couple of weeks ago, during that week’s fifth-or-so screening of Toy Story 2, I came upon a teaching idea.

My 10th-grade students were reading Oedipus the King and had just received a lecture on Aristotle’s Poetics during which we defined the terms anagnorisis (recognition) and peripeteia (reversal), those definitions, according to Aristotle, being as follows:

ANAGNORISIS = RECOGNITION = “change from ignorance to knowledge”

PERIPETEIA = REVERSAL = “a change of the actions to their opposite”

Here’s what Aristotle had to say about these:

“A recognition is finest when it happens at the same time as the reversal, as does the one in Oedipus.”

Cue Toy Story 2. I showed my students a short clip that starts at around an hour and four minutes in and ends a bit past an hour and eight minutes.

In the clip, Woody’s friends have come to rescue him from Al’s apartment and bring him back to Andy, but Woody doesn’t want to go. Instead, he wants to go to a museum in Japan with his new friends, the Round Up Gang.

Woody’s friends try to persuade him to come with him, but they fail and then leave. After they’re gone, Woody sees an old videotape of a little boy playing with his Woody doll. As Woody watches, his eyes widen and his mouth opens. Suddenly, he calls after his friends; he wants to go with them after all, and he has very nearly convinced the Round Up Gang to come with him when Stinky Pete the Prospector blocks them from doing so. End of clip.

I asked the students to tell their neighbors what they had just witnessed, and because we had just reviewed the aforementioned terms as well as Aristotle’s opinion as to their “finest” application, the students were able to report that Woody had a recognition (anagnorisis) that he couldn’t abandon Andy, and this recognition caused and therefore occurred simultaneously with a reversal (peripeteia) in the action.

So: Toy Story 2 ended up being a great setup for the students’ reading of Episode Four of Oedipus the King, in which Oedipus experiences the simultaneous recognition and reversal that Aristotle had deemed “finest.”

FOUR TYPES OF TEACHERS, ONLY ONE OF WHICH IS REALLY TEACHING

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.

CATE Conference 2018

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).

CATE Conference 2017: Creating Critical Thinkers through the Study of Literature

cate2017logo-teal_-768x202

Two Fridays ago (February 17th),  Liz and I attended the California Association of Teachers of English (CATE) Conference in Santa Monica, CA, where we led a workshop on creating critical thinkers through the study of literature.

We had a group of 25-30 English teachers from around the state, all of whom were very nice and very engaged (and a bunch of them bought our book, which was super nice).

[We also had a really really great time! And we would have stayed the whole weekend but, you know…babysitters and kids and all that {thanks, by the way, to Liz’s mom, Ellen, for watching our kids}. And we really really want to thank the people behind the CATE Conference for having us! It was great! Thank you!]

The workshop was based on our book, Method to the Madness: A Common Core Guide to Creating Critical Thinkers through the Study of Literature, and began with the rationale for using quality literature to meet the common core standards (and that common core in the English classroom does not mean more informational texts and less imaginative literature). Our premise is that by building units around quality works of fiction, drama, poetry, and creative nonfiction, you can meet all of the common core literacy standards (including the informational text standards).

We then moved on to an activity for introducing close reading (or critical reading) in the classroom. The purpose of the activity (which can be found in Chapter 2 of Method to the Madness) is to help students…

…recognize and identify significant choices made by an author

…analyze and evaluate the effects of those choices (that’s the “So what?”)

…use the appropriate academic language (literary terms) when discussing those choices

…prepare a text for analysis by annotating it.

The activity also helps students recognize that literary terms work together–specifically, in this case, diction and imagery combine to create a particular mood, or atmosphere.

Our next activity was centered on a short story by George Saunders (whose first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, was recently released). The story is titled “Sticks”. It’s just a two-paragraph story, but there’s a lot packed into those two paragraphs. The story was included in Saunders’ 2013 collection, Tenth of December, but “Sticks” is actually an older story that was first published in 1995.

Here’s a picture of Liz reading the story in the workshop:

20170217_102154

Liz and I have been using “Sticks” in the classroom for about a decade. It’s a great teaching tool precisely because it is so short while being so meaty.

For the workshop, we read the story aloud and then put the participants into groups of four. The groups had five minutes to annotate the story and identify as many literary techniques and devices as they could (they were also given a list of these).

At the end of the five minutes, each group was given a piece of poster paper, on which they were instructed to write a statement about the story. The statement had to make a declarative claim and also had to incorporate at least one literary term.

Each group then shared their statement and supported it using specific evidence from their annotated story.

After the workshop, we had a short autograph session, and we got to browse around the exhibition hall for a while (and also pick up swag).

At the KQED booth, we got a selfie stick (I never thought I would ever own a selfie stick) plus a free tutorial on how to use said selfie stick.

Here’re two photos, one demonstrating my selfie abilities pre-stick, and one post-stick (and post-stick tutorial [hey, I just realized: sticks is a motif in this blog post]):

We were supposed to then post the picture on the right on social media with the hashtag on that card. But we’re getting old, and it was already a big day.

Trump’s Ed Sec Pick Thinks She Knows How to Fix Education. But She Doesn’t.

The President’s nominee for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, faces a Senate confirmation vote this coming Tuesday. As it stands, she’s one vote away from being rejected.

DeVos is a billionaire (let’s be clear: not the I-built-a-tremendous-business-and-I’ll-run-this-government-department-that-isn’t-a-business-like-a-business kind of billionaire. She’s more the I-married-the-heir-to-Amway kind of billionaire) who has little to no experience that would prepare her for the position she is nominated for…

…other than the fact that she and her husband have donated gobs of money in their home state of Michigan in support of school vouchers (which, once distributed, are mostly spent on charter or private schools) and of the deregulation of charter schools, allowing for an influx of for-profit schools (which, in turn, make gobs and gobs of money [in some cases, gobs of Title I money] that were diverted away from public schools).

In Michigan, it didn’t work. The DeVos family began tossing their gobs in the early 90’s, supporting candidates who supported school choice. Public money went to vouchers. Charters were expanded. Regulations were loosened. And…

From Politico: “Despite two decades of charter-school growth, the state’s overall academic progress has failed to keep pace with other states: Michigan ranks near the bottom for fourth- and eighth-grade math and fourth-grade reading on a nationally representative test, nicknamed the ‘Nation’s Report Card.’ Notably, the state’s charter schools scored worse on that test than their traditional public school counterparts, according to an analysis of federal data.”

The failure of school vouchers in Michigan is not an anomaly.

In an article for Slate, Dana Goldstein reported that “Recent studies of voucher programs in Louisiana and Ohio found that students who use vouchers to attend a private school score, on average, lower on standardized tests than demographically similar students who do not use vouchers. In New Orleans, two years after winning a private school voucher, the average student had lost 13 points of learning in math.”

Goldstein also points out that “Trump’s voucher plan could be a windfall for companies hoping to make money from our public education system.” In this scenario, families (often low income ones) become the middle men, piping federal funds into corporate hands but not always getting what they’re promised.

Diane Ravitch served as an Assistant Secretary of Education under Bush 41. In her 2013 book, Reign of Error, besides noting that there is no substantive evidence for the success of school voucher programs, Ravitch details eleven alternative solutions.

They are:

  1. “Provide good prenatal care for every pregnant woman.”
  2. “Make high-quality early childhood education available to all children.”
  3. “Every school should have a full, balanced, and rich curriculum, including the arts, science, history, literature, civics, geography, foreign language, mathematics, and physical education.”
  4. “Reduce class sizes to improve student achievement and behavior.”
  5. “Ban for-profit charters and charter chains and ensure that charter schools collaborate with public schools to support better education for all children.”
  6. “Provide the medical and social services that poor children need to keep up with their advantaged peers.”
  7. “Eliminate high-stakes standardized testing and rely instead on assessments that allow students to demonstrate what they know and can do.”
  8. “Insist that teachers, principals, and superintendents be professional educators.”
  9. “Public schools should be controlled by elected school boards or by boards in large cities appointed for a set term by more than one elected official.”
  10. “Devise actionable strategies and specific goals to reduce racial segregation and poverty.”
  11. “Recognize that public education is a public responsibility, not a consumer good.”

Career educators could tell you (if anyone ever cared to ask them) that these solutions would have lasting positive effects not only on American education but on all areas of American life.

But: in all likelihood, if DeVos is confirmed, the focus will be on a single solution, and it would seem that she has been nominated for one reason and one reason only: belief in a policy idea that the President likes (and that, it so happens, has already failed).

Teaching Native Son by Richard Wright (Part One)

[This post was originally published here, on the website for Method to the Madness: A Common Core Guide to Creating Critical Thinkers through the Study of Literature.]

For the past two years, I have had the pleasure of teaching Richard Wright’s 1940 novel, Native Son, to high school seniors.

I did not choose this book. I “inherited” the senior IB English classes from an excellent, veteran, and now retired teacher (and good friend), Susan Halseth. I also inherited from Susan her reading list, and teaching the books with which she filled her syllabus, Native Son included, has been a delight.

The intent of this post is simply to share some of the strategies and lessons I’ve used the past couple of years to teach Wright’s novel.

PUTTING NATIVE SON IN CONTEXT

With any novel, a good place to begin is helping students place the book in its larger context (where and when).

With Native Son, I start with something rather informal. I write the years 1919, 1929, 1939, and 1945 on the board, spaced out a bit. Then, maybe in a different color, I add in, chronologically, the year 1940, labeling it as the year that Native Son was published. Then, in pairs or groups, students identify and discuss the significant historical events that surround the novel (respectively: the end of WWI, the beginning of the Great Depression, the beginning of WWII, and the end of WWII).

This is a great way to help students make connections between the literature they are reading in their English classes and the content they have learned in their past or current History classes.

GROUP RESEARCH PRESENTATIONS

After this initial discussion of the novel’s context, we move on to something more formal.

Students are divided into groups, and each group is assigned one of the following research topics (each of which includes subtopics):

The Red Scare (in U.S., first and second)

            -Communism

            -Marxism

South Side Chicago

            -Segregation/ghettos/housing policies

            -Hyde Park

The Great Migration

            -The Black Belt

            -The Harlem Renaissance

NAACP

            -origins

            -NAACP in the 1930’s

Scottsboro Boys

            -who were they and what happened to them

            -similar cases or incidents

Richard Wright

            -literary career

            -ties to Communism

Naturalism (literary movement)

-origins

            -characteristics

            -major authors

Each of these topics will help a student reading Native Son to better understand the novel, and each group will spend a day or two (or three) researching their assigned topic and preparing a 10ish minute presentation to the class.

[Note: my students use Google Slides when preparing presentations. Here are some benefits of that: 1) All group members can be working on the same presentation file simultaneously, so everyone has “something to do.” 2) Students don’t need a subscription to Microsoft Office to work on the PowerPoint at home; they just need the internet, and there’s a smartphone app available for free. 3) When the group presents, I’m not seeing the presentation for the first time; I have been able (because the presentation was shared to me) to “check in” on the progress of the presentation as it was being developed, and I’ve been able to give feedback while the students were working on it. 4) No more, “I forgot my flash drive; can I present tomorrow?”—it’s all in the cloud.]

As each group is conducting their research and preparing their presentation, it may be necessary to give the group researching naturalism a bit of extra guidance and support, as it can be a complex topic. For an accessible definition of naturalism, see the quiz below.

Another group that may require extra attention is the group of students researching housing policies in South Side Chicago. This will be a key topic when it comes to helping students understand the naturalist view of Bigger’s character and his actions. In fact, in the third section of the novel, Bigger’s defense lawyer, Boris Max, makes an argument that housing policy is in part responsible for Bigger’s situation.

South Side Chicago in the 1930’s was segregated, but it was not segregated because of explicit segregation policies; rather, segregation was the result of housing policies such as redlining and contract selling—policies that were in place in many American cities and the effects of which are apparent today.

In fact, the city that I and my students live in was redlined, and students have access to a map (from the website of data artist Josh Begley) that shows the housing zones in Stockton at the time in which Native Son is set:

redlining-stocktonmap-stockton-redlining

These maps allow students to make a personal and authentic connection to the novel, as many of them live in or around the redlined areas, and they have first hand experience of the effects of those policies today.

ORAL PRESENTATION RUBRIC

Below is the rubric that I use to score the student presentations (which they are given beforehand). It is a version of the rubric that I use for all such presentations. I made it a few years ago, and it was specifically designed to eliminate things that bothered me about student presentations, such as…

…students going up to present without any idea how they will begin or how they will end.

…the sense that the group copied down information they don’t understand and now are asking the audience to do the same.

…the sense that one or two students did all of the work and then gave the other students slides or cards to read.

…students reading slides instead of talking to the audience.

…the sense that some students, while presenting, are seeing (or reading) these slides for the first time.

Another thing that I like about this rubric is that it requires students to practice citing sources parenthetically and correctly formatting a works-cited page.

oral-presentation-rubric

After the presentations, during which students take copious notes (we use Cornell Notes) and are encouraged to ask questions, the class is given the following open-notes quiz:

NATIVE SON CONTEXT PRESENTATIONS QUIZ

Richard Wright was a naturalist writer.  Naturalist fiction explores the effect of external forces—particularly a person’s environment—on a character’s psychology.

As a result, characters in naturalist fiction often feel a lack of control as a result of their environment.

Discuss the extent to which external environmental forces are driving the actions of Bigger Thomas.  Refer to as many of the following factors as possible in your response:

  • South Side Chicago
    • Segregation/ghettos/housing policies
    • Hyde Park
  • The Red Scare
    • Communism
    • Marxism
  • The Great Migration
    • The Black Belt
    • The Harlem Renaissance
  • NAACP
  • Scottsboro Boys
  • Richard Wright’s own life experiences

In the next post on teaching Native Son, we’ll focus on the effect of Wright’s choices regarding point of view and on themes and motifs in the novel.