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.”

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

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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:

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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.

Testimonials from Workshop on Teaching Literature in High School Classrooms

On January 9th, we (Liz and I) led a workshop at the University of the Pacific in Stockton on creating critical thinkers through the study of literature.

 

The workshop was based on our book, and focused on the following:

 

  • The rationale for using quality literature (fiction, poetry, drama, and literary nonfiction) in the middle and high school English classroom.

 

  • Strategies and activities for introducing and implementing close reading, using George Saunders’ short story “Sticks” and the lyrics of Billie Holliday’s “Gloomy Sunday” as examples.

 

  • Increasing the quantity and quality of rigorous student writing.

 

We will be conducting a similar workshop at the 2017 CATE (California Assoc. of Teachers of English) Conference, February 17-19 in Santa Clara, CA.

 

The following are some testimonials from our wonderful participants:

 

“Very engaging! I wish more teachers would attend! As an administrator, it is enlightening to see solutions to bringing critical thinking to the classroom through literature.”

 

“So many great things in this workshop. I want to try everything TOMORROW!!! Thank you so much!”

 

“Extremely informative and useful. I found and will implement at least three strategies (close reading, on-demand writing) that I will use right away. Thank you!”

 

“This information needs to be shared with our curriculum director!”

 

“Thank you for all of the methods that I can use in the classroom. As a new teacher with no experience, this information is extremely helpful.”

 

“Really effective and simple strategies. As a first year teacher, I would strongly urge my undergraduate peers to check out this presentation and the Method to the Madness book.”

 

“Informative and entertaining, with plenty that will be useful in the classroom.”

 

“Thank you. Workshop went by quickly and had great, engaging, purposeful information.”

 

“We were offered many examples/useful samples of student work and activities. We can use this material in the classroom for planning—especially how to increase writing.”

 

“Y’all are amazing.”

Married Couple Abandons Parenting for 3 Months to Write Book

Potential headlines for this story:

Married couple writes book.

 Married couple writes book in only 3 months.

 Married couple abandons parenting for 3 months to write book (ultimate winner).

Married couple surprised by how little they come to hate one another while writing book in only 3 months.

Married couple, as side effect of co-writing book in 3 months, becomes those people at Starbucks with all their computers and cords and stuff and about whom you wonder Don’t they have a home?

Parents of infant and toddler who placed ad in search of parents found at local Starbucks, indexing.

 

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post titled, Things that Have Happened Since the Last Time I Posted on My Blog, in which I singled out five things:

Thing #1: I quit blogging.

Thing #2: I had a second kid.

Thing #3: I (we) took first kid and second kid to Disneyland. Twice.

Thing #4: I wrote a book with my wife.

Things #5: I was informed I have high cholesterol.

 

In that last post, I went into more detail about Thing #1 and Thing #2. This is Part 2 of that post and will be about Thing #4, skipping Thing #3 for the time being, just because.

 

Thing #4: I wrote a book with my wife

A full explanation of the book’s intent and the impetus behind it is explained here.

So we (Liz and I) had this idea for a book. We’re both high school English teachers, and it’s a book about teaching high school English.

The idea started out as a book about teaching Slaughterhouse Five, the idea later expanding to a book about teaching Slaughterhouse Five as well as half-a-dozen other books we like to teach.

We batted it around for six months or so, getting serious enough from time to time to draft some chapters and eventually reaching the point at which we began to think about the possibility of submitting it, at which point we learned about book proposals.

So we spent (spent should be precisely defined here as referring to no more than ten to fifteen minutes every few days scratched [into? out of?] an at-home schedule dominated by parenting and grading and Netflix) the next six piecing together a book proposal, which included a query letter and an overview and an annotated table of contents and market research (I say included market research not actually knowing by any degree what market research is and therefore whether or not what we did is it but anyway we analyzed who/what our market is and other books for which the market is the same and how our book was/was not similar and etc.) and a sample chapter.

We sent the proposal out to a handful of education publishers, from which we received rejections, some of which were non-form and encouraging, before finally hearing from a very nice acquisitions editor at Rowman and Littlefield named Sarah (in fact, R&L had been suggested to us by one of our previous non-form and encouraging rejecters).

Sarah asked for some additional materials and some revisions to the sample chapter and then needed to take the proposal to the editorial board. A few days later, she wrote back with an acceptance. We were delighted.

Here’s the said-sarcastically-fun part. Sarah’s acceptance came on July 23rd of 2015. In the same email, Sarah expressed that it would be an advantage for the book—though it would not yet be published—to have an ISBN number and be promotable at the NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) conference that November, and for that reason Sarah wanted to know if we could submit to her the final manuscript by early September (this would later be extended to the first of October).

Now, at that point (July 23rd), we had the sample chapter and a couple of other very rough and incomplete chapters, all amounting to less than fifty pages.

We also, at that point, had a nearly-three-year-old and a nearly-three-month-old, as well as full-time jobs: me teaching and Liz at home with the kids, Liz having taken leave from that upcoming school year. I also had a part-time teaching job some evenings and Liz also was working on her Master’s degree.

But I had this memory from grad school of one of the faculty members, a novelist who also wrote screenplays, giving the advice, said advice delivered within an anecdote about a screenplay, that the answer is always, Yes! Like, for example, if “they” ask you if you happen to have any stories/manuscripts/screenplays/whatever about bla bla bla, you always answer Yes, and then go write a story/manuscript/screenplay/whatever about bla bla bla, and it was with this anecdote with its embedded advice that I convinced Liz that despite the apparent impossibility of pulling it off we should just say Yes!

So we did.

For the several months that would later follow the book’s release, when people would ask something along the lines of How’d you do it, I would repeatedly give the same jokey answer: “We just quit parenting for 3 months and did it.”

But we didn’t really quit parenting or abandon our children–Liz in fact clutched our three-month-old and declared that we could not let this affect our time with the kids–though we did for a time parent them less.

We wrote early in the morning. We wrote at night after bedtime. And for a rather large chunk of each of about twelve consecutive Sundays we got a babysitter and went to our local Starbucks.

 

Things you notice when you spend 10 or more hours per month at your local Starbucks:

  • Much like Walmart, people will wear almost anything to Starbucks.
  • In any span of several hours at the local Starbucks, a lot of people come and a lot of people go, but the four or five people who remain through all of those hours are pretty much the same four or five people who are also there week after week.
  • If you are one of those four or five people, location is everything, and the ideal location depends upon your purpose. For some, it’s those comfy chairs. For us, it was a balance of table space and access to a power outlet.
  • Though you may not start out there, if you stay at the local Starbucks long enough and if you’re willing to repeatedly pack up all of your stuff and move, you will eventually get your ideal spot.
  • If there are two of you, and you each have a laptop and papers and books, you may very likely need to initially split up, but you will eventually (see above) reunite.
  • Starbucks food seems wholesome and even kind of high-end. And you get the impression that they (Starbucks) don’t even really see it as food people would regularly eat, like at McDonald’s, but food people get to go with their coffee or food people need because they’re starving after waiting in line so long for coffee. It seems more like premium food.

But it’s not. In reality, it’s food taken out of a plastic package and put in a microwave, which is what you get when you eat at a gas station (which I happen to know a lot about), except at the gas station you do the microwaving yourself, and when you eat enough re-heated Chicken Artichoke on Ancient Grain Flatbreads, they just start to taste like gas station food.

My first book took three years to write. All the same things happened with this book—frantic drafting with the recurrent thought that nothing that I am typing right now can ever be in a book in fact it’s so awful it can never ever be seen by anyone ever; never-ending laborious revisions such that one reads the same chapters and the same pages and the same paragraphs and sentences over and over and over again; that feeling that when this is over I never want to read or see or even think about this book ever ever again in fact I’m never going to do anything difficult with my free time again just Netflix and ice cream from now on. All the same stuff, just this time crammed into 3 months.

But it all worked out. We finished. On time. And the people we need to thank are: Sarah; our babysitter, Lizzie; our two readers, Susan and Ellen. And of course our kids, for getting along without us for a while.