Monday, September 24, 2012

When does your story begin?

I'm supposed to read with Shaemus every day. When he finishes a book, I'm supposed to ask him the following questions:

*What is this story about?
*What does the character want?
*How do they solve the problem?
*What is the setting? Does it change?
*What did this story remind you of?

I've been struck by Shaemus's inability to answer these questions (except for the setting question. He can always answer the setting question). He comprehends the books he reads, I know he does. I can tell for a variety of reasons I won't go into, but his inability to answer these questions coherently and fully does not match up. If I asked him what Harry Potter the first was about, he would probably say "A boy named Harry who gets in a lot of trouble and almost dies." He would never say, "A boy named Harry who discovers his true identity and has to learn how to believe in himself as he fights the greatest, most evil wizard of all time." Gosh, as I write that, I'm not sure that's even what the book's about. (What would you say Harry Potter the first is about?)

There are better questions than these to help a child comprehend.

I get to go in and do lunch bunch with Shaemus's class once a week. I bring five kids back to the classroom during lunch, where I give the kids a mini-writing lesson. Last week was my first week, and I decided to teach them about beginnings—when does a story begin?

A simple way to answer this question is, When do things change for the main character(s)? Stories are about change. Always. Something has to change for there to be a story. It can be big or small, emotional, physical, social, but there must be change or you have no story.

And the cool thing is, if you can answer this question—when does the story begin? You can answer the question, "What is this story about?"

We looked at a bunch of books.

We started with Bear Feels Sick by Karma Wilson.
Product Details
When does this story change? First paragraph.

Alone in his cave where the autumn wind blows
Bear feels achy with a stuffed up nose

Something is already different for bear. He is normally well. Today he is sick.

So what's this story about? It's about a bear who has a cold and what he does or doesn't do to get better.
But wait a second. That's terribly boring. Who wants to read a book about a bear getting over an illness? So the book must be about something else too—and it must have to do with what the bear does to get well. What does Bear do to get well? His friends nurture him and love him through his sickness. This is a book about friendship, seen through the lens of a bear being sick.

Here's another example:

Wemberly Worried by Kevin Henkes
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Nothing changes for Wemberly for many, many pages. Henkes spends a great deal of time establishing what is normal for Wemberly, and the kids I was reading too had a tough time with this. They kept wanting the story to start, but Henkes was simply giving us example after example of how worried Wemberly is all the time.

Then something changes. School begins and a whole new series of worries begins.

So what is this story about? This story is about a girl who is very worried about going to school, and you can assume that by the end of the story, she won't be worried any more, which is of course what happens. And we can also assume that if she isn't so worried about school, she might not be so worried about everything else in her life.

The next book we looked at was this:
Product Details
Buttons by Brock Cole (Out of print—a travesty. Rush out and buy the first used copy you can find!)

I love this book. This is a nonsense book. But it is brilliant. The kids easily detected when the story begins. The story begins when the old man eats so much his buttons pop right off and fly into the fire. He has no more buttons.

What is this story about?

Well, is it about a man who needs to get buttons? That's when the story begins, right?

Yes, it is about that, but what is the book really about? What happens during the search for the buttons? 
That's where your answer lies.

We read book after book and I told them to raise their hands the minute they thought the story was beginning, and after four or five stories, they began to get it. Every time they could answer the question correctly, and we started talking about what we thought would happen at the very end. The man gets the buttons of course! The bear gets better! Wemberly is no longer worried about going to school!

So when your child is struggling telling you or a teacher what the story is about in a detailed, articulate way, change the question. Be more specific, for pity's sake. Mix it up. Make it fun. Make it a game. Make them feel like they are as smart as the author or the teacher. That they can see through to the bones of a story.

Back to Harry Potter:

When does the story begin? The story begins when Harry gets a letter saying he's a wizard who should go to wizarding school.

So what is the story about?

Harry's discovery of his true identity and the world he belongs in—and what he does as he has to save that world. (Maybe. I don't know. I'm not always sure there is a right or perfect answer to these questions...but we humans sure like to quantify things!)

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