Too often fiction becomes the neglected component of a seventh or eighth grade English curriculum. The demands of a curriculum geared to the basics too frequently consigns literature to a secondary status behind grammar, spelling, and composition skills. The reading of literature becomes superfluous—an added little treat for the students squeezed in during short weeks and early dismissal days. To this end I have previously written two literature units both dealing with the novel—a selection of science fiction stories and a survey of the work of Robert Louis Stevenson. The student anthologies, however, which I dutifully hand out in September and meticulously collect in June, gather dust and gum droppings in the students’ desks.
The major purpose of this unit is threefold. Students will first have the opportunity to read a selection of quality short fiction. Secondly, students will be directed to experience these short stories in an entirely different manner than they have been accustomed. Students will not analyze each short story with a series of observations concerning the many literary conventions such as plot, theme, setting, tone, irony, and the like. Rather, students will be urged to listen to what each story is saying and to draw a metaphorical link between the fictional tale and their own lives. Finally, this unit will attempt to strengthen student writing skills by directing the students to write compositions which elaborate on the metaphor discussed. Together these three objectives should provide a clear, simplified, and expedient method of understanding, experiencing, and appreciating the beauty of short fiction. The unit may also serve as a stratagem for the treatment of other fiction in the future.
The constraint of time for a study of literature is not the only reason such a pursuit is consistently postponed. Many of the anthologies available for seventh and eighth grade classes are severely limited by the thematic concerns of the editors. Quality short fiction is generally limited to one or two selections per anthology. The remainder of the stories are of the adolescent literature variety. These stories, some of which are entertaining, would probably never appear in any other collection of literature unless it was designed for the middle school student. Thus, after reading the one or two stories of any critical notoriety, the anthology returns to its home at the bottom of the desk unless, of course, the teacher shares the same thematic purpose as the editor of the volume.
Clearly, therein lies the first objective of this unit. I plan to introduce my students to a selection of quality short fiction without any particular regard to a single thematic purpose. If our study of short fiction is to be constrained by the amount of time the curriculum offers us, then let our students derive as wide a thematic experience as possible through a sampling of good stories rather than a series of selections somewhat narrow and contrived.
One of the original intentions of this unit was to introduce my students to the elements of short fiction that are inherent in all fiction. I had planned to encompass as many of them as possible knowing that my students would benefit greatly in later years from this experience. I envisioned a number of classes devoted to plot, character, theme, point of view, and setting. Those elements being exhausted, I would then lead my charges on an unexpurgated rape of each story with particular regard to the author’s use of symbol, instances of irony and paradox, and an indepth examination of conflict. Steadily, the moment approached when I would have to commit my thoughts to paper. Increasingly, I began to shudder.
We teachers of literature oftentimes exist within a paradox not unlike the paradox of the literature we hope to unravel. We extol the value of reading quality fiction. We tell our students that a story can be their plane ticket to faraway places, their train ride through life’s intricacies, their taxi of experience. Then, in all our academic pomposity, we peck at the story—the very object of our sustenance—in order to enlighten our students. What is left to enjoy? The plane crashes; the train derails; the taxi gets a flat. In short, the journey ends and with it so does the entertainment, the appreciation, and the experience.
When I read to my three year old, when anyone reads to a non-reader of that age, the experience is not a systematic methodology based on definitive terms but rather a true encounter with the story read. My reading is ultimately punctuated by her reaction to the story based upon her own, albeit limited, experience. She, at once, engrosses herself within the confines of the story armed with the totality of her experience. Inevitably, any judgment or critical comments she makes are with respect to her present existence. She invariably becomes kin to the story’s characters, and a resident of the story’s setting. Her level of enjoyment of each story depends primarily on how well she can develop the metaphorical relationship between her own character and setting and that of the story. In any event she has both appreciated and experienced literature. Long after she attends school and masters the talent of reading and falls prey to the methodology of ripping apart a story, I intend to continue reading to my daughter. Why should she have to forfeit the golden age of her literary experience?
A second objective of this unit is then to forego the traditional literary analysis and methodology and, instead, direct the students to listen to what each story is saying. Each student will at once become a participant in the stories and, to the extent that the stories impress upon them a metaphorical relationship, each student will have his airplane ticket validated. That is, each student will have an encounter with each story read and such encounter will result in the reader’s interpretation of the work with regard to his own experience and in light of his present environment or setting. Conversely, the reader’s interpretation of the story depends upon the story’s character in relation to his experience in the past. At the center of this encounter is the metaphorical link between the character in the story and the reader. This connection is primarily responsible for the growth of the reader. The schematic below attempts to present this dialectic succinctly. (See Figure 1)
The impetus for this approach to the study of short fiction is derived primarily from a rudimentary introduction to phenomenology and hermeneutics. Any lengthy discussion of either of these here is prohibited by the scope and intention of this unit. Brief highlights of each will have to suffice until the reader has the leisure to peruse the literature that will be suggested in the bibliography.
Phenomenology purports that a being (i.e. the reader) is led by the phenomenon (i.e. the work). The reader does not interpret the work on the basis of his own human consciousness; rather, the reality of the work comes to meet the reader. Once the work meets the reader, the reader’s own experience uses the encounter to formulate a line of interpretation. The result is that the reader increases his understanding and his experience is heightened.
“Hermeneutics”, as defined by Richard E. Palmer in
, is the study of understanding, especially the task of understanding texts. Palmer, in Chapter 14 “Thirty Theses on Interpretation”, details for us that the hermeneutical experience is historical and dialectical. It is a language event that should be led by the text. True interpretation of the text can only be accomplished, however, by its application to the present. Palmer continues that literary interpretation must begin as a language event of experiencing the work itself—of hearing what the work says. The reader becomes seized by the text and is subsequently changed by the text. This is a far cry from the systematic ripping down of a story that teachers of literature so love to do!
The idea that a story of fiction can effect change in the reader may seem, at first, foreign until one is reminded of the many parables recorded in the
and the folk tales, myths, and fables handed down through the ages. These forerunners of the short story all emphasize a lesson for the reader. The reader listens to the text, becomes a participator, and experiences a change of consciousness. The work itself has not changed; its structure, tone, and mood are invariant while its lesson has been transmitted.
The general characteristics inherent in short fiction include a single aim or purpose which can be read in one sitting. A certain brevity must exist, and each word should be an integral part of the whole. This economy of expression should be filled with a variety of images allowing the reader to picture each scene. In effect, the short story is a perfect vehicle for our students to take that aforementioned journey and become a participator in the event. Clearly, the hermeneutical approach to literature allows the journey to unfold.
A primary concern of any English teacher is the improvement of writing skills. A persistent problem I have encountered in student compositions is an apparent unwillingness to elaborate with any significance or detail. Any task-oriented writing assignment such as a descriptive paragraph or an essay-type answer to a particular question generally remains flat even after three successive drafts. Students prefer to short cut these assignments and time on task becomes time too short and not well spent.
There are two areas, however, in which student writing seems less of an arduous chore for the writer and also for the instructor. Students enjoy being creative and, like the rest of mankind, students love writing about themselves. Composition assignments that thrust the student into the world of danger or incredible circumstances are among the best indications of a student’s writing ability. In assignments such as these students are able to picture themselves in situations where they are the protagonist. The result is a more fervent writing since they are the stars. Coincidentally, the plots that these students play out are generally derived from the cinema or television.
The only writing assignment that students participate in with a similar fervor to the one above is of the autobiographical nature. Students work laboriously on assignments that chronicle their lives or a segment of their lives. The result is generally a keen sense of sequence and a vast amount of personal pride. Students are also more prone to add various highlights to these completed assignments such as photographs and memorabilia.
A third objective of this unit will be the improvement of student writing skills. Students will write a series of compositions which will assert the metaphorical link between themselves and the piece of short fiction read. In an introspective manner students will compare their being to the influence transmitted by the short fictional piece and will write non-fictional papers dealing with this metaphorical relationship.
The focus of concern for these papers will be in three areas: character, setting, and plot. The area of focus will be determined by the piece of short fiction read. A story with a particularly good character development will generate a paper with a focus dealing with a metaphorical relationship between the story’s protagonist and the student himself. The value of this procedure is two-fold. Since we are treating stories as phenomena and studying the story’s effect upon the reader, a paper of this sort is a logical extension. Secondly, since we know that students enjoy writing about themselves, there seemingly will be no lack of concern for the task on the student’s part. Occasionally, this assignment will be broadened to include metaphorical relationships between story characters and characters in real life familiar to the students.
The second area of concern also dependent upon the relative piece of short fiction is the setting. Perhaps, a more definitive term to use here would be environment. In assignments such as these, students will concentrate on the metaphorical relationship between the environment in the story and their own environment. Students are generally very conscious of their environment and are also very quick to point out setting (time and place) in any literature read. It is hoped that these papers concentrating on the metaphor of environment will greatly increase the students’ own understanding and appreciation of their environment.
Finally, the third area of concern as substance for a metaphorical relationship will be plot. A more appropriate term here is experience. Students will compare experiences in short fiction to experiences they have encountered or will encounter in the future. Perhaps assignments such as these will generate some of the more insightful examples of writing by the students. It is anticipated that the area of values clarification will be central to these discussions. This focus will also provide the basis for lively discussion since the differences in character and environment among the students will necessarily develop differing points of view concerning the fictional experiences encountered.
A further consequence of a series of papers dealing with the metaphorical relationship between fictional and real life is the exposure to the different styles of writing inherent or suggested by each assignment. The writings dealing with character will be primarily narrative and descriptive. The papers concentrating on environment will be descriptive. The assignments with a focus on situation will be good examples of the expository nature of writing.
Several years ago a colleague and I wrote a unit in the Institute that proved very successful. In it we discussed Dr. Jules Prown’s method of reading objects and used this method as a basis for student writing. This present effort is an attempt to use quality pieces of short fiction as phenomena performing an encounter with students. In our previous unit the student was directed to dissect various material objects in an attempt to clarify observations and hone the creative experience. In this unit the objects—short fiction—are influencing the students and affecting change. I feel the two units presented to the same class would be of immense benefit and constitute the majority of a good student writing program which doesn’t leave students at a loss for words.
When I began this seminar, I had hoped to introduce students to quality short fiction. I believe the suggested stories for use which will follow will achieve this objective. I feel that by taking a phenomonological treatment of these stories and nurturing this experience with an emphasis on hermeneutics will result in a maturation process for the students. I know that the suggested writing assignments will increase student writing skills. All of this will be accomplished by reading short stories which are glimpses of character, environment, and experience. All of this develops logically and easily from these small packages of literature.