meat-and-potatoes (mēt ănd pǝtā′tōs) adj. fundamental; down-to-earth; basic
As a classroom teacher and instructional reading/language arts coach for thirty years, I attended countless writing workshops where programs were touted as “research based,” “data driven,” and “best practices.” And every time I’d listen to those presentations, I couldn’t help but wonder why, if the programs were so great, did school districts continue to get rid of them and buy new ones every few years.
Okay, confession time. I used to promote similar products. I inherited the job when I became an instructional coach. The training modules were fed to me, and I would regurgitate them, word for word.
But something happened at a workshop I was asked to lead that affected me so deeply, it became the catalyst for my creating this blog.
I had followed every step of the scripted presentation, beginning with the requisite intros and icebreakers (or time wasters, as I prefer to call them). After that, I divided the teachers into groups and had them appoint a scribe, a timekeeper, and a speaker. Among their assignments was to jigsaw read and discuss a long article about writing. Another was to draw a picture of the neighborhood where they grew up and write about an event that took place there. I also invited the groups to participate in silly role-playing games and other activities that had everyone laughing and joking. In between, I projected PowerPoint slides on the screen that dealt with trends in education along with theories on how children learn.
When the workshop was over, some teachers thanked me, but most disappeared like thieves in the night. They’d gotten their mandatory professional development hours, so adios, muchacho!
While I was gathering my things, one teacher walked up to me, looking perplexed. She hesitated for a moment, then said, “Excuse me, but how do you really teach writing?”
No doubt, you’ve heard of aha! moments. Well, that was a huh? moment for me. I didn’t know what to say. After all, I had just spent the past seven hours talking about writing.
Yet I shouldn’t have been surprised by the teacher’s question. She had a valid concern. Unfortunately, I wasn’t in a position where I could address it truthfully. Otherwise I might have told her, “The reason you’re still not sure how to teach writing…is ’cause this program sucks!”
By then, I’d had several young adult novels published. Plus I’d spent years studying and honing my craft in my quest to become an author. So I had a strong enough grasp of the writing process to know that the information I had presented was not going to help the teacher turn her students into successful writers. But my job was to sell the program the district had purchased, not to offer my professional opinions.
Nevertheless, I left the building that afternoon, troubled by the realization that after an entire day of training, neither the confused teacher, nor anyone else at that workshop, had gained new insights on how to teach writing. The PowerPoint slides, the group activities, the laughing and joking would be a forgotten memory by the time the participants returned to their campuses.
And what do you suppose happened to those writing articles I handed out? My guess is that some of them ended in the trunks of the teachers’ cars where they joined other educational materials abandoned there. A few were buried in filing cabinets, rarely to be seen again. The rest were tossed into what is known euphemistically in the teaching profession as File 13 (if you know what I mean, and I think you do).
In the years that followed, the teacher’s words would play sporadically in my head, like a pesky Disney song you can’t get rid of: How do you really teach writing?
This blog is my attempt to answer her question, as well as yours, if you’ve wondered the same thing but don’t know who to ask. I titled it A Meat & Potatoes Approach to Teaching Writing because that’s exactly what it is—a plain-language description of the writing process and how to teach it. No gimmicks. No buzzwords. No convoluted theories. Just some practical, doable ideas you can use in your classroom and see immediate, positive results.
Please check this blog regularly for my latest posts.
PRACTICE WHAT YOU TEACH
You can teach better with your example than by your words.—Reed Markham
A fourth-grade teacher drew a picture of a hamburger on the marker board to illustrate how to write a five-paragraph essay.
“The topic sentence lets the reader know what the essay will be about,” the teacher told the class. “That’s why it comes first. Think of it like the top bun of a hamburger.” He wrote TOPIC SENTENCE on the top bun.
Next, he asked, “Who can tell me what goes in the middle of a hamburger?”
“The meat!” several students shouted.
“That’s right,” the teacher said. “Those are the juicy parts. In an essay, the middle is made up of juicy details.” He wrote DETAILS in the center of the drawing. “Be sure to add three juicy details to your essay that tell about your topic sentence. Now I want you to notice how the bottom bun of the hamburger looks a lot like the top bun. The last paragraph of an essay is called the conclusion. It looks almost the same as the first paragraph, but not exactly.”
He wrote CONCLUSION on the bottom bun. “When you write your conclusion, I want you to retell what your topic sentence is about, except use different words.”
The teacher then gave his students a prompt and told them to write an essay about it. “Think about the hamburger,” he urged, tapping the drawing with his pointing stick.
Judging by their work, I could tell that many students still had no idea how to write an essay. And if they had hamburgers on their minds, it might have been because lunchtime was nearing, and they were hungry.
I don’t think I’m going out on a limb when I say that writing is one of the least demonstrated skills taught in the classroom. Unlike reading, in which teachers model how to find the main idea, draw conclusions, use context clues, and read with prosody; or math, in which teachers show their students, step-by-step, how to solve a problem; writing is a subject that, more often than not, is explained, rather than demonstrated.
In my role as an instructional coach, and later, as a university student-teacher field supervisor, I visited hundreds of language arts classrooms, from kindergarten through eighth grade. Typically what I observed were teachers presenting “mini lessons” (when did the term mini lesson replace lesson?). A graphic organizer of some sort and maybe an anchor chart were usually included. In some classrooms, samples of published works or student compositions were projected on the screen to show what “good writing” looked like. But rarely did I see teachers use their own stories and essays as examples.
After listening to a teacher tell her students to write a personal narrative, I suggested to her that next time, she should write one and share it with the class. That way her students would have a better idea of how to write a personal narrative. Her immediate response was, “Oh, no. I can’t do that. I wouldn’t know what to write about.”
If we are to become effective teachers of writing, we must first see ourselves as writers.
You may have heard this advice before or something similar. But aren’t all teachers writers? What I mean is that you write just about every day—lesson plans, letters to parents, disciplinary referrals, texts, emails, social media posts—plus dozens of other forms of communication that involve putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard.
Yet a number of language arts teachers have confided in me that writing is their weakness, and they aren’t sure how to teach it. Their lack of confidence likely stems from the fact that they are required to teach the two genres they seldom, if ever, practice writing: essays and narratives.
Most teachers haven’t written an essay since college. And how often does the average teacher sit down to write a story with a plot, characters, setting, conflict, and a resolution? It’s not surprising, then, that a lot of them use quirky, unconventional methods to teach writing.
One teacher gave her students a formula chart that looked something like this:
Paragraph One: A Hook
Paragraph Two: Dialogue
Paragraph Three: Onomatopoeia
Paragraph Four: Simile
I would have found it interesting to watch the teacher write a composition in front of her students using her formula chart. She didn’t, of course.
Another teacher assigned his students a story to write. Before they began, he said, “Remember, guys, be sure to include an introduction, three supporting paragraphs, and a conclusion.”
Apparently, the teacher had never written a story. Otherwise he would have known better than to tell his students to structure their stories that way.
Some teachers mask their lack of knowledge with the old adage: “We are not the sage on the stage. We are the guide on the side.” They contend that their teaching style is to be supporters and encouragers, rather than all-knowing experts.
My fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Strange, was a subscriber of that mindset. The thing I remember about her is that she loved all my stories. No matter what I wrote, she loved. Not only did she love my stories, she would invite me to stand in front of the classroom to read them aloud.
And each of my stories, without exception, began like this: One day, I was walking and walking and walking. Then, following that incredibly captivating opening line, I would relate what I did on that day when I went walking and walking and walking.
Mrs. Strange would gush over my work. She’d tell me what a wonderful writer I was, and I couldn’t wait to return to my desk to crank out my next masterpiece.
Those were terrific times, and I have cherished memories of my beloved fourth-grade teacher.
Even so, when I look back at the year I spent in her classroom through an evaluative lens, I realize that while Mrs. Strange may have done more to motivate me to write than perhaps any teacher I had, she never taught me how to improve as a writer. Not once, for instance, did she show me different ways to begin a story. Nor did she demonstrate how I could better develop my ideas. She simply let me write whatever I wanted and applauded whatever I produced. To be fair, Mrs. Strange didn’t have a high-stakes standardized test hanging over her head like the Sword of Damocles.
Writing is hard. There’s no getting around it. Joseph Heller said, “Every writer I know has trouble writing.”
Shortening the amount of instruction with mini lessons for the sake of giving students more time to write, or using graphic organizers and anchor charts to explain the process, won’t necessarily create skilled writers. Neither will celebrating poorly written work. Mrs. Strange was my biggest cheerleader, but her praises didn’t make me a better writer—master teachers did.
If we are to become effective teachers of writing, we must first see ourselves as writers…of the genres we teach.
Teachers can’t expect to show their students how to write a story if they’ve never written one. Nor will they fully understand why their students are having difficulty developing their ideas unless they write essays, too, using the same prompts they assign.
A friend was nominated Teacher of the Year for her school district. One of the requirements on the application form was for her to submit an essay about her teaching experience. She told me, “I’ve been a language arts teacher for almost twenty years, but writing that essay was one of the toughest things I’ve had to do. And it hit me that this is what I put my kids through every day.”
There’s a story that’s been attributed to Mahatma Gandhi. I can’t attest to its validity, but the message behind it serves as a reminder that teachers should practice what they teach.
A young boy had become obsessed with consuming vast amounts of sugar. His mother tried to get him to stop, but he refused.
Finally, she took him to meet Gandhi, the boy’s idol. She pleaded with the great leader to tell her son to quit his unhealthy habit.
Gandhi told the woman to bring her son back in two weeks, and he would speak to him then.
The woman couldn’t understand why she had to wait so long. All she wanted was for Gandhi to tell her son not to eat too much sugar. At any rate, she complied.
Two weeks later, the woman returned with her son.
Gandhi took the boy by the shoulders and looked him in the eyes. “Don’t eat so much sugar, young man,” he told him. “It isn’t good for you.”
The boy nodded and agreed to curtail his craving.
Puzzled, the woman asked Gandhi, “Why didn’t you tell him that two weeks ago when I first brought him?”
Gandhi replied, “As of two weeks ago, I was also eating a lot of sugar. I couldn’t advise your son to stop unless I could do it myself.”
Sometimes at my workshops I rhetorically pose the question: “Are you a teacher, or are you an assignment giver?”
After one session, a gentleman came up to me and said, “I’ve never had anyone ask me that question before. But as I was listening to you, it occurred to me that I’ve been more of an assignment giver than a teacher.”
I told him, “I’m glad you know the difference. Now go out and be a teacher.”
One should not increase, beyond what is necessary, the number of entities required to explain anything.—Occam’s Razor
Rube Goldberg was a cartoonist known for his drawings of elaborate contraptions designed to perform everyday tasks. He felt that people often found the most difficult ways of doing things, so he poked fun at them through his artwork. His method for sharpening a pencil, for example, was a satirical series of steps that involved pulleys, levers, clothing, and animals.
Unfortunately, Rube Goldberg contraptions have made their way into many language arts classrooms, in the shapes of circles, squares, rectangles, triangles, lines, and arrows, known collectively as graphic organizers. They come in endless other designs, from pictures of butterflies, houses, ice cream cones, and snowmen, to the perennial favorite, the hamburger.
Graphic organizers are supposed to help children brainstorm and organize their ideas. But how effective are they?
A third-grade teacher asked me to help her with a student who was refusing to write the story she had assigned the class.
“No matter what I tell him, he won’t do anything,” she said.
So I sat with the little boy and asked him why he wouldn’t write his story. In near tears, he pointed to the marker board and wailed, “’Cause I don’t know how to do the graphic organizer!”
On the board was a diagram of connected circles and squares along with a column of rectangles and a set of vague instructions.
“Well, do you think you can write a story without the graphic organizer?” I asked him.
“I…I think so,” he said.
“Then do it. Don’t worry about the graphic organizer.”
With some assistance, the little boy managed to write a decent story.
In spite of that, his teacher remained upset with him, because he didn’t use the graphic organizer to plan his work.
I couldn’t blame the little boy for not being able to write a story the way his teacher wanted. I don’t think I could have written one that way, either.
At another school, a teacher tried to explain to her second graders how to write an autobiography. She began by showing them a video on the subject. Next, she broke down the steps for writing an autobiography, using a flower-shaped graphic organizer. Then she drew a timeline where she listed the years her students had lived, and made suggestions as to what they could include in their compositions.
Meanwhile, most of the class had tuned her out. Some students were entertaining themselves by playing with their pencils or by doodling in their journals. Others were struggling to stay awake. Not surprisingly, the final product wasn’t what the teacher had in mind.
Graphic organizers have the look and feel of real teaching, which is why teachers are fond of them. I don’t mind admitting that early in my career, I used them, too. They were popular at my campus, and being a novice teacher, I didn’t question their effectiveness—until I became a writer.
One day it dawned on me that the way I was writing bore little resemblance to the way I was teaching it. So I ditched the graphic organizers and began using samples of my own work to model my expectations.
Soon a marvelous thing happened. Instead of the mechanical, toneless compositions my students had been turning in, they began to write with heartfelt emotions. And they could do so because now they had concrete examples of what their work should look like. Furthermore, I was able to walk them through each decision I made as I wrote.
Teachers have a tendency to overexplain the writing process. Many of them require their students to do more planning for a one-page composition than I do for an entire novel.
Too much planning is the surest way to squash children’s enthusiasm for writing. By forcing them to run their ideas through Rube Goldberg-type graphic organizers before they start, any excitement they may have felt about their assignment could fade within minutes.
One educator defended the use of graphic organizers, saying, “Skipping the prewriting stage is like taking a vacation without first choosing a destination. If you don’t know where you’re going, how will you get there?”
She made it sound as if that’s a bad thing.
Writing isn’t just about putting predetermined thoughts down on paper. It’s also about making discoveries along the way. An idea that hadn’t occurred to us before. A path we hadn’t anticipated. A character’s surprising reaction to a given situation.
Kirkus Reviews described my young adult novel, Don’t Call Me Hero, as having “some unexpected twists.” The twists were unexpected because I didn’t know they were going to happen until I got to that part of the story.
Ironically, one of the reasons teachers use graphic organizers is because they teach from the perspective of a teacher, rather than of a writer. The TEACHER feels that students won’t know what to do unless they dissect the writing process. The WRITER simply sits down, writes, and makes changes as needed. To quote Beatrix Potter: “There is something delicious about writing the first words of a story. You never quite know where they’ll take you.”
This is not to say that students don’t need a system for planning and organizing their ideas. But there are better ways to go about it, other than filling in geometric shapes, as I’ll show you in future posts.
When I taught language arts courses for education majors, I used to have my students write compositions in different genres. I’d also show them various graphic organizers and ask if they’d ever consider using them as planning tools. The unanimous answer was always no.
“Keep that in mind when you become teachers,” was my advice.
Some teachers taught the curriculum today. Other teachers taught students today. And there’s a big difference.—Dr. Justin Tarte
Anchor charts, like their cousins, the graphic organizers, are popular tools for teaching writing. So much so that at many schools, language arts teachers are mandated to display them in their classrooms.
An anchor chart is a list of writing tips and reminders, typically decorated with colorful lettering and illustrations. Its purpose, ostensibly, is to help children “visualize” their learning.
START WITH A HOOK SENTENCE
ADD LOTS OF DETAILS
INCLUDE THE FIVE SENSES
USE PUNCTUATION MARKS
END WITH A POWERFUL CONCLUSION
But like graphic organizers, anchor charts are little more than window dressing. A picture of a heart to symbolize emotions, for example, doesn’t help children write with greater feelings. Drawings of pencils, magnifying glasses, thought bubbles, and other images to describe what good writers do don’t strengthen their writing skills, either. And is it really necessary to draw a picture of a lightbulb to remind students to think about their topic?
Also, despite the assertion that students refer to anchor charts when they write, the reality is that most anchor charts blend into the overloaded print-rich landscape that clutters many classroom walls, and children seldom notice them.
Teachers often create anchor charts as follow ups to their mini lessons—ten minutes or so of instruction. The problem with mini lessons is that they can leave children with a “mini understanding” of what to do. A brief discussion about sensory details, for example, isn’t sufficient enough to show students how to use the skill with any depth. And pictures of facial features on an anchor chart are unlikely to provide further clarification.
In his book, Immediate Fiction, Jerry Cleaver posits that the reason most writers never get published isn’t because they don’t have stories to tell or because they don’t work hard at their craft. “The reason they don’t make it is because they haven’t been given the right tools.”
For students to improve their writing skills, teachers must equip them with the same tools professional writers use to inform, persuade, explain how to, and entertain their readers. More important, they must demonstrate how to apply the tools by using their own work as an example. A teacher’s writing sample is a far superior visual than an anchor chart. Additionally, teachers must lead their students through lots of guided practice—however long it takes—until the students are able to use the tools automatically.
As for what they do with the tools once they leave the classroom is up them, which is why one child will grow up to become Ernest Hemingway, while another will use his tools, mainly to write texts and emails, and to post information on social media, which is okay, too. At the very least, we hope they know the difference between there, their, and they’re; to, too, and two; it’s and its; your and you’re; and not every word that ends with an s has an apostrophe.
If you use anchor charts in you classroom, ask yourself: “Are they really helping my students become better writers? Or are they just another piece of decorative wallpaper?”
THE NITTY-GRITTY OF ESSAY WRITING
Have no fear of perfection; you’ll never reach it.—Salvador Dali
If there’s a downside to having children write stories and personal narratives, it’s that some teachers ignore the other genres, and their students spend the entire school year writing about enchanted kingdoms, a fun day they had, or about their three-legged dog, Tripod.
But students need to learn how to write essays, too—not just for classroom assignments, but also for use in the “real world.” Essays in the real world can come in the forms of speeches, sermons, presentations, letters, and professional articles, to list a few examples.
For many children, though, the transition from story writing to essay writing can be confusing. To begin with, the structures are different. Students are no longer dealing with a plot, characters, setting, conflict, and a resolution. Now they must come up with an introduction, a thesis statement, a body, and a conclusion.
In addition to that, stories are written to entertain readers, while essays (which can also be entertaining) are primarily meant to reveal the writer’s attitude and knowledge about particular subjects.
In its simplest definition, an essay is the writer saying to the reader: This is what I think, and here’s why.
Thus, to fully appreciate the genre, students must see essay writing as a chance to voice their opinions, openly and honestly, about issues they care about. Ordinarily, teachers give them a prompt and tell them to write about it. But it’s difficult for children to write with any passion about topics that don’t interest them. And while it’s a given that, eventually, they’ll have to write “on demand,” either on a standardized test or on some type of admissions exam, they’ll be better prepared to do so if they’ve had plenty of opportunities to choose their own topics.
Even then, despite your best efforts, don’t be disappointed if your students’ compositions aren’t exceptionally well written. Writing, like any discipline, takes lots of practice to become proficient at it.
I can’t help but chuckle whenever I come across writing programs that guarantee to transform students into “great” writers. They remind me of the gimmicky, body-sculpting gadgets that appear on daytime and late-night television.
“For just ten minutes a day of using our FAT-BEGONE THINGAMAJIG, you can have a rock-hard dream body.”
If it’s that easy, then anyone can have a rock-hard dream body. And anyone can be a great writer.
At the risk of sounding heretical, your job is not to turn your students into great writers. Your job to provide them with the proper writing tools and demonstrate how they work, so that with enough practice, desire, and determination, perhaps someday your students will become great writers. Or as Octavia E. Butler said, “You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it.”
Years ago, I was at a Christmas party where a guy who’d obviously imbibed too many adult beverages staggered over to me. With slurred speech, he said, “I hear you’re a fourth-grade writing teacher.”
I told him I was.
“Then answer me this (thish). If you teach kids how to write in the fourth grade, why do they have to learn how to write in the fifth grade, and in the sixth grade, and in the seventh grade, and in all the other grades? Didn’t you do a good enough job of teaching them how to write when you had them?”
I thought about the drunk’s question for a moment. “Do you play the piano?” I asked him.
He looked at me strangely. “No.”
“Well, how many piano lessons do you think you’ll need to take before you can play like Rachmaninoff?” I asked, then walked away to let him think about it.
I had a college English professor who wouldn’t let us write our essays until he had approved our thesis statements. I knew what I wanted to write about, but I couldn’t get started, because according to the professor, my thesis statement wasn’t strong enough.
Looking back, I realize that my professor couldn’t have known if I had a strong thesis statement because I hadn’t written the essay yet.
Not that it mattered. I dropped the course the next time we met, after the professor announced to the class that since we weren’t English majors, we couldn’t possibly produce quality work. Therefore, the highest grade we could hope to earn was a C.
“Mediocre essays,” he said, sniffing haughtily, “deserve a mediocre grade.” The professor uttered the word mediocre as if it had a sour taste.
But mediocrity is actually a fine place for your students to be. If they can write mediocre essays, that means they have the tools necessary to complete them. Now all they need is continuous practice and refinement.
So instead of shooting for perfection, strive for progress. If your students can write better next month than they can today, that’s progress. If in May or June, they can look back at how they were writing at the beginning of the year, and laugh at their work, that’s progress. What you don’t want is for your students to get discouraged and not write at all. To quote Jodi Picoult: “You can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank one.”
THE FIVE-PARAGRAPH ESSAY CONUNDRUM
Anyone who says writing is easy isn’t doing it right.—Amy Joy
The five-paragraph essay structure has long been a staple in language arts classrooms. Teachers like to use it because it’s easy to explain.
Step 1. Write a thesis statement.
Step 2. Write a paragraph that supports the thesis statement.
Step 3. Write a second paragraph that supports the thesis statement.
Step 4. Write a third paragraph that supports the thesis statement.
Step 5. Write a conclusion that restates the thesis statement.
Critics, however, call the structure formulaic, and say it has no real-world use, because five-paragraph essays aren’t found in magazines, newspapers, or any other types of writing outside of school. Critics also claim the structure too rigid and restricts analytical thinking, creativity, and voice.
“Well, kids need to learn how to crawl before they can walk,” teachers counter. “At least this model helps them organize their ideas.”
Both arguments are valid. The five-paragraph essay structure isn’t used by professional writers. Also, the limited number of paragraphs can stifle a student’s critical thinking skills and writing style. But as the old saying goes, everyone has to start somewhere.
My son’s first bicycle came with a set of training wheels. Riding it wasn’t difficult for him because the bike was basically an over-sized tricycle. He knew, though, that the training wheels would eventually come off, and he’d have to learn to ride his bike without them.
The five-paragraph essay structure is the training wheels of writing. It can be a helpful tool for beginning writers, but it isn’t meant to be a permanent solution. One reason for its less than favorable reputation is that teachers continue to teach the format from grade to grade, and students are never weaned from it. The model might work as a starting point, but to paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, like guests and fish, it begins to stink after a while.
When your students work on their drafts, they ought to have a thesis statement in mind. But they should think of it as a temporary one. After a while, they may discover they can’t tie all their ideas to their original thought. If that’s the case, they can either get rid of those ideas, change their thesis statement entirely, or tweak it so it has a better fit.
As for how many paragraphs your students need to write depends on what they want to say. Paragraphs can be long or short. Some paragraphs can be one sentence—or one word.
I’m not kidding.
One-sentence and one-word paragraphs are usually written for emphasis, rather than for content. These types of paragraphs also add variety to a composition that has a series of longer ones. Show your students what they look like in books, newspapers, and magazines. Better yet, share samples of your work with them so they can see how you do it when you write.
To conclude their essays, your students should do more than restate their thesis statement. A good conclusion leaves the reader with something to think about. Similar to the maxim, “You only get one chance to make a first impression,” the conclusion is the writer’s last opportunity to influence the reader.
Your students can conclude their essays by adding a final comment about the points they’ve made, by summarizing their ideas, by posing a thought-provoking question, or by urging their readers to take some sort of action. With experience, they’ll learn myriad other ways to end their compositions.
Use the five-paragraph essay structure if you feel it will help your students. But once they get comfortable with it, say to them, “This good. Now let me show you how to make it better.”
YOU DIDN’T HAVE ME AT “HELLO”
Perhaps the best thing to do is to stop writing introductions and get on with the book.—A. A. Milne
I’ve been out of the dating scene for many years, ever since I met and married the lovely Mrs. Villareal. So I’m not sure what kinds of pick-up lines guys use these days. My guess is that they’re the same dopey ones that were around in my youth.
Some guys honestly think that all they need is the perfect bon mot, and women will swoon over them, ignoring the fact that they don’t have jobs, that they still live with their parents, and that their chief mode of transportation is their bicycle.
A witty remark might initially catch a woman’s attention. But if that’s all a guy’s got going for him, she’ll dump him, long before he gets a chance to ask, “Your place or mine?”
The same assumption is made about the “hook.” Students are told that a strong introduction will hook their readers and make them want to keep reading.
Not necessarily so.
At most, a strong introduction might get an audience to read the second paragraph. After that, it’s up to the second paragraph to make them want to read the third one. And the third paragraph needs to draw them into the fourth one, and so on and so on. A paragraph that fails to deliver can cause a composition to lose its readers, regardless of how intriguing the introduction may be.
One teacher had her students begin all their personal narratives with the line: “Wow! Have I got a story to tell you!” Unfortunately, once the students got past that exaggerated intro, they didn’t have much of a story to tell.
Read a newspaper or magazine article. After a couple of paragraphs, ask yourself if you’re still thinking about the introduction. If you’re like me, the answer is probably no. You’ve moved on to what the article is about.
While you’re at it, ask yourself if the introduction is as powerful as students are led to believe it should be. Or is it just…an introduction?
Stephen King began his novella, The Mist, with the line: “This is what happened.” He borrowed it from Douglas Fairbairn, who used it to introduce his novel, Shoot.
In an interview with The Atlantic, King said of the introduction, “For me, this has always been the quintessential opening line. It’s flat and clean as an affidavit. It establishes just what kind of speaker we’re dealing with: someone willing to say, I will tell you the truth. I’ll tell you the facts. I’ll cut through the [b. s.] and show you exactly what happened. It suggests that there’s an important story here, too, in a way that says to the reader: and you want to know.”
Ultimately, what keeps readers hooked isn’t the introduction, but the content of the work and the style in which it’s written.
In the movie, Jerry Maguire, Tom Cruise may have had Renée Zellweger at “hello,” but a composition needs a lot more than a catchy intro to win over an audience.
THE HELEN CRUMP GRADING METHOD
Children need models rather than critics.—Joseph Joubert
On an episode of the classic TV series, The Andy Griffith Show, Opie’s teacher, Helen Crump, assigns her students an essay to write for homework. Oddly, she does this on a Friday, after the final bell has rung, and the students are about to walk out the door.
Miss Crump: Now I want to give you this weekend’s assignment. I’d like you to write a composition on my most unforgettable character of five-hundred words or more.
Betsy: Can we write about anybody, Miss Crump?
Miss Crump: Uh, yes, Betsy. Anybody who’s made an impression upon you.
Opie decides to write about his pa, Sheriff Andy Taylor. Andy is expecting his son to make “his usual A,” so when he learns that Opie is given an F on his composition, he’s understandably shocked.
Goober tries to explain the failing grade, telling Andy that maybe Helen wasn’t feeling well the day she scored the essays. Howard Sprague adds that Opie might have gotten the F because of poor spelling. Unsatisfied with those answers, Andy pays Helen a surprise visit at school to ask about the grade.
Andy: I guess the reason Opie got his uh, F is, uh, because of his sentence structure.
Helen: Uh, no, his sentence structure was fine.
Andy: Oh, it was probably because of his lack of vocabulary.
Helen: No trouble with his vocabulary.
Helen: It was fine.
Seeing the befuddled look on Andy’s face, Helen tells him, “If, uh, if you think the reason I gave Opie a bad mark was because, uh… (smiling) well, it certainly wasn’t the subject.” The only other clue she offers is when she says, “I know that when Opie does his rewrite, he’ll get a lot more interesting things to write about, okay?”
At the end of the episode, Opie makes an A on his composition after he chooses another person to write about. He concludes that he must have gotten the F on his first draft because he was too close to his pa and couldn’t think of anything exciting to write about him.
Still, the question remains: What criteria did Helen Crump use to grade her students’ compositions? She didn’t teach or review anything prior to assigning the work. All she said was that the compositions had to be five-hundred words or more, an issue that never came up for why Opie initially made the F.
Over the years, I’ve seen teachers use the Helen Crump grading method: First, write the composition. Then I’ll decide what you did wrong.
One third-grade teacher had her students write a process paper on how to make a peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich. Afterwards, she asked for volunteers to read their compositions aloud. As they did, the teacher made sarcastic remarks, such as, “Aren’t you going to remove the lids from the jars first?” and “What are you going to spread the jelly with? Your fingers?”
I told the teacher that she should write a process paper to use as an example. Then perhaps her students might not make the types of errors she had pointed out. She replied that she thought it was better for them to learn from their mistakes.
I think she got a kick out of ridiculing little kids.
I once worked with an assistant principal who was never satisfied with my lesson plans. Each week, she’d walk into my classroom, glance at my lesson plans, then stick a Post-it note on them with nasty little comments. No matter what changes I made, in her eyes, my lesson plans were unacceptable.
Finally, I asked her, “Why don’t you write a set of lesson plans for me so I’ll know exactly what you want?”
Care to take a guess what her response was?
“No, you keep writing them, and I’ll let you know whether they’re right or wrong.” First, write the lesson plans. Then…
Whenever teachers tell their students to write compositions without modeling their expectations, they’re more inclined to grade the work subjectively, based on feelings, rather than on taught skills. Also, the suggestions they make for improvement are often vague: add more details, use rich vocabulary words, write with voice.
In order for students to become better writers, teachers must show them precisely how to add more details, how to use rich vocabulary words, and how to write with voice.
Now think about the last writing assignment you gave your students. Which skills did you teach or review beforehand? Did you demonstrate, through your writing, how to apply them? Did you give your students time to practice the skills while you served as their guide? And did you let your students know what you would be looking for when you graded their compositions?
Or was it a Helen Crump assign-and-criticize type of activity?
YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT?
The cat sat on the mat is not a story. The cat sat on the other cat’s mat is a story.—John le Carré
Long before children enter school, they’ve been exposed to all sorts of stories, from the once-upon-a-time variety, to family history and lore. It’s natural, then, to use storytelling as a springboard to teach story writing. But to do that, teachers must first clarify what a story is.
We commonly refer to events we hear, see, and read about as a story:
I heard a story on the radio this morning.
I saw a story on the news last night.
I read a story in the paper today.
My friend told me a funny story.
So what exactly is a story?
In the early grades, students are taught that a story has five basic elements: plot, characters, setting, conflict, and a resolution. Later, they may be introduced to other literary elements, such as the exposition, the rising action, the falling action, the climax, and the denouement.
While each of these elements is essential to a story, arguably the most important one is the conflict. Conflict is the heart of a story. It’s what gives it life. Just as we can’t live without our hearts, a story can’t live without conflict. Take away the conflict, and the story dies.
Consider The Three Little Pigs, for example, and imagine how it would read without the Big Bad Wolf in it.
Once upon a time, there were three Little Pigs who lived in the woods. One day, they decided to build houses. The first Little Pig built his house out of straw. The second Little Pig built his house out of sticks. The third Little Pig built his house out of bricks. And they lived happily ever after.
The story still has a plot, characters, setting, and a resolution. But without conflict, without some type of problem, it’s like eating a piece of uncooked meat—digestible, but flavorless.
Stories aren’t about happiness. They’re about tension, threats, and fears. Happiness can be part of a story, but it’s never the story. Why? Because happiness doesn’t keep readers turning pages—adversity does.
Think of any book you’ve read, any movie you’ve seen, or any TV show you’ve watched. If it was a story, it had conflict. And the worse things got, the more you were captivated by it.
The TV series Seinfeld was jokingly promoted as “a show about nothing.” But Seinfeld was actually a show about conflict. Each episode presented multiple problems for Jerry and the gang. The wackier the situations, the funnier the episode. If you’re a Seinfeld fan, you’ll recognize these lines:
“No soup for you!”
“But we’re not gay! Not that there’s anything wrong with that!”
“I was in the pool! I was in the pool!”
Would we still have loved Lucy if she didn’t have some “’splainin’” to do? Her antics may have driven Ricky Ricardo crazy, but they also made I Love Lucy one of the most enduring and entertaining TV shows of all time.
Jerry Cleaver cautions aspiring novelists: “If the characters in your story are having a good time, your readers are not.”
One of the reasons children struggle to write stories is because they’re not aware of this basic concept, partly because their teachers don’t emphasize it.
I’ve noticed that after students finish reading a story, the first question their teachers typically ask them is, “Who are the main characters?” Followed by, “Where does the story take place?”
Having students recall the names of the characters or asking them to identify the setting doesn’t test their understanding of a story. Nor does it help them write one.
Instead of querying your students about characters and settings, the first question you should ask during the post-reading discussion is, “What are the conflicts in the story?” This will require them to think deeper about what they’ve read.
Next, ask your students, “How are the characters affected by the conflicts?” This question is equally thought-provoking because conflict changes characters—or reveals their true nature, as the case may be.
A bully discovers he’s not as tough as he thought he was. A boy finds the strength he didn’t realize he had to prevail over the obstacles he faces. A teenage girl from Kansas finally learns that “there’s no place like home.”
Look at what happened to the three Little Pigs. At the beginning of the story, they were sweet, gentle creatures, whose only intention was to build houses. But when the Big Bad Wolf tried to break into their brick home, they went from being sweet, gentle creatures, to turning downright vicious, and they boiled the Wolf alive! Who would’ve thought the Pigs had a dark side? And we wouldn’t have known it if the Wolf hadn’t been part of the story.
A conversation about conflict is also an effective way to set a purpose for reading. Before your students open their books, say to them, “As you read the story, think about the problems the characters go through and what they must do to overcome them.”
This strategy works well as a comprehension skill because the one thing all children are attracted to—including struggling and reluctant readers—is trouble. By having your students focus on the conflicts, they’ll have a better grasp of what they’re reading. It will also help them when they write their stories.
“Well, my kids write lots of stories that don’t have conflict,” one teacher told me.
To which I replied, “Then they’re not writing stories. They’re writing anecdotes.”
An anecdote is a brief account of an event that may or may not have occurred. And like all types of narratives, it contains literary elements. But without conflict, the anecdote can come off as dull and uninteresting.
Another teacher said, “I tell my kids that they can add conflict to their stories to make them more exciting.”
Let me be clear. Conflict isn’t something we add to a story—it is the story.
When I decided to write My Father, the Angel of Death, a young adult novel about a 13-year-old boy whose dad is a professional wrestler, my goal was to write a book that would appeal to struggling and reluctant readers. But I didn’t have a story until I asked myself: What’s so bad about having a dad who’s a world-famous wrestler? Once I found the answer, I was able to write the book.
In your post-reading conversations, go ahead and ask your students to name the main characters, but don’t stop there. Ask them how the characters’ personalities would differ if the story didn’t have conflict. To paraphrase a familiar saying: Characters are like teabags. You never quite know how strong they are until you put them in hot water.
Discuss the setting, too. But point out that without conflict, the setting won’t keep readers hooked for long, regardless of how fascinating or exotic the location may be.
I enjoy watching reruns of the old TV western, Rawhide. Not only was Rawhide a well-written show, it had one of the coolest theme songs in television history. Nonetheless, having Trail Boss Gil Favor and Ramrod Rowdy Yates go rollin’, rollin’, rollin’ isn’t enough to keep me watchin’, watchin’, watchin’. Something intriguing needs to happen fast, because if it doesn’t, I have the remote sitting next to me, and I’m not afraid to use it. Conflict, not setting, is what made Rawhide a successful TV series.
Teach your students that stories are about conflict, and they won’t need a graphic organizer to plan their work, because conflict automatically structures a story. First, it requires a setup. What were the circumstances that led to the problems? Second, it forces the characters to take action. Third, the conflict needs a resolution. In other words, beginning + middle + end = story.
So the first rule of story writing, then, is this: No conflict, no story. Teach it! Preach it! Post it on your classroom wall—NO CONFLICT, NO STORY!
LIAR, LIAR, PANTS ON FIRE!
It’s kind of strange. In fiction, you get to tell lies and are applauded for it.—Robert James Waller
“I need help!” an exasperated teacher told me the moment I walked into her classroom. “I’ve already had my kids write about a time when they were happy, a time when they were lonely, a time when an exciting thing happened to them, a time when they did something special…I don’t know what else to have them write about. Do you have any prompts I can give them?”
The reason the teacher had run out of ideas was because she was restricting her students to write solely about the truth, which is a drawback of assigning personal narratives. The truth can be limiting—and quite frankly, boring. Personal narratives about going to the zoo, playing soccer, getting a new puppy, or vacationing in Waxahachie can become instant cures for insomnia.
The Bible teaches that the truth shall set us free. But in fiction writing, it’s the untruth that liberates the author. The untruth allows writers to create an infinite number of stories without worrying about sticking to what Joe Friday used to say in the old Dragnet TV series, “Just the facts, ma’am.”
“But writing fiction is hard,” teachers have complained to me.
So is exercising and getting up in the mornings. Writing fiction is hard, same as any other genre. But as the AT&T commercial used to say, “It’s not complicated.”
One teacher told me, “I tried having my kids write fiction, but they just made a big mess. They wrote about monsters and aliens, and their stories went all over the place.”
The stories went “all over the place” because the teacher hadn’t shown her students how to write fiction by using one of her stories as an example. Nor had she taught them the first rule of story writing: No conflict, no story.
Another teacher responded negatively to fiction writing, saying, “Children have lots of real-life stories to tell, so they don’t need to make up anything.”
Fiction writers all over the world would disagree.
One year, I was sent to a low-performing campus to try to help raise the school’s writing scores. With the cooperation of the teachers, I showed their students how to write realistic fiction.
Afterwards, a fourth grader wrote a story about his job as a hostage negotiator, and of the time he talked a kidnapper into releasing his hostages. Here is a line from his story:
“C’mon, man. You don’t have to do this!” I shouted into my megaphone. “Think about your family!”
Evidently, the boy had watched lots of television. But he also learned to write realistic fiction. More than that, he was excited about his story, and he spent every free moment working on it.
Imagine that. A low-performing student thrilled about writing.
Another boy wrote about the time he was fired from Burger King after getting into an argument with a customer over a food order. As he drove home, he wondered how he was going to explain to his wife that he’d lost his job.
Keep in mind that these kids were only nine years old!
Teach your students to write fiction, and they’ll have another genre in which they can practice their writing skills. And if they want to write about monsters and aliens, at least they’ll have the proper tools to tell those stories.
IT WASN’T A DARK AND STORMY NIGHT
I try to leave out the parts that people skip.—Elmore Leonard
Edward Bulwer-Lytton was a British politician, poet, playwright, and novelist, who became famous for the line: “It was a dark and stormy night.”
In his 1830 novel, Paul Clifford, Bulwer-Lytton wrote: “It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind, which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”
Critics cite this introduction as an example of purple prose—excessively ornate, flowery language.
Each year, the English department at San José State University in San José, California, holds the Edward Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, in which entrants are invited to compose a deliberately bad opening sentence to a novel. The contest was created to bring awareness of how not to start a story.
Teachers make similar mistakes when they instruct their students to begin their stories by describing the weather or the setting. The problem with this strategy is that weather reports and travelogue descriptions seldom create strong hooks.
Young children who were raised on fairy tales routinely begin their stories with the line: “Once upon a time.” Then as they grow older, they may modify the phrase to “One day” or “One beautiful day” or even “One dark and stormy night.” Regardless of the variation, none of these intros is exactly an attention grabber.
Here are some other less than stellar openers found in children’s compositions:
The “hook.” One teacher had her students start all their personal narratives with the line: “Wow! Have I got a story to tell you!” Unfortunately, once the students had gotten past that exaggerated intro, they didn’t have much of a story to tell.
The self-introduction. “Hi, my name is Ray, and I’m going to tell you about a special day I had. Ready? Okay, here we go.” This clunker is likely the result of poor writing instruction.
Onomatopoeia. “Ring! Ring!” “Ding! Dong!” “Click! Click!” “Buzz! Buzz!” Do these sound effects make anyone want to keep reading?
Posing a question. This is actually a good way to start a story or an essay. But many times, the strategy is used ineffectively, as in, “Have you ever had an adventure? I have. Let me tell you all about it.”
Extraneous information. Students pad their intros with details that have nothing to do with their story. “I woke up and got out of bed. I brushed my teeth and took a shower. Then I put on my school uniform and went downstairs for breakfast. My mom served me two eggs, two slices of bacon, a biscuit, and a glass of orange juice. After I finished eating, I caught the bus to school.”
In his book, The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (And How To Avoid them), Jack M. Bickham offers this advice: “If a setting needs to be described, it can be described later, after you have gotten the story started. If background must be given to the reader, it can be given later, after you have intrigued him with the present action of the story.”
On that note, one of the best ways to help your students write engaging introductions to their stories and personal narratives is to teach them to start with the conflict.
For example, if a student plans to write a personal narrative about the time her mother became ill and landed in the hospital, have her start with the scene at the hospital, where she’s waiting to hear word from the doctor about her mother’s condition. Then after she has piqued her readers’ interest with the main problem, she can flash back to the beginning and explain what led to her mother getting sick.
Or if a student is going to write a personal narrative about the time his dog went missing, have him start with the search for the dog, and of his concern over not being able to find it. Later, he can explain how the dog got loose.
Here is how one fourth grader began her personal narrative:
“I checked my pockets one more time, but it was no use. My grandmother’s wedding ring was gone!”
Her introduction immediately caught my attention. What was the little girl doing with her grandmother’s wedding ring in the first place? How did she lose it? What would happen if she didn’t find it?
French-Swiss film director Jean-Luc Godard said, “A story should have a beginning, a middle and an end…but not necessarily in that order.”
Starting a story with long descriptive paragraphs might have worked for Bulwer-Lytton. But writing is an evolving process, and contemporary authors know that today’s readers don’t want to wade through large chunks of description before they get to the action, which is why they establish the conflicts as soon as possible.
Teach your students to do the same thing.
THE PLOT THICKENS
Tune in tomorrow night, same bat-time, same bat-channel.—promo for the ’60s TV series Batman
In the 1980s, the Gillette Company launched a successful ad campaign for its antiperspirant deodorant, Dry Idea, with the slogan: Never Let Them See You Sweat.
TV commercials would feature celebrities who listed the three “nevers” in their profession, the third one being, “And never let them see you sweat.”
Writers take the opposite approach. They want their readers to see their characters sweat, so to speak, out of nervousness, worry, anger, frustration, and fear.
Remember, stories aren’t about happiness. They’re about problems. Happiness is merely a setup for the troubles that lie ahead.
We’ve certainly read enough books to know that whenever an opening chapter describes a pleasant situation, things are going to grow dark and disturbing soon.
Once your students understand that stories are about conflict, the next step is to show them how to heighten the tension by adding stumbling blocks to impede their characters’ attempts to solve the problem. If nothing stands in the way of the resolution, the story doesn’t have real conflict.
For example, a student might write about being worried over an upcoming test. She states that she was so nervous, she stayed awake all night, stressing over it. The following day, however, as she read over the questions, she realized that her concerns were unwarranted. The test turned out to be a piece of cake, and she made an easy A.
The narrative appears to have conflict (worry over the test). But without stumbling blocks to escalate the student’s anxieties, the story may come off as weak.
Now let’s look at the example again, this time with stumbling blocks.
Margie is flunking algebra. She has to pass the final exam, or she won’t graduate. She’s been counting on her friend, Tom, the math whiz, to tutor her. But Tom is involved in a horrible car accident and is hospitalized, so he can’t help her. Margie also discovers she’s left her algebra text book and study notes in her locker, and the school is locked for the weekend. What is she going to do?
Teach your students to add stumbling blocks to their stories by demonstrating how to resolve the conflict in a three-step process. The main character tries to come up with a solution, but fails. He tries a second time. Again, he comes up short. On the third attempt…bingo!
The Latin phrase, omne trium perfectum, translates to “everything that comes in threes is perfect.” In other words, the third time’s the charm. This is the same formula used in many fairy tales.
By creating bad situations for their characters, your students will have to think critically about how to solve the problems, and thus, give their stories satisfying endings.
Whenever people say, “Ahh, the plot thickens,” what they mean is that things are getting worse. And that’s what you want your students to do—make things worse for their characters.
LET’S GET PERSONAL
If you’re going to have a story, have a big story, or none at all.―Joseph Campbell
A standard assignment given to students in most language arts classrooms is for them to write personal narratives. Teachers do this because they feel that their students will write with greater authority if they tell about things that happened to them, which, on the surface, makes sense.
But just because children experienced an event doesn’t necessarily mean that they can write about it in a coherent, elaborate way. Nor that what they write about will be of interest to their readers. Bear in mind that when teachers talk to their students about author’s purpose, they say that authors write stories to entertain their readers. Personal narratives about building a snowman, taking piano lessons or spending the night at Meemaw’s house don’t generally have that effect.
A librarian friend disapproved of having students write personal narratives. She claimed that personal narratives don’t have real-world applications. Therefore, assigning them is a waste of time.
“We need to teach kids how to write essays, because that’s what they’re going to be writing when they go to college,” she said.
Her comments led me to ask the participants at one of my workshops why they assigned personal narratives.
“I’ve learned so much about my students by reading their personal narratives,” a teacher told the group. “For example, I didn’t know that the parents of one of my kids were going through a divorce until he wrote about it.”
Another teacher said, “One of my students read her personal narrative aloud about the death of her grandfather, and she had the whole class in tears. I think it was very therapeutic for her to write about it.”
For me, neither of those responses justified having students write personal narratives. There had to be a better reason, other than being able to pry into their lives or to provide therapy sessions for them or because it’s an easy genre to address.
One teacher offered a more pragmatic answer: “’Cause it’s gonna be on the test!”
Now we’re getting closer to the truth. In many state writing exams, students are required to write a personal narrative. As a result, teachers focus more on that genre than on the others.
In a way, my librarian friend was right. Personal narratives, in and of themselves, have no real-world applications. I mean, there isn’t exactly a high demand in the job market for personal-narrative writers. My friend, however, was looking at personal narratives through a narrow lens. Each time students write them, they use skills that do have real-world applications: spelling, punctuation, capitalization, grammar, word usage, sentence structure, etc.
The problem with assigning personal narratives, though, is that students often write what I call “grocery list” compositions—a list of events with little elaboration. For example:
Yesterday, I went to Six Flags.
I got on this ride, this ride and this ride.
I ate this food, this food and this food.
I played this game, this game and this game.
Then I went home.
Interestingly, the main culprits of these grocery list compositions aren’t the students, but their teachers, who instruct them to organize their personal narratives like this:
Whenever teachers use this approach to teach personal-narrative writing, they practically invite their students to write grocery list compositions.
The term personal narrative, by the way, is educationese. It doesn’t exist outside the classroom. Browse through any library or bookstore, and you might find titles categorized as essays, memoirs, autobiographies, diaries and letters (or epistles), but you won’t find any shelves labeled personal narratives.
A personal narrative is actually an abbreviated memoir. The difference between the two is that a memoir is a collection of memories, while a personal narrative centers on just one (maybe we should call it memoir lite).
To keep your students from writing grocery list compositions, it’s important to teach them the meaning of the term personal narrative.
Personal = you; an individual
Narrative = story
A personal narrative, then, is a story about the writer. And since personal narratives are stories, it stands to reason that they would contain the same elements found in fictional stories: plot, characters, setting, conflict and resolution. The only thing that separates a made-up story from a real-life story is the truth. Other than that, the structures should be the same.
Teach your students to include the five basic elements in their personal narratives, and they’ll never write grocery list compositions again. Not only that, their personal narratives will be a lot more entertaining to read.
A Personal Essay
Truth is weirder than any fiction I have seen.—Hunter S. Thompson
Years ago, my wife and I took a trip to San Juan, Puerto Rico. While we were there, we had a bizarre experience at a restaurant called La Copacabana.
After we checked into our hotel, we read through a directory of the city’s restaurants and clubs, anxious to take in the nightlife the island had to offer. Our eyes were drawn to an advertisement with colorful photos and a caption that read: LA COPACABANA. THE FINEST SPANISH RESTAURANT IN PUERTO RICO. FEATURING REKNOWNED FLAMENCO DANCER, PASTORA MOLINA.
We decided that La Copacabana would be a terrific place to spend the evening. Not only did the dishes in the photos look delicious, we would be treated to a performance by a famous flamenco dancer. I called the number listed and made a reservation.
When we arrived, we were awed by the beauty of the restaurant’s exterior. The architecture was of a Spanish Colonial design, with white stucco walls, arched parapets, and a red tile roof. Potted hibiscus flowers lined the terra cotta steps, and two towering mango trees stood, sentry-like, at the entrance. A large poster of Pastora Molina wearing a red flamenco dress was prominently displayed in a glass case by the right side of the door.
With great anticipation, we entered the restaurant.
“Buenas noches, and welcome to La Copacabana,” the maître d’ greeted us. “Do you have a reservation?”
“Yes, it’s under the name of Ray Villareal,” I told him.
The maître d’ scanned his reservation list. “Villareal,” he muttered, creasing his brow. “Hmm.”
“I called about four hours ago,” I said, worried that there may have been a mix-up, and we wouldn’t be able to get a table. “My name should be there.”
A barrel-chested man, dressed in a black tuxedo that was much too tight on him walked up to us. “Is there a problem?” he asked.
The maître d’ shrugged. “They say they made a reservation, but I don’t see their name on the list.”
“What is your name?” the big man asked me.
I told him.
“Villareal,” he said slowly. Then, as if a cartoon light bulb had lit above his head, he snapped his fingers. “Yes, I remember. I am the one who took your reservation. Please follow me.”
He escorted us to an enormous dining room decorated with gold chandeliers, rosewood furniture, and floor-to-ceiling paintings of historic Puerto Rico. At the far end of the room stood the stage where the flamenco dancer would be performing.
Something else caught our attention—we were the only customers in the entire restaurant!
The big man seemed not to notice our stunned looks. Grinning like a ’possum at a fish fry, he pulled my wife’s chair away from the table and bowed graciously as she sat down. I took my seat. Then he handed us a pair of menus and invited us to enjoy our evening.
After he left, my wife asked me, “Where is everyone?”
It was a quarter past eight o’clock on a Saturday night. I had expected the place be packed. But there we were, sitting at a table in the middle of a cavernous room. Alone. And what was all the fuss over the reservation? As Alice in Wonderland once said, “Curiouser and curiouser.” The ad did mention that the show started at nine. Maybe that’s when everyone comes in, I thought.
A bus girl brought us a complimentary basket of tostones (sliced, fried, plantain bananas) and served us water in crystal goblets. A waitress then took our food order. My wife and I asked for the paella since it was featured on the menu as the “specialty of the house.”
Still no other customers.
I glanced toward the restaurant entrance. The maître d’ was positioned by the door like a statue, ready to receive new guests. The big man, with his hands clasped behind his back, and his ample belly challenging the buttons on his tuxedo jacket, was surveying the dining room. Our eyes met briefly. He flashed a public relations grin as if to say, “Isn’t business great?”
Soon our food was brought out. Our meal was surprisingly tasty. I had been concerned that the reason we were the only customers in the place was because the locals knew something about the food that we didn’t.
Minutes before nine o’clock, the room dimmed. Multi-colored lights illuminated the stage, and recorded flamenco music wafted from two ceiling speakers. I looked for the waitress so she could clear our table, but I couldn’t find her.
At that moment, Pastora Molina glided onto the stage. With a pair of castanets clicking madly in her palms, she threw back her head and stomped her heels on the hardwood floor, whirling like a top with the ends of her dress spinning wildly.
“Wait a minute,” my wife said, gawking at the dancer, then at me. “Isn’t that our waitress?”
I looked closely at Pastora’s face. Sure enough, she was.
Behind us, we heard shouting, whistling, and clapping. I turned around. The big man, the maître d’, the bus girl, the chef, and the dishwasher were cheering Pastora on.
“¡Olé! ¡Viva, Pastora! ¡Olé! ¡Olé!”
This was getting weirder by the minute. I almost expected Ashton Kutcher to pop out of a corner and announce that we’d been “Punk’d.”
After the sixth or seventh dance, the music ended. Pastora Molina, drenched in perspiration, smiled and bowed as the restaurant staff applauded ecstatically. My wife and I, feeling terribly awkward, joined in the ovation. Pastora bowed once more, then exited the stage.
Good, I thought, breathing a silent sigh of relief. I hoped we could get our bill so we could pay and escape this Saturday Night Live skit.
No such luck.
Pastora, having changed costumes, reappeared onstage to start the second half of the show.
The music blared.
The restaurant workers cheered.
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, the show came to an end. Pastora took a bow, then another, and another.
“¡Viva! ¡Viva! ¡Olé! ¡Olé!” her coworkers shouted.
The house lights came back on, and our waitress/renowned flamenco dancer walked over to our table.
“How did you like the show?” she asked, panting like a thirsty dog and dripping sweat on the tablecloth as she removed our dishes.
“Wonderful! Fantastic! Awesome!” we gushed, feeling obligated to compensate for all the people who weren’t there to watch her performance. I suppose I must have felt the same way about the service because I left her an unusually large tip.
I asked Pastora if she knew of any gift shops in the area where we could buy souvenirs.
“There is a nice little store next to our restaurant,” she said. “I understand they have great bargains.”
We thanked her and made our way to the lobby, where the employees had lined up to shake our hands: the chef, the dishwasher, the bus girl, the maître d’, and at the tail end, the big man.
Relieved to be out of there, we made our way to the gift shop.
Imagine our shock when we entered the store, only to discover standing behind the counter…Pastora Molina! Her forehead and cheeks were still glistening with perspiration.
“Good evening,” she said cheerily. “May I help you find something? We have wonderful souvenirs at very low prices.”
Without acknowledging that she had been our waitress and performer, Pastora guided us around the shop, showing us trinket after trinket. We settled on a large conch, a velvet painting of San Juan, and a coconut dish with HECHO EN PUERTO RICO printed on it.
We left the store bewildered. Perplexed. Confused. For a second, I almost believed that in our haste to make it to the restaurant on time, we had missed Rod Serling standing on a street corner, taking a drag from his cigarette, and saying, “That’s the signpost up ahead—your next stop, The Twilight Zone.”
In spite of our surrealistic adventure, we weren’t ready to return to our hotel, so we crossed the street and headed to the lagoon. As we strolled along the banks of the water, we talked and laughed about what had occurred: the undue concern over our reservation; the empty restaurant; the waitress who turned out to be renowned flamenco dancer, Pastora Molina, who was also the gift shop clerk.
We had passed the halfway point of the lagoon and were making our way back toward the restaurant, when, to our dismay, we could no longer see La Copacabana. The place had vanished!
Our fears, however, were unfounded. As we edged nearer, we realized that the restaurant hadn’t disappeared. The bright neon lights had been turned off. Although La Copacabana was supposed to stay open until two, it had closed for the evening.
In the years since our visit to Puerto Rico, my wife and I have found ourselves in situations that trigger our memories of that night. And using our sixth sense, the one couples who have been married a long time possess, the one that enables us to read each other’s minds with a mere glance, we’ll turn to one another and say in unison: “La Copacabana.”
Those two words explain it all.
I’VE GOTTA TELL SOMEBODY!
We owe it to each other to tell stories.—Neil Gaiman
A former pastor at my church used to preface some of his anecdotes with the words: “True story.” He wasn’t implying that his other anecdotes were lies, of course. What he meant was that he was about to tell a story that was so unusual, members of the congregation might question its authenticity.
We have those stories, too—hard-to-believe, quirky, tragic, humorous, perhaps even salacious true accounts of things that happened to us or to someone we know.
The eight of us were stuck in a tiny elevator. All of a sudden, this pregnant woman…
When Oscar went to the bathroom, he forgot to turn off his lapel mic and…
The guy pulled out a knife and told us to…
Did you know that Mr. Robles is having an affair with Ms. Garland?
These aren’t humdrum, last-night-I-bought-a-new-shower-curtain stories that are meaningful to us, but cause everyone else to feign interest and say, “That’s nice” (unless they’re in the market for a new shower curtain). These are the stories we have to tell, the ones stirring inside us, dying to come out.
We’ve all sat in groups where someone begins to recount an experience, and before long, another person, maybe us, will say, “Well, let me tell you what happened to me.” Consciously or subconsciously, we’re playing one-upmanship. Either way, we’re anxious to share our story, because we know people will be interested in hearing it.
My wife and I sometimes talk about what we’d do if we were to win the lottery. It’s a foolish conversation, really, because we never buy lottery tickets. Still, we’ve decided that if we ever won the lottery—let’s say fifty million dollars—we wouldn’t tell anyone. Otherwise every relative, friend, acquaintance, and opportunist would crawl out of the woodwork, wanting a chunk of our winnings.
No, we wouldn’t tell anyone.
Who are we kidding? Of course, we’d tell. We just won fifty million bucks! There’s no way we could keep that sort of thing a secret.
In the classroom, “published” works are stories meant to be read by someone other than the teacher. They can be displayed on bulletin boards or bound as anthologies.
When your students are deciding on which of their personal narratives to submit for publication, they should select the ones that tell about unique, one-of-a-kind, real-life experiences. The stories can be funny, scary, sad, suspenseful, or mysterious, but above all, they must be entertaining.
Have your students administer the “so what?” test to their potential submissions.
“I went to Six Flags.”
“I rode on the Texas Giant.”
“The ride broke, and we got stuck at the top.”
“Whoa! Then what happened?”
Some personal narratives are just that—personal. They’re intimate reflections and musings, not meant to be read by anyone other than the teacher. Published works, on the other hand, are intended for a wide audience, and your students need to consider their entertainment value. When they submit these kinds of personal narratives for publication, they should be excited to say to their readers: “Hey, everybody! Let me tell you what happened to me!”