Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Teaching Conflict: The Plot Thickens

Teaching writing to fifth graders is like pushing a rope some days. They're not much different than the first graders I taught for seven years, but at least they have enough stamina to get past the first three sentences. Their small-motor development, and their experience with basic penmanship move them further along, to a point. It's the questions and comments that follow the assignments that would wear me down.

"How long does this have to be?"

"How many sentences is enough?"

"I'm done." 

(Wait. We just started. You probably don't even have your name on your paper. Oy vey.)

It was exasperating, at best, to encourage them to write a story with characters, setting, conflict, plot, AND resolution; this wasn't a multiple choice situation where they could pick one. 

Most kids grasp that a good story has to have all of the basic elements. Once they understand that scrawling THE END at the bottom of the paper when they tire of writing does not a good resolution make, they just need to appreciate the necessity of conflict. Without conflict, there is no story.

So many kids want to tell a "good story" without any conflict, and one that has a tidy ending. I blame the fairy tales with the "happily ever after" endings. Thankfully, even the tales with the gift-wrapped endings have plenty of conflict: a curse, a witch, an evil queen, a lack of suitors, quarreling dwarves. It's easy to have a quick lesson with a variety of fairy tales to determine where the conflict occurs in each story, and to discover without the conflict, there's not much of a story.

It occurred to me that my students needed to make a connection between good books and good writing. Every time we finished a read-aloud, we would talk about the conflicts the characters faced, and how their struggles made the story better.

"Wait. So you're saying the bad stuff makes it good?"

Oh, I do love it when the lights go on in their little heads.

Ruby Holler by Sharon Creech is my all-time favorite read-aloud book for fifth graders. It is FULL of conflict. Man vs. man. Man vs. nature. Man vs. self. It has it all.

The main characters are fraternal twins, Dallas and Florida, who were abandoned by their mother when they were infants. They live at the Boxton Creek Home for Orphans which is run by a crotchety couple with no love for the "trouble twins." 

The flashbacks of their early childhood reveal one dreadful experience after another with potential adoptive families, and their day-to-day existence is one eternal conflict with the Trepids. 

Their luck seems to change when they meet Tiller and Sairy, an older couple whose own children have grown, who invite the children to come with them on an adventure. Conflicts renew aplenty once the children arrive in Ruby Holler, but a flicker of hope for a better life is kept alive as the old couple open their hearts and home to the twins.

If your intermediate students are struggling with the concept of conflict in their writing, I suggest you try Sharon Creech's Ruby Holler. It has all of the elements of great literature, and will not disappoint in the conflict department!


Hey, Teachers! Here are other ideas you may find interesting...

The Morning Meeting, or...The Secret of the Best School Year EVER. How we not only survived 34 children in the inclusive class with three special needs students, but thrived.

Looking for a fun and inexpensive incentive for your class? Try the BLACKOUT READATHON. Details in the link.

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