Academic journal article English Journal

Making Sense of Events in Literature through Rewriting Narrative Events

Academic journal article English Journal

Making Sense of Events in Literature through Rewriting Narrative Events

Article excerpt

In responding to literature, students attempt to make sense of characters' actions in events that defy initial explanations. For example, in responding to August Wilson's play, Fences, the main character Troy refuses to let his son, Cory, play football to obtain a college scholarship. When Cory expresses his anger to Troy, Troy becomes angry and kicks him out of their family home.

Making sense of these key events involves inferring a range of alternative possibilities or consequences for what could happen as a result of characters "talk-in- interaction" (Linell) in these events (Beach). When Troy kicks Cory out of their family home, students may be baffled as to why a father would do such a thing to his son and what will now happen to their relationship. These inferences serve to heighten the significance and dramatic suspense of these events, or what Mikhail Bakhtin defines as "eventness"-the fact that possibilities or consequences in an event have major implications for characters given the mounting tension between Troy and Cory as they exchange angry charges about each other.

In responding to these events, students also infer larger stances and beliefs underlying these tensions and conflicts in characters' relationships, for example, the fact that Troy adopts a "strict father" authoritarian stance (Lakoff) shaping his actions of disciplining Cory.

Given the importance of students making sense of events in responding to literature, in the summer and fall of 2016, I and a group of English teachers in a suburban Twin Cities high school held a series of meetings to brainstorm ideas for teaching activities for helping students make sense of events in texts, particularly related to events involving characters' relationships (for resources and activities on that topic, visit

Students Rewriting Events to Create Their Own Narrative Versions

One teacher in the group, Ms. Bianchi, an experienced AP literature teacher, developed the following activity for her eleventh-grade American Literature/AP Language and Composition class for use in spring 2016. In this activity, students created their own narrative versions of an event in Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried as articulated in the following assignment:

Please look at your short story through another character's perspective in the story. Perhaps it is the father, or girlfriend, or another character that is mentioned who may or may not have as much insight as you do in the story.

Retell one of/or the major event suggested from the short story in that character's perspective. You need to consider how your NEW character is shaped by what has occurred. Please consider these areas where it is appropriate:

* their level of direct versus indirect involvement in an event as participant or bystander

* the degree to which there were positive or negative consequences for them due to their participation in an event

* their emotional/attitudinal stance on an event

* their relationship with or empathy for participants in an event

You will create a shared document with one other person who also has your story. You will retell the event or story from the other character's point of view.

Ms. Bianchi noted that her objective for this assignment was to foster students' empathy related to understanding "the actions of the characters and being able to provide some sort of explanation or 'other side' to work with. Robust discussion around the actions/empathy was the motivation for having them work in small groups."

Having the students rewrite events from the text to collaboratively create their own narratives resulted in students sharing differences in their responses leading to discussion of how to portray characters' conflicts through the use of dialogue and characters' reflections. The fact that students were collaboratively rehearsing use of alternative dialogue with each other meant that could select the dialogue that would best convey their intended portrayals of tensions in characters' relationships. …

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