Building Narratives

I will get back to the ed school thoughts, I promise, but thought organization, she’s a bitch. In the meantime, I’m helping others organize their thoughts in my enrichment classes for Asian kids whose parents think free time is for Americans.

Our selected book for the week doesn’t offer much analytical fodder, so they wrote narratives—specifically, a first person account of an actual experience with only an occasional invented detail, no more than a handwritten page.

They came up with their ideas on Wednesday and workshopped them just before the end of class, coming back with a first draft on Thursday. They shared out in at least two pairings, while I reviewed them individually. It’s an hour plus of constant writing and talking. Below are authentic representations, with occasional invented details, of my feedback.

“Ellen, good story, well-executed, flows well, nice attention to detail. But everything needs tightening up. Take a look.”

No matter how badly I wanted to leave my sister to go to the concert by myself, I had to accept that she had a good point. I had been her age when I went to my first concert and I ….

Ellen blushed. “I’m an egomaniac!”

“Naw, I do it too. You just need to edit. Obviously, dump a lot of the glue. Be creative about pronouns. Show, don’t tell. What’s your sister’s name? ‘Jenny always wanted my opinion on new tunes, making it clear her big sister was the final authority. Refusing to take her along might save face with [can you name your friends, please?] but why deny Jenny the same opportunities I’d had? ‘ Something like that. It’s all there; just refocus the action.”

Next up was Ben, another strong writer with good story sense, and in about a minute I’d sent him over to Ellen with a similarly glue-id’ed paper so they could collaborate. On to David, whose closest friends had noticed, on their frequent outings to a local amusement park, that he never rode the roller coaster. Despite his assurances that he simply wasn’t interested, they figured out he was actually terrified and staged a supportive but forceful intervention. No longer afraid, he now likes sitting up front, the better to get the rush.

“David, where’s the essay you wrote the first day? Dig it up for me.”

While waiting, I scanned Jack’s story, which began:

The locked door blocked my last hope for escape. I pounded frantically, hopelessly, screaming for rescue, but my doom was sealed. My fate wasn’t just awaiting me. It was headed my way. One hundred and twenty pounds of hulking, angry sister.

“Jack, this is very funny. But keep the suspense going without identifying the villain. Go through all your efforts to escape, your despair, and then the one-two punch. First, the horrible fate is your sister. Second, with no other escape, you offer up her other common victim, Sister #2, the one who locked that door to leave you to your doom—and who has candy. So you two were always escaping the bully by handing her each other? Why was she always beating you up? She stopped, I hope?”

“Yeah, I was seven, she was fourteen. She’s in college now. I lied about the candy.”

“Very nice. Go change the pacing, and bring out the villain later. Don’t leave out the lie.”

David came back with his essay, and I found the line:

My primary goal in this class is to achieve an essential understanding: I am thoroughly, permanently screwed if I don’t stop playing video games and take school more seriously.

“Where’s that kid?”

“What do you mean?”

“Your quirky quality is clearly in that sentence and nowhere to be found in the narrative. With the voice, your story isn’t really about being afraid of roller coasters, but about you, a unique goofy guy, and your supportive friends who called you on your bs. Without that unique voice, this story isn’t much more than a confession: you’re a baby who’s afraid of roller coasters. Go find the voice. Irene?”

Irene had two typed pages. “I know! Ellen told me it has to be shorter. I’ve already cut eight sentences.”

“Try eight paragraphs.” I read the first couple of paragraphs, stop. “What do you mean, your mother wants you to get CM Level 9 this year in piano?”

“So it’s on my transcript. Otherwise, I’ve wasted the piano lessons.”

“Yeah, this is some annoying Asian thing that’s going to really tick me off, isn’t it?”

Irene, a passionate artist who sketches every spare minute, laughed. “Probably. I take lessons so that I can pass the level 9 test. So my transcript shows I have artistic ability. But mom wants me to pass it this year, before I start my SAT prep.”

I sighed. “Remember if you are writing an essay or story for a wider audience that Americans would disapprove of your mom’s priorities. Those details detract from the narrative. Why not just write about the unexpected outcome from all this?”

“My discovery of anime music?”

“Yeah. Cut everything else out.”

On to Jasmine, whose entire narrative read:

My family left on a 4-day trip to Reno, Nevada. On the way, the car’s air conditioner broke down. We were unbelievably hot. I could feel the heat beating down on my face as I stuck my head out the window, but it was the only way I could get some air. Finally, we arrived. The hotel was airconditioned. I lay back on the bed and felt my body slowly adjust to the cool. It was amazing. I had never felt my body adjust and cool down before. When I began the trip, I had a list of things I wanted to do, but now I was happy to just be in cool air.

“What’s the heart of this story?”

“Um. The heat?”

“Really? I see a huge boost in writing energy when you get to the hotel.”

“Well, that’s because the cool felt so good.”

“Exactly. A blissful feeling so great that you reassessed your goals for the trip. That’s the heart: negative, difficult experiences caused a change in your perspective. Now, what did you think I was going to say about this story?”

“It’s too short.”

“Not ‘too short’ in any absolute sense, but you have to share the suffering, make us feel that heat, feel the endless hours in the car. You are telling a tale of sensations. Give me the sensory info. I want you to sketch your memory of that day. Stick figures, whatever. Or make a list of all your sense memories from that time. How do you communicate that heat? Show your observations of everyone’s suffering. Think who, what, when–heart of summer?–how. Then do the same thing for the blissed-out time in the chill. Overdo it first—you can cut it down later.”

Then Nick, with a well-crafted first draft of his anxious excitement the day he presented his science project at a company-sponsored competition.

“Nick, the opening rocks. Then you lose focus a bit. I want details about the judging. You say he’s nice–what sort of questions did he ask? Was it as you’d imagined it in all your practice runs? And….what’s this?”

“The end? Is it wrong?”

“‘Best of all, this win will really look great on my college applications.’ Dear God. Please tell me you included that little gem to stop my heart.”

He looked puzzled. “That’s why I entered the contest.”

I banged myself in the head with his notebook. “So I’m feeling like I learned something about your love of science, when in fact you did all the work to get a win for your resume?”

“Well, science is okay. But…yeah, I picked the project because I thought it had the best chance of winning.”

“Not because you were interested. See how you’re looking a bit shamefaced? Because you know what I’m saying, right?”

He nodded.

“The thing is, I’m torn in these situations, just like I was with Irene. I’m glad you’re writing authentic emotions. But you are so wrapped up in your Indian cocoon that you have no idea how bad this looks to the Americans who aren’t a generation or less away from Asialand. To us, you come off as a slogger who is only interested in appearance, in faking it, not in pursuing excellence for its own sake. And of course because I’m American and you are, too, I want you to want to pursue excellence for something other than a resume bullet. And you don’t. Which is okay, I like you anyway. For now, though, this story gets much better if you dump this last line and allow your readers to delude themselves about your passionate love of science.”

Eddie up next with a story about three families in two RVs travelling to Banff, Canada to see the sights.

“So you were all related? These are your cousins?”

“No, we didn’t really know any of them.”

I was perplexed, but Ben chimed in. “We do that all the time. It’s an Asian thing.”

“You like big vacations?”

“No, cheap ones” chorused Serena, Ellen, Ben, Eddie, and Jerry.

“We either fly and stay in really cheap places, with all the kids camped out in one room,”…

“One time I was with twelve kids!” from Serena.

“But aren’t there occupancy limits?”

“We ignore them; most of us go out to dinner while one family checks in. Then we sneak in.”

“Indians, is this a thing for you?”

“God, no,” says Ace. “It sounds horrible.”

“My parents came here to escape lots of people, who wants to go on vacation with them?” from Jasmine.

“And you got thrown out of an RV park, Eddie?”

“We almost got thrown out of Canada.”

“All because you were teasing your cousin and he started swearing?”

“It was after midnight, and he was screaming, and Henry wasn’t my cousin, just this other kid.”

“And the adults didn’t stop him?”

“They were in another RV.”

“But they apologized?”

“When the ranger came, yeah. They apologized and promised to be quiet. Even tried to give the ranger money.”

“Bad idea.”

“She was furious, told us to go back to Montana. My parents don’t even know where that is. So she just told them to leave the RV park.”

“Huh. See, your family’s thoughtless cultural rudeness offers some great insights, but I’m not sure you learned anything from it.”

“Yeah, I did. I told them it was a bad idea to offer money. Plus I should have told Henry to shut up, or gotten adults involved.”

“Okay. So drop all the stuff about how pretty Banff was and how terrible the food, tell me about these weird cheap Chinese family vacations, and what you learned about Westerners—and where you slept after leaving the park. Ace, you’re next.”

Ace, the oldest kid in the class, shuffled up hesitantly. I read through the story once, read it again. Read it a third time.

“It sucks, right?”

“No. It’s great.” He looked at me in shock.

“It’s not perfect. It needs work. But four weeks ago, you could barely produce a coherent sentence, because you were just writing words to fill up paper. Now your sentences have subjects and verbs and purpose. Your thoughts are organized. You’ve just described a heartbreaking basketball defeat, made me feel your disappointment—and then you bring up the subsequent win to end on a high note. Beautifully structured. Now, go back and read this aloud, first to yourself and then to someone else, and listen to the words. Any correction you find yourself making as you read it aloud, stop and jot them down. Match the words to your memory, see if anything’s missing.”

Ace went back to his desk with new confidence and a purpose.

I swear, sometimes I’d do this for free.

About educationrealist

25 responses to “Building Narratives

  • malcolmthecynic

    Sounds extremely interesting! Type of thing that makes the rest of it bearable, eh?

    • educationrealist

      No, teaching at its worst is still way ahead of bearable. I love it. But it is interesting.

    • malcolmthecynic

      Yep. The plan at the moment is to major in English and perhaps dual major in History. In a moment of weakness I may decide to major in Biology despite weak grades for the increased job prospects.

      Math, for me, is out.

      • educationrealist

        I couldn’t major in math, either. I top out at calculus. If you go through ed school after graduating, it’s worth checking to see if science is a possibility for a credential. History is a great subject, but jobs are hard to find.

      • Mark Roulo

        “Yep. The plan at the moment is to major in English and perhaps dual major in History. In a moment of weakness I may decide to major in Biology despite weak grades for the increased job prospects.”

        Please investigate the biology sequence at whichever college you are attending. Some of the sciences (e.g. chemistry) have (or at least *had* … at my alma mater) a 4-year sequence with prerequisites … meaning that you won’t graduate on time if you don’t start with that major in mind Q1 of your freshman year. It may be easier to start with bio while keeping english/history as an option than the reverse.

      • educationrealist

        Remember, too, that you can minor in bio. The real question is what you do your credential program in. A minor in bio with lots of electives will allow you to enter a credential program in bio and become a science teacher. Getting the English credential is usually just a matter of taking the test.

      • malcolmthecynic

        Oh, that’s good to know. Thank you.

        The thing about Bio is that a lot of it really is interesting, so I’m pretty sure I would enjoy teaching it…as much as I dislike learning it. English would be far more enjoyable.

  • Hattie

    Where do you stand on the nature/nurture continuum with your Asian/Asian American students, and their strengths and weaknesses?

  • Der Alte

    I’m very impressed with how well and imaginatively you help these students learn to write. I certainly never had that quality of feedback on my writing. (And maybe it shows!) Also, the way these students quickly assimilate your feedback gives me the impression that they’re extremely smart. I think you’d get a very different response from students of average intelligence.

  • retired

    How much can you influence the little robots? Is this the Asian version of math intervention? To paraphrase an ABC friend, you can’t change 5,000 years of conditioning overnight.

    • vijay

      Dear Lord! Asians can mean so many different people in the US.

      I am not even going to 5000 years of conditioning; most Asians have may be 100 years in formal education ,ax.

  • Sisyphean

    What interests me about this is the extent to which you are imposing your own view of what human development is on people with a different culture and a different set of genes. I imagine going to Asia and being drilled to care more about my resume and transcripts and my test scores because they are everything and what I cared to do didn’t matter at all. I would suffer in that environment, but I would certainly have developed better studying skills, even as a failure, than I did here. I doubt I would value that experience though given the abhorrent context (for me). What if you tell an Asian kid to follow his or her heart hoping to broaden them only to have them fall in love with that passion and not get as good grades as they could have. They might get into a lower tier medical school (or none at all). The correct outcome depends on what you value.

    • vijay

      There are so many things wrong with Sisyphean’s statements I have to list them out:

      1. It is the parents that have different values; the children are free to have their own values.

      2. You are not going to get better studying skills just by moving to Asia; Asia is not some monolith where people do the same thing.

      3. The correct outcome, at least academically, is purely based on cognitive skills. Because you fall in love with passion, you are not going to be good at anything.

      4. Follow your heart is the biggest piece of crock that there is.

      • Sisyphean

        Please do not take my comment as an indictment of Asian culture or genetic heritage as it was not meant as such.


        1. Children have a funny way of growing up to be a lot like their parents. The values of the parents aren’t really my concern, more whether exposing children for whom getting grades and beating the system is obviously very important (as has been argued on this blog before) to a different way to life and thinking is necessarily good for them. Of course it would be natural for someone like me (an artist who is following his passions) to assume that telling them to follow their passions and lighten up is good, because I would feel strangled working the way they do. Maybe they would feel more stress following my path though. I’m just asking the question, not presuming the answer is one thing or another.

        2. I did not mean to suggest that as soon as my plane touched down I would instantly become an incredibly dedicated studier. I’m sorry if you took it that way.

        3. I agree in part. One is often suited for many possible professions given a set of cognitive skills. Finding out what the limits of your abilities are is important, but so is finding something fulfilling that allows you to use those abilities. But I would say that because I don’t consider personal prestige, family accumulation of wealth, or property to be the end goal of my life.

        4. Agree to a point, see above.

  • keypusher

    OT: I just saw your comments on the New York Times piece on constructivist math. I hope this means you will be writing about it.

    I don’t know anything about twitter, but I do know a little about argument, and I think a collection of twitter sputters to the effect that Elizabeth Green is an idiot and the NCTM can’t be trusted is, if you’ll forgive me, not constructive. It’s not obvious to a lay reader, after all, why the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics wouldn’t be a great source of information on how to teach math. Maybe it would be better to do one or two tweets focused specifically on what you don’t like about Green and the article, linking to some of your articles (as you did a few times), and saving the invective for a blog post, where you can write at greater length? Worth considering. And feel free to delete — I just didn’t know where else to put this comment.

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