This year I experimented with literature circles to not only explore four of the popular whole class reads associated with our ninth grade curriculum but to also inject some choice into the required reading. This was my first time attempting literature circles and while I recognized the potential struggles, my hope was to inspire open conversations about these complex and challenging texts. In the past, class conversations with my students were dead and lackluster. They were oftentimes reduced to leading plot-based questions. This year though, I couldn’t take a second quarter of policing reading, empty conversations, and painful silences, which meant I opened class time to small group conversation and taught reading skills through mini-lessons. My classroom shifted from teacher-centered lessons on books to student-centered conversations on reading.
Objectives: Using the language of the Depth of Knowledge Levels, students will draw, identify, and label the multiple components of Freytag’s Pyramid. They will construct a plot pyramid using class notes and apply the concepts learned within the mini-lesson to construct their own plot pyramid based on their literature circle’s chosen book. Students will summarize the moments within the book that coordinate with the various points on the plot pyramid, citing evidence from their book to support their analysis. Finally, using guiding questions, students will discuss and critique the author’s use of plot to move the story forward.
Lesson: I began class with a recap on Freytag’s Pyramid. Many of my students had seen this traditional plot triangle in sixth grade but hadn’t revisited the concept since then. They understood that plot provides the backbone of the story, yet to them, plots looked rather one-dimensional, rising perfectly at a 45-degree angle, peaking smack in the center of the story through one climax, then cleanly declining at the same 45-degree angle.
Avid readers know this is far from the case: if every book had the stereotypical plot-triangle-shape, there’d be no sense in reading. It would be as perfectly predictable as Hallmark’s line of holiday movies (although I admit I love them just the same). Good readers understand that plots are messy; they jut out at multiple angles, taking longer to rise in some cases or providing a false climax only to plateau and eventually rise farther.
I typically like to use novels I am currently reading and/or studying to model my analysis of plot. This year I discussed Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison as an episodic novel since I am studying it with my AP Literature students. Other options include previously studied short stories, whole class reads, or popular novels-turned-films.
I then provide students with time and guiding questions to draw and create their own plot triangle that they will then present to the class. As they chart their plots providing explanations and evidence, they must also answer the following: What makes your plot shape distinctive? How might it differ from other books you’ve read? What is the climax? How did your group decide on the climax? Why do you think the author decided to place the climax where they did? How did the structure impact your personal reading of the piece? Did the structure create suspense or the did the rising action last too long?
The conversation part of this is key; my students’ success derived directly from their ability to sit with their peers and draw out the plot’s structure. In the end, many students struggled with distinctly placing the climax. This gave me time to sit with groups and help guide their understanding. They had deep conversations over the artistic choices of their authors, arguing that Golding could have decreased his rising action in Lord of the Flies or that Steinbeck’s decision to place Lennie’s death at the end of Of Mice and Men had the greatest impact.
Some students claimed that there were multiple climaxes in their novels while others were adamant that only one existed. These discussions culminated in consensus, which students then shared with their peers. In the end, each group arrived with a firmer understanding of how plot can guide readers through suspense, excitement, and tragedy.
Follow-Up: This mini-lesson is two-fold. It serves as a basis for deeper literary analysis, but it also provides a starting point for my next free writing unit. Over the next couple weeks, students will harvest an idea from their writer’s notebooks, workshop the pieces, and finalize them prior to the holiday.
Using their knowledge of plot from our literature circles, they will apply these concepts to their own stories, completing exercises from The Plot Whisperer Workbook by Martha Alderson to help structure their narratives, fiction, and poetry. I’m hoping that this recycled mini-lesson and common concepts will reinforce the interconnectedness of reading, writing, and craft.
How do you approach plot with your students? What mini-lessons do you make a point of revisiting throughout your year?