Have you ever heard of the Problem Novel? According to Amy Pattee’s (n.d.) blog about Problem Novels, this genre presents a hot button social issue, explores it from various angles and leaves the reader to make his/her own judgements in the end. Jodi Picoult is a master writer in this field.
I have read many Jodi Picoult books that would fit this definition. “The Tenth Circle” deals with sex. It’s hard to imagine a more touchy teenage topic! Picoult has you squirm in your seat as she wields her words, weaving a web of deceit and mistrust. What causes what in this seemingly cause/effect story? The problems paramount as infidelity matures into murder. Where does it stop?
Another Picoult book, and one that made her mainstream, is “My Sister’s Keeper”. Made into a movie, this story is about a girl, Anna, entering her teen years having lived, it seems, only as a surrogate for her older sister, Kate. Kate has had Leukemia for years. She requires Anna’s help to stay alive. In fact, it feels like Anna was conceived in order to keep Kate alive! This life or death problem goes deeper as Anna tries to wrestle with her own identity.
Problem writing can be dark. Picoult brings the reader to death’s door, and sometimes even allows you a peek inside. Amy Pattee mentions the book “The Girl in the Box” (1988, Joy St. Books) as an example. In this story a girl is kidnapped and placed in a cement cell. She never sees her captor or anyone else, is given water and only barely enough food for sustenance, has to use the bathroom in a plastic bag, but [apparently] has a typewriter and plenty of paper to document the whole experience. As I read Pattee’s description of this problem novel, I thought it was the perfect metaphor for authors exploring the deepest corners of thought. Ouida Sebestyen, author of “The Girl in the Box”, created this cement cell in his mind. Then he lived the horrors of this girl by imagining her feelings, fears, hopes, and actions.
What makes problem novels riveting is their realistic nature. The events and situations within these tales are only as captivating as they are imaginable. In Picoult’s “The Tenth Circle” the daughter of an adulterer is date-raped. As it turns out, the perpetrator is the young girl’s ex boyfriend. The teacher of story-telling knows that every tale must present a problem. The line between “Realistic Fiction” and a text being a “Problem Novel” lies in the intent of the text. While a Problem Novel would fall into the category of Realistic Fiction, in that it is believable, the all-consuming problem of the story has the reader completely wrapped up in constant conflict. You are reading ONLY to find out the answer to the problem. And, be forewarned, the better the Problem Novel, the less likely you will be provided a solution!
This reminds me of my “Controversy Can Be Classy” project. The concepts that Picoult presents would be considered controversial, because of their reasonableness. Yacek speaks of a controversy as being “alive” when it is believable in his paper, Thinking Controversially: The Psychological Condition for Teaching Controversial Issues (2018). He explains that both sides of a problem must be a realistic solution. This is where the masterful writing of a good Problem Novel comes into play. The more realistic the problem, setting, and characters, the more empathetic the reader will be.
Have you read any good Problem Novels? What might attract someone to read this genre? Why would an author choose to write this type of book? How does reading a Problem Novel help you?
Do you ever wonder where the ideas for a great novel come from? What inspires the thoughts that grow in an author’s mind, that eventually bare fruit in terrific and terrifying texts? You might think that Frankenstein was born of lightning, but the idea, the seed planted in the mind of the 20 year old Mary Shelley in 1817, was nothing more than a yellow eye. Shelley woke up from a terrible dream, and all she could remember was a hauntingly yellow human eye. This feeling grew and stretched into the novel that has dawned countless Halloween costumes.
For Kate DiCamillo, it was hands; The capacious hands of a stranger who picked up her 86 year old mother after having fallen in the doorway of a cafe one cold January day. This giant of a gentleman helped Kate’s mom to a chair, while Kate stood stuck in the uncertainty of her mother’s admonition that she “Couldn’t do it.” Kate was not used to hearing her “Piece-of-Work” mother confess defeat. She was a fighter, if nothing else. Like dominos, her mother’s health toppled, and within a week she died.
DiCamillo explains the presence of this word, already traveling through the veins of her consciousness, in her acceptance speech at the 2014 Newbery-Caldecott Banquet for “Flora and Ulysses”. The word was birthed in the reading of Maxwell William’s “The Thistles in Sweden” (Maxwell, 1976). The last line reads, “And, I think that if it is true, that we are all in the hand of God; What a capacious hand it must be.”
Flora And Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures
Written by Kate DiCamillo
The father of Flora is said to have a “capacious heart”. In the beginning of the story this character is a dysfunctional shell of a man, recently divorced from Flora’s mom, and stuck like a malfunctioning computer program. His only lines are his introducing himself to people, “Hello, I’m George Buckman. Pleased to meet you.” He wears a suit, complete with fedora, everywhere, no matter the temperature, situation, or time. The reader is made to believe that this man could very well wear this suit to bed.
When Flora’s pet squirrel reveals its super powers to the dad, he snaps out of his stupor and revives. He begins to think for himself again. He laughs. He stands up to malfeasance, a word repeated throughout this hybrid of novel and comic book. It was Ulysses’s superpowers that defibrillated George Buckman’s heart, but it was the capaciousness of his heart that loved Flora, a struggling tween, back to life.
This exciting book has hilarious and head-scratching mysteries throughout. A boy who seems to have self-induced, temporary blindness due to a traumatic event that he won’t talk about is Flora’s unexpected sidekick. The reader isn’t sure if the apartment-guarding cat or the mom trying to kill the squirrel is the true nemesis of the superhero. And, the question most prevalent throughout remains unanswered at the end: “Can you be a superhero, if you don’t save anyone or anything?”
One thing is for certain: boredom will be vanquished through reading this novel. DiCamillo has a capacious talent for storytelling, and this one keeps you on the edge of your horsehair sofa. (You’ll have to read the book to understand;)
Kate DiCamillo has lived in very different parts of America. Born in Philadelphia, she grew up in Florida, the setting for one of her Newbery Award-winning books, “Because of Winn Dixie” (2001). Her “About Me” page says that she lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota, currently.
I am halfway through scoring and writing feedback for my third grade students, and it hits me: Writing opinions can be “controversial”. When you state what you believe, as opposed to a proven fact, you are providing a point of view that others may refute.
Having finished typing feedback for all 27 kiddos, I am impressed with the arguments that my students used. The assignment was to share whether or not you thought the men who escaped Alcatraz in 1962 survived their daring prison-break. The December (2016)/January (2017) issue of StoryworksJr magazine had an article about the amazing true story of the one successful escape from the infamous “Rock” (Hopkinson, 2016). This article ends by telling students that no one knows if the prisoners survived the treacherous swim across the San Francisco Bay. It asks, “Do you think (they) made it out alive?”
How is this controversial? David W. Johnson and Roger T. Johnson of the University of Minnesota published a landmark paper in 1979 titled “Conflict in the Classroom: Controversy and Learning.” In it they define controversy as an incompatible conceptual conflict that craves reconciliation. What question is more in need of answering than survival? Did the men make it? And, the two answers couldn’t be in more contrast with one another.
The beauty of this particular assignment is that, although my students were asked a “Yes or No” question, they were required to back up their opinions with facts from the text. In this way, the kids invest in their answers. It causes them to interpret the text, seeing the trials of escape from the perspective of the prisoners. Students assumed a more active role in reading the text. Rather than looking back at the text to find answers to boring multiple-choice questions, students are hunting for ammunition to do battle against their idea-opponents.
This was a great assignment because it could go either way. There is plenty of evidence for both sides of the argument, which makes the cognitive fight even. And, because this assignment is so rich with ideas, it is extra easy to turn feedback into a communicative conversation, instead of straight “You did this well/You need to work on this.” I find myself writing things like “Have you thought of this angle?”
By conversing with students about what they wrote, an educator can ensure the acknowledgement of ideas for writing improvement. Instead of “You did this wrong” the educator can suggest, “If you want to persuade me to believe this, you should word it this way; You should include information from the text; You might want to explain yourself more.”
With each new paragraph to grade, I look forward to seeing where my student stands on the issue. Sometimes, when I use controversy to teach, I will assign sides. I want the opposition to be even. A question will be posted in the Google Classroom. I make it so that students may be able to edit their answers, and they can read/reply to others. If you do this, you want the sides to be fairly even, so that no one feels overwhelmed with opposition. This particular project seemed to have opinions split down the middle, lending nicely to a balanced battle of wits.
I made sure to show my third graders a balance of points from the StoryworksJr text, too. As a class, we discussed some reasons it seemed unlikely the men survived the escape; They had to swim 1 ½ miles across shark-infested, freezing cold water, and that was after climbing a tall, sharp fence! When you are doing something daring and exciting, though, your body fills with adrenaline that can cause seemingly superhuman strength and endurance. With more back and forth ideas, we constructed a balance of ideas.
Yacek explains the importance of having opposition on both sides of an argument in Thinking Controversially: The Psychological Condition for Teaching Controversial Issues(2018). He tells of a lesson he thought would spark controversy but fell flat because even the students who argued against the action didn’t truly believe it was a possibility. In order to foster the intellectual disequilibrium that Johnson & Johnson (1979) propose works best to arouse learning, students have to buy into their position.
For the prisoners, I suggested that these were tough men. The text had mentioned that they had successfully broken out of other prisons. That is why they had been sent to Alcatraz; “The Rock”! Just when you feel like everything is tipping toward a successful escape, however, there is the fact that it doesn’t matter how tough you are against hungry sharks and 1 ½ miles of open water! Also, don’t you think we would have heard of their survival? Everyone craves fame. “But, there was a letter written in 2015!” students exclaim through their essays. Yes, but this was a person who was looking for help paying for medical expenses. There is no proof that he was an escapee. And, the scale goes back and forth.
We may never know if Frank Morris or the Anglin brothers made it to safety. One thing is for sure, my students’ reasoning and writing skills grew as a result of wrestling with the controversial idea.
Hopkinson, D. (2016, December). Escape From Alcatraz. StoryworksJr, 4–9.
Johnson, D. W., & Johnson, R. T. (1979). Conflict in the Classroom: Controversy And Learning. Review of Educational Research,49(1), 51-70. Retrieved August 13, 2019.
Yacek, D. (2018). Thinking Controversially: The Psychological Condition for Teaching Controversial Issues. Journal of Philosophy of Education,52(1), 71-86. Retrieved August 5, 2019.
“What gender is the Squirrel?” a student asked me as she typed her written response into her iPad.
“What pronoun was used in the story?” I hinted. This is a story about a squirrel who is too worried about collecting nuts to speak with a rabbit who just wants to help. Eventually, the squirrel allows the aid, and in time the two become unlikely friends. I wrote the simple story for my students several years ago. The animals don’t have names, however, I do use the personal pronoun, “her”. I just refer to them as Squirrel and Rabbit, which is common among characters in folktales.
My student located the female personal pronoun. I got the class’s attention and pointed out the student’s discovery. A mini lesson on pronouns ensued.
Even after all of that, this morning I ran across a written response that jarred me. I had the students write about how Squirrel changes throughout the story. They were to use sequence and display evidence to show comprehension of character development. One of the best responses was written by a boy. He did a great job writing an opening sentence, answering the prompt, providing evidence…
Only one thing…
The boy used “he” to refer to the Squirrel.
Now, this is not a big deal at all; I would not take any points off for that, but it caused me to pause and think. This was not a student who failed to pay attention during my lesson on pronouns. He is one of my better listeners.
You know what happened? This smart kid identified himself with the main character of the story; the one who changes from frantic to friendly. I don’t think that this is a case of gender reversal. It feels more like gender take over. The student is a great kid, and I don’t think there was one malicious moment in his reading or writing or learning. I blame this on my lack of clarity when developing the characters of the story. I afforded the student enough ambiguity that he was able to comfortably substitute the male pronoun for the female without even thinking about it.
This reminded me of a Twitter profile I recently ran across and look forward to following. “Write With Color” (https://writingwithcolor.tumblr.com/) is about purposefully including detail about race and/or ethnicity in character development when writing.
I used to think that it was a good thing to be vague when presenting a character, so that the reader can identify more freely. There is certainly a time and place for that. If your purpose for writing is to provide powerful female potential in the public mindset, though, it would be important to make sure that people are clear on who your character is.
My student assuming a male gender for the character from my story did not bother me, but it was a wakeup call. As I write, I plan to be more explicit in who the characters are. In this way a white kid may find out that he is no different than a kid of color. A boy will find out that a girl is just as strong, and maybe more, than he is. I want to provide opportunities for comparing and contrasting, rather than usurping my characters.
One of the most important things to establish at the beginning of a school year is comradery among pupils. Several years ago I came up with a story idea that focused on this concept. It introduces my classroom theme of #ThePolitePirates as well as giving us a shared purpose.
The story has grown over the years, as I come up with more themes and invest more time into it. I usually share it with my students in a Google Doc through Google Classroom, so each kid has his/her own copy to practice connecting with the text via leaving comments. This year, for the first time, I plan to publish the chapters in this blog, so anyone can read the story and leave comments.
Feel free to “pirate” my tale. Change and tailor the idea to fit your classroom. I usually read it out loud to the students before having them access it in Google. I try to do a chapter a day for the first week of school. There is a bit of vocab and figurative language to explain, but it is a good tool for introducing all kinds of classroom expectations and future academic tasks.
Without further adieu, are you ready to be shipwrecked?
Chapter 1: “The Island”
Once upon a time there was an island; not any old island; but a special, helpful, resourceful, maybe magical island. This island was home to many plants and animals. However, humans had never set foot upon its shores, until, one day…
There was a massive storm. It was not a big storm, or a strong storm, or a severe storm, but all three of these adjectives rolled up into one humongous, scary, powerful, and seriously damaging storm. It began so suddenly that several ships were caught off guard. Some sailing vessels survived the storm, but many were shipwrecked.
The storm may have started suddenly, but it did not end for days. Wind and rain pounded the water, while sailors, passengers, and pirates bounced like buoys on the sea surface.
That’s right. You read that correctly: pirates! If passengers and sailors were scared of sharks, they were petrified of pirates.
Being shipwrecked at the same time, in the same storm and sea, though, found sailors, passengers, and pirates alike thrown together into the same boat…
Did the island sit there while sailors, passengers, and pirates washed up onto its shores? Or, did it, as so many of the survivors came to believe, reach out its long shallow sandbars to save the poor sailors from certain peril? Either way, about thirty people found themselves safely sunning on silky sand when the wind and rain finally ceased. Of their ships, nothing but memories survived.
Two or three persons from each ship made it to the island, so everyone knew at least that many survivors. At first the people who knew each other formed small, tight groups that did not talk with, help, or share with the other survivors. But, that did not last long.
Some will tell you that the island brought them together. Some say the storm purposefully plucked each person from his or her ship to make up the population of the island. Others think the beauty and elegance of the island forged a bond between the survivors. But, everyone would agree that the savory smells from the campfire of Captain Iron Knee and his small crew of pirates was the most memorable element of that first night.
Perhaps it is just human nature to want to join together and work as a team. Any way you slice it, though, each small band of two to four survivors of six or seven different ships eventually came to live, eat, work, play, practice, build, and therefore survive together as a team, unit, band, group…
I hope you enjoyed chapter one. Tune in for chapter two, where we explore some character traits of Captain Iron Knee.
What do you think the message or theme from chapter one might have been? What was the author trying to get across? Why was it written?
Have you ever had something that you really wanted to remember, but couldn’t? What did you do to try to remember it?
Did you know beforehand that this was something you were going to want to remember?
Have you ever had information that you wanted to help someone else remember?
What did you do to help them remember the information?
How did it work?
What do you think you could have done differently that would have helped the person more?
[These questions were posed to and answered by my class after participating in the following exercise.]
What are neurons?
And, what do they have to do with you?
What connections can you make?
What do you already know about this subject?
I did not have a lot of hope that my students would be able to provide stellar answers to those questions. In fact, I was hoping that they wouldn’t be able to provide any cognizance on the concept! –Not because I was hoping that they were ignorant, but because I wanted to illustrate the need for an opening sentence that would help a reader tap already existing information from their memories. My aim was to provide a text that my students couldn’t use… yet. With a different opening sentence; however; they might be able to open a prefrontal pathway to a mental folder that holds related information. Then my students would be able to both use existing knowledge to build upon and store this new information with related knowledge.
Now that my class was primed to try to understand where I was going with the original exercise, I asked, “What would be a good opening sentence for the paragraph about neurons that would help a third grader understand what they were about to read?” What ideas might stimulate thinking about related topics?
The idea here is to write an opening sentence that gets your reader to think about your topic. In the same way you try to “actively read”, using strategies that help you get the most out of a text, you should hope that the reader of your writing is doing the same thing. You should write in such a way as to help your reader get the most out of his/her experience.
If you want your reader to infer things, don’t write every single detail.
If you want your reader to establish cause & effect relationships between things, make sure those connections are clear. (This is what I am trying to do write now–I intentionally misspelled “right” to hopefully pun you into remembering this tidbit of a thought.)
If you want your reader to question, present information that is so interesting that your reader wants to know more.
If you want your reader to make predictions, give her just enough information, but not too much. Stretch out your text so that the reader has some time to think about what will happen next. Don’t just dump information onto the reader. Spoon it out a little at a time, so that she can come up with her own ideas of what might be next. (Did you notice that I tried to do that… spread out the ideas through writing a few unnecessary sentences, before getting to the next point? I did that to try to illustrate how a writer–in this case, me, but soon to be you–could produce this trick. Good luck!)
There are more reading strategies, of course, but I will end this short list with making connections. If you want your reader to make good, strong connections to your text, you must help him through introducing your topic in such a way that the reader is open to receiving the information.
I find that many times third graders assume that their readers already know what they are writing about. This is probably do to a natural level of narcissism that 8- and 9-year olds still possess. Also, they are mostly correct, because what they are often writing about was assigned, everyone who will be reading the produced text (their peers) already knows the assignment, and they are writing for me, the person who assigned it!
This blog and lesson is meant to help students write in such a way as to pretend the reader does not already know the assignment. If an author is writing for an audience ignorant of the assignment, how would he or she begin the paragraph? If you want the reader of your writing to get something from the experience of looking at your text, it will be helpful to know what the reader is doing while reading. In this way you can steer the reader toward your goal of gaining new knowledge that can be retrieved later. If you want your reader to remember any of your text, it helps to understand how remembering works.
Remembering things can be broken into a three-step process. First, you take in new information. I was tempted to write learn instead of “take in”, but before you understand information, you first literally absorb it through your senses. You hear words and sounds; see images, colors, and light; touch/feel manipulatives, textures, and temperatures; smell; and sometimes taste. This is called encoding.
After your brain gets the information, it looks for a place to store it. This is the second stage of memory. The place and way that the information is stored will depend on how useful your brain decides it is. Are you going to need to know this again, soon? Perhaps, not, but the information would be very useful in a particular circumstance, so it shouldn’t be lost. Some information is interesting, but not very useful. This could get pushed out of your thinking like pictures you delete from your iPad. The information may go to a “recently deleted” file in the brain, awaiting total forgetting when too many new thoughts push the information out of the way.
The last part of remembering involves retrieving memories. This is the part where you try to recall information that you know you know, but can’t quite find it in your brain. Some people who try to remember something that they know they learned, but can’t recall the exact information refer to this as a “brain fart”. Just last night, I may have coined a new term on Twitter: “Cognitive Constipation”. Rather than your brain farting, it is more like it gets all backed up with un-useful information that blocks your thoughts from landing on what you want to remember. A successful memory, though, is easy to recall or comes to mind quickly whenever you want it to.
A writer (you… and me) wants his readers to remember the ideas that are presented. We want our readers to be able to recall the concepts that we have presented. This will make the ideas valuable. There are a couple of ways that can help writers do this.
Lets begin with encoding. This is the first step of building a memory. Your readers are taking in tons of sensory information all day long. How will your writing stimulate the senses in such a way that it will stand out? One of the things that I try to do during teaching and in this blog is provide visuals. I try to tap more than just the imagination. Also, when teaching (This is virtually impossible through a blog post.), I try to create “experiences” during my lessons. A lesson on narratives will involve smoke machines, giant hairy spiders, and loud noises. Writers will want to make information appealing to readers. But, in order for readers to remember it, authors will need to make the information useful.
When new information comes into your brain, your mind tries to make sense of it. Your brain looks for information that is related to the new senses being stimulated. It is sort of like looking for a code or translation that can make sense of the new information. If no translator or decoder is found, the information will most likely be deemed useless and get deleted. It may even be found incompatible immediately. This could have happened with the neuron information that I presented to my students at the beginning of this lesson. If I hadn’t talked to them a little about cells and brains, they wouldn’t have anywhere to put this information. I may as well have been speaking Greek to them. This is probably how many people feel when reading or listening to specialized scientific texts and talks.
It is our job, as authors, to help our readers make connections. We must provide the code to our text right at the beginning of our writing. The translator needs to be set up and ready to go before any information is conveyed, or it will be lost. The opening sentence should present this code. It should tell the reader what folder in the brain she will need to access to find related information. This will empower the reader to make sense of what she is reading. Not doing this is like throwing the reader into the middle of the ocean without a lifejacket.
BBC Earth Lab (Producer), & Head Squeeze (Director). (2014, February 20). How Does Your Memory Work?[Video file]. Retrieved February 6, 2019, from https://youtu.be/TUoJc0NPajQ