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?
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.
Everyday, right after recess and just before math, I have been conducting a sit-down with my students. We have been discussing what it means to be classy. In the past, I just threw ideas at my pupils in off-handed remarks. This year I decided to take a more proactive, purposeful approach.
I found a book at The Learning Express store, called “Being Polite: A few manners every kid should know”. This presents plenty of generic behaviors that adults take for granted, but kids need to be told. For instance, when you go out to eat at a restaurant or over a friend’s house, place your napkin on your lap and keep your eating area neat throughout the meal. This seems arbitrary and obvious. It is neither. Unless a kid saw someone do it, he would never put his napkin on his lap. This isn’t even necessarily the best practice. Do you know what it does, however? This tiny, simple action sets a child apart from others, as a classy individual. Keeping the eating area neat keeps you from looking like an ogre, not classy. It is like combing your hair.
When sharing the ideas from this book, I don’t stay stapled to the book’s parameters. It doesn’t have everything that I want to cover, and I disagree or embellish a few manners. Often, I will share stories as examples. This prompts my students to connect with their own experiences. Additionally, we discuss hypothetical situations.
Now, I come to the controversial part. A big part of being classy is word choice. The more robust the vocabulary, the more classy the individual. A couple of days ago, the Polite Pirates (my students and I) were discussing some public eating mannerisms. We got into chewing with your mouth closed, not talking while there was food in your mouth, and don’t take too large of bites. After discussing these and other classy behaviors mentioned in the Polite book, I summed it all up with, “In general, don’t be disgusting. It isn’t classy.”
This opened a whole new genre of behaviors. “What about burping by accident? What do you do if that happens?”
“What if you really don’t like something?”
“Take tiny bites of foods that you are not sure of. Always try new things. You never know. It could end up being your favorite food!”
“Yes, but what if you take a bite, and there is a bone in it?”
“Okay, okay. Use your napkin to produce a magic trick of wiping your mouth, when really you are spitting the food into it. Get a new napkin.”
Then, back to burping: “Can you burp and not make noise?”
“Sure, that is natural. Don’t be disgusting.”
And then, I saw that this hurricane had turned into a category four and wasn’t about to make landfall: “What do you do when you fart out loud?”
As an aside; There is a fantastic book with a wonderful message called “Walter the Farting Dog” that is marketed to young kids. Most third graders are familiar with it, and this has paved the way for the word fart to be marginally acceptable in elementary talk. The idea and word are still rather taboo, though.
As an additional aside; I grew up similarly to many of my suburban students, in a household of proper talk that frowned on potty language. For example, there was NO acceptable word for feces. My mother pretended the bathroom was used for bathing, only; Everything else was unmentionable. Since my youth, I have been liberated of these vernacular shackles. But, I want to respect the attitudes and expectations of the households of the students that I teach.
Back to my tale; With the cat out of the bag and every eye and ear focused on the question and my reaction, I tried to remain as rigid as land being assaulted by hurricane winds. Perhaps addressing this issue head on will cause the storm to break. It did, but we lost some shutters and broke some windows in the process!
“Alright, alright; If you accidentally fart out loud…” pause, breath, “Well…” think… “Just don’t.” Their eyes weren’t having it. I decided to come out from behind the podium a little: I became humanly honest with my students (and now, you). “When I was in school–your age–I was deathly afraid of embarrassing myself by farting out loud, so I trained my body to fart without making a sound.” This is true. I almost CAN’T make a sound, even now.
Knowing that my students will have to work on this for a while, and having witnessed most of them make obscene natural noises when adjusting their seat on the carpet throughout the year, I knew that I wasn’t really helping their immediate dilemma by telling them to “Practice, and someday it will be fine.” Their dilated pupils told me that this advice was not completely acceptable. They needed real-life, everyday ideas for dealing with this demon of digestive noise.
“Okay.” Lets try again. “When you feel like you are about to fart…” I actually said these exact words. “Prepare to make an even louder noise than the sound that is about to come from your body. Accidentally (wink, wink) drop a book or knock over your chair. Perhaps you notice (more winking) that it is snowing outside.” The whole class began to crane to see the snow that was surely not falling from the cloudless sky. “See, what just happened? (rhetorical statement) You didn’t even hear me fart, did you?”
Gasps!! If looks could scream, the surrounding classrooms would have heard my students.
To bring them all back to me, I suggested that I had another, slightly less distracting idea. “Just blame your neighbor.” A girl sitting on the periphery of the group blurted out that this was exactly what her father had told her! Some students told stories of giving this one a try. Hurricane relief efforts began with discussing whether it would be classy to blame someone else. Students made connections to the kid who was wrongly blamed for things. Little did I know that this calming conversation was but a respite from the fartstorm that had devastated my mannerly sit-down.
“What about SILENT BUT DEADLY farts?”
And we were off… Was this a hurricane or tornado?
Me: “If you feel like one of those are coming on, you ask to be excused. Go to the bathroom. Leave it there. Probably, you want to walk around a little. Shake it out of your pants. YOU stay until IT is gone.”
Ss: “But, what if you have a few? Do you go to the bathroom, over and over?”
Me: “No, go to the nurse. There is something wrong.” I am hoping that there isn’t something wrong with this conversation, at this point. How can I bring them back from this smelly tsunami? “Try to remember what you ate. Don’t eat that again… Blame your neighbor… I don’t know! Don’t fart. Don’t…” Okay, breath. These are just kids. They have their whole farty life ahead of them.
“You know what?” Relax. “Farting is natural. It happens. The most harmful thing that you could do is get all stressed out about it. Although blaming your neighbor would not be classy, and everyone knows the person who smelt it dealt it… Laughing it off and moving on is definitely the healthiest reaction to this unfortunately inescapable bodily phenomenon. And, healthy is classy. Basically, even when something happens that does not seem classy… like farting… the way you handle yourself demonstrates your class.”
Okay. I think I have them grounded, now. In conclusion…
“But, if you can, I recommend training your body to fart in stealth mode: no sound or smell.”
I just had to put that out there;)
Now, after teaching a slightly abbreviated math lesson, and finishing up the otherwise uneventful day, I waited to read the emails from parents about my “Fart Talk.” Would it be a trickle or stream? None.
The next day, I asked the kids if they had told their parents about out politediscussion from the day before. All but a couple raised their hands. The girl who had mentioned her father’s advice paralleling my idea of blaming a neighbor said that her father retracted ever telling her that! We laughed.
This story is extra relevant to me because I have been reading a barrage of comments condoning and also condemning a controversial blog about profane language being used in a college setting. (Warning: This blog is literature meant for adults to read. It is well-written, albeit with some swear words illustrating its point. The comments are less guarded.) The message of the text is that the college students seem to feel more engaged, respected, and therefore comfortable with this potty-mouth professor. His story suggests that the students who attend his higher-education literature classes don’t feel talked down to. “This is a guy who is on my side; who gets me,” might be some student sentiments that foster a more comfortable communicative relationship between prof and pupil.
The blog was a fascinating read, and the comments have kept me coming back for more thought-provoking perspectives concerning what I might consider the most appropriate persona a professor ought to project. It made me appraise my own breach of polite protocol when I talked to my students about farting out loud.
That discussion made me feel a little uneasy for a few reasons. One was that the word fart may not be kosher vocabulary for some of my students’ families. Was I using language that would be frowned upon? Through my acceptance of this word, did I bring it into mainstream speak. Sidenote: I did tell the students at the outset that the classy term for this topic was “flatulence”… But, then I proceeded to use “fart” just like them. Secondly, through talking about farts in a casual way, was I aligning myself to closely with the minds and attitudes of my students? Will they view me as a silly person, not to be taken as seriously as before the Fart Talk? I am passionate about my politeness lessons, teaching students how to be classy citizens of the world. What if they begin thinking that this mannerly talk is a bunch of hot (smelly) air? And finally, how will parents perceive my polite parameter podium after finding out that their children’s teacher is talking about farts? Perhaps their opinion of me will diminish.
I honestly, don’t know, yet.
If you are a parent, and would like to weigh in on this, please leave a comment.
What DOES a classy person do when he or she farts out loud??????????? We want answers!