ALAN v25n2 - A Dramatic Reading of Adolescent Literature

Volume 25, Number 2
Winter 1998
A Dramatic Reading of Adolescent Literature

J. Lea Smith and J. Daniel Herring

Read, read, read. Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the masters. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write.

William Faulkner

To meet the challenge of attracting middle-level students to the literate life, language arts educators focus instruction on process. This design creates a learning environment where students, along with their teacher, construct literacy as they participate in authentic acts of reading, writing, speaking, and listening. The pivotal instructional components — reading workshop and writing workshop — immerse the adolescent learner in 1) regular chunks of time to write and read, 2) self-selection of writing topics and reading materials, and 3) meaningful dialogue with peers and teacher ( Atwell, 1987 ). Within this context, a fire is kindled to ignite adolescents to write during writing workshop and read during reading workshop.

Reading workshop commits in-class time to reading. Thus the adolescent is required to read; and, in turn, a space is created where they become hooked on books. Students’ attention becomes "glued" to their adolescent novel. They read texts such as Nothing But the Truth ( AVI, 1991 ), One Fat Summer ( Lipsyte, 1977 ), Izzy, Willy-Nilly ( Voigt, 1986 ), Beyond the Burning Time ( Lasky, 1994 ), Maniac Magee ( Spinelli, 1990 ), and other current YA titles. This absorption reflects the value of young adult literature — timely portrayal of the adolescent condition as it creates a setting familiar to youths and with which they can identify. This genre provides not only opportunities to heighten self-knowledge and personal understanding but also the potential to glean insight into the craft of writing. As students read literature, they experience, first-hand, the crucial elements of good writing: action, theme, voice, perspective, conflict, resolution, and consequence.

When students perceive reading as a whole, sense-making process they are able to move deep within the pages of a book, where intense involvement, pleasure, and appreciation pave the way to reading as a writer and writing as a reader. Nancie Atwell (1987) notes the most frequent response her students make in their reading response journals is "advice to authors and comments on how authors wrote" (p. 173). When students experience skills within a context of meaning, they are able to discern the effects. As readers create meaning through a process of discovery, weaving and circling among the complex presentation of ideas and literary devices, reading becomes a "magnifying glass" that enlarges the intricacies of writing. This enlargement, explored through dramatization, creates a tool where teachers and students can learn to write.

The middle-level language-arts teacher faces the challenge to create instruction that bridges what students know with what they want to know ( Cooter & Chilcoat, 1990 ). Genuine learning involves an interaction between the learner, the environment, and the content; this interaction integrates what we experience into our system of meanings ( Beane, 1992 ). Drama can initiate this interaction when adolescent literature becomes the springboard to create writing instructional demonstrations. These lessons empower students to learn new knowledge and also, as Bolton (1984) has noted, enables them to understand more deeply what they already know.

Drama is action — reading and writing in the present. This action functions as a frame of reference for students and teacher to think together and "act-out" the writing of reading and reading of writing. Drama underscores the relationship between thinking and the social organization of instruction. This student-in-social activity ( Minick, 1985 ) places the learner with others as they create social contexts — zones of proximal development ( Vygotsky, 1978 ) where instruction supports evolving language fluency. The teacher, through collaborating, directing, and demonstrating, guides the adolescent writer to become aware of the author’s craft through dramatic analysis of their readings. Examining a novel through dramatic interpretation allows an adolescent learner to scrutinize the writer’s strategies and subsequently, the relationship of these to the reading process ( Moll, 1990 ): portray what we are reading, act out interpretations of characters, illustrate how to utilize descriptions or dialogue to influence readers through action, and establish word accuracy. Thus, through dramatization, students not only become aware of the writer’s crafting strategies but also are encouraged to develop their own strategies. Ultimately, this awareness leads them to incorporate these techniques as a part of their approach to composing.

Students are able to explore both literacy knowledge and concepts while "trying on" social experiences ( Smith & Herring, 1993 ). Drama as an element of process instruction places learners in a variety of contexts — situations to play with different forms of thought, feeling, and language ( Edmiston, 1991 ). And within the workshop, dramatic action puts students into other people’s shoes ( Heathcote, 1984 ) by using personal experiences to help them meet, first-hand, the art of capturing the reader via the crafting of their writing.

Drama as an approach to demonstrate the art of writing can unfold in a number of ways. The basics are 1) drama is a way of learning through role playing and problem solving; 2) drama is a process that calls for self-awareness, communication skills, concentration, and group cooperation; and 3) drama is a creative way of using the whole body to transmit and receive information with mind, body, and voice working in collaboration to create a "total picture." Next, comes an instructional setting where students are encouraged to "play" with a concept such as writing a lead through acting it out. This playing brings the writing process to life, which subsequently sparks an interest in the literate life as students actively engage in "play." This makebelieve, based on their readings as well as writings, becomes very real and can be guided to meet further learning outcomes.

Dramatic Writing Mini Lessons

Drama becomes a stage to view the unfolding match between writers’ intent and audience’s interpretation. An approach to capture this relationship involves 1) writing that develops into a dramatization and 2) improvising action that launches writing. This hands-on process to teach the craft of writing can develop through techniques such as scripting, role-playing, monologue, staging, or dialogue. To initiate a dramatic writing mini lesson, the teacher selects a writer’s technique — for example, fictionalizing a personal experience — and then ties it to the students’ reading. Within the context of reading Words by Heart ( Sebestyen, 1979 ), seventh graders were able to learn how to use personal experience as a base to heighten a fictional situation. Sebestyen’s novel scrutinizes racial prejudices, race relationships, and nonviolence in the cotton country of the early 1900s. Lena, the young black protagonist in a church competition, recites the most Scriptures by heart. Yet winning does not bring her the joy nor recognition she had expected. Building on the reading, students were asked to think of a personal experience, which involved significant time and effort in order to achieve a specific goal. And from this reflective they were to develop a dramatic scene.

After identifying the learning outcome — writing by the creation of improvisations based on personal experience ( National Standards for Arts Education, 1994 ) — we initiated an instructional episode based on a discussion of Lena’s experience. From this groupthink, students wrote a brief description recalling a life event where imagined expectations and actual events match. Next, students were divided into small groups to share their writings. After sharing, the small groups chose one of their experiences to add fictional circumstances that involved bias, discrimination or prejudice. Students then improvised scenes (acting out of a situation or event with no rehearsal) of this fictionalized experience to the larger group. In a natural follow-up to this "walking in the writings’ shoes" lesson, students discussed how the role playing helped to identify the link between nonfiction and fiction within one piece of writing. An example of this lesson is outlined in

Figure 1.

Additional Dramatic Writing Mini Lessons

In this section are additional mini lessons to connect the reading of adolescent literature to writing instruction. These lessons reflect our teaching experiences with middle-level students in a reading/writing workshop. Using Autumn Street ( Lowry, 1980 ) as the point of departure to explore voice, students investigate how writers create "aliveness" in their words (Figure 2). Voice is how an author portrays thought and feeling. And it is this tone in writing that ultimately creates lively, distinctive, and forceful expression.

Lowry’s text portrays Charles’ and Elizabeth’s friendship. The setting for this special relationship is the 1940s in a provincial neighborhood where Elizabeth has come to live in her grandfather’s home while her father fights in World War II. Charles is the grandson of Tatie, the cook of the house. This emotionally charged story presents a dilemma where Elizabeth’s extended family examines the layers of friendship in a "separate and not equal" world.

Lowry’s memorable writing can be savored and weighed. In one instance, students were asked to consider the following passage:

For days there was a haze in the room, so that everything was veiled; but the haze seemed to be behind my own eyes, deep in the hot part of my head, where something ached and throbbed with the same rhythm as my pulse. (p. 178)

This sentence, through metaphor and imagery, is saying, "I am sick" and is an example of how an author creatively uses words to paint pictures. Through discussion, students "handled" the writer’s crafting.

Students often have difficulty capturing voice in their writing ( Lane, 1993 ) primarily as a result of having few opportunities to express, through speaking or writing, their beliefs or opinions on a topic. Students can "meet" voice when they stand on their feet and dialogue with one another in an improvised setting. This strategy involves students in a give and take where meaning is "heard" through the sound of language. Hearing is the heart of writing (Kirby et al. ,1981). How do we help students hear their writing? Drama can function as an amplifier to hear the voice within their words.

Another dramatic writing mini lesson (Figure 3) uses the book The Eagle Kite ( Fox, 1995 ). This adolescent novel centers on thirteen-year-old Liam, who faces the challenge to accept his parents and their lifestyle choices. As a part of his acceptance, Liam comes to admit that his father’s illness doesn’t translate into being unacceptable in or unwanted by society. One theme — seeing beyond societal bias — situates the protagonist to address the controversy of AIDS. This novel provides students with opportunities to heighten their conceptual understanding of expository writing through comparing, contrasting, arguing, and explaining a substantive issue.

Expository writing borrows from both narrative and descriptive writing. Adolescent literature is a natural avenue to study exposition. Students are able to gain a sense of how this form of discourse takes shape. Exposition assumes an audience; yet first, a writer has to write to understand the topic. This beginning step focuses the writer to make sense of the subject, wrestle with ideas, and then construct lines clearly representative of those ideas ( Kirby et al. , 1981 ).

Writing helps students to explore the extent of their knowledge and perspective on a topic, as well as discover what they do and don’t want to say about it. This mental engagement with a topic cannot be avoided as writing seems to require us to organize our thoughts in some way and also to think beyond the obvious ( Purves et al. , 1990 ). Adolescent writers are challenged to provide more information about, more reflection on, more wrestling with the topic as they reach to write what they mean and mean what they write. Writing — a juggling act — requires the author to balance content, structure, and meaning along with perspective. If our adolescent writers are to mature as language users, they must be able to base their writing on clear, responsible thinking. And, this in turn, requires us to organize mini lessons that support them to come up with uncluttered insights into their writing.

Another essential characteristic of good writing is the unfolding of conflict within the plot line. The plot of a story is the sequence of interrelated events linked together by causality ( Russell, 1991 ). It is this causality and conflict that hold the readers’ attention. A writer creates conflict in the story action when something is at stake, some difficulty must be overcome or some goal must be achieved by the protagonist. These "road blocks" appear as negative forces: other characters, society, nature, self or fate. In the novel, Dragonwings ( Yep, 1975 ) Moon Shadow tries to hold on to his traditional Chinese customs while making his way in San Francisco during the early 1900s. With this setting, Yep evolves the plot line through Moon Shadow zigzagging to meet life’s challenges: conflicting characters, hostile environments, shattering earthquakes, limited self-appreciation, and unpredictable events. It is this variety of just enough changes, twists, and surprises that keeps us reading. Adolescent literature spotlights conflict. And, when our instructional emphasis views literature through a dramatic lens, conflict can be magnified and subsequently studied (Figure 4). This situates the student writers to "live" conflict. An illumination of this literary element points writers in the direction to recognize that "if you ain’t got conflict, you ain’t got a reader." Without conflict in a piece of writing, there is no building to resolution; with conflict, the reader’s interest is sustained to the end ( McCaslin, 1990 ).

Good writing — starts here and goes to there — has movement and order to it ( Kirby et al. , 1981 ). The writer must plan the course of events with things happening for good reason. The writing need not be a personal experience, but readers’ interest will be lost if the conflict and actions are not believable. Our experiences with adolescent writers illustrate the benefit of "playing" with their reading, which then leads them to recognize the power of conflict.

Wrapping It Up

Teachers require tangible strategies in order to co-construct, with their students, a classroom where they learn by doing. We find adolescent learners willing to create a curriculum where their voices are heard through different activities. Drama is a natural ingredient to add to the mix of a process classroom. Drama in the reading and writing workshop casts the mini lesson as a stage where the craft of writing can be seen and heard. This viewing allows instruction to be "the real thing" as students capture the literary life through dramatic interaction.

After reading and writing the dramatic way, our students seem to be more aware of the writer’s craft as well as the mechanics and skills, which are a natural dimension of writing and reading. They become more willing to discuss from multiple perspectives their own feelings. We also notice that, when instruction connects literature with dramatic interpretations and then creates a setting to read and write, students respond. This dramatic twist, attached to literacy instruction, moves the adolescent to embrace the literate life as a means to understand self, others, and the world.


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J. Lea Smith, Associate Professor at the University of Louisville, is currently on leave as a Visiting Scholar at Stanford University. J. Daniel Herring, Adjunct Faculty member at the University of Louisville, is the Assistant Director at Stage One Children’s Theatre in Louisville. Lea and Dan are co-authoring a text to illustrate a literature and drama approach to middle grades curriculum instruction for Heinemann.

Copyright 1998. The Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN #0882-2840). Permission is given to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not intended for resale in any form.

Reference Citation: Smith , J. Lea, and J. Daniel Herring. (1998). "A Dramatic Reading of Adolescent Literature." The ALAN Review , Volume 25, Number 2, 36-40.

by TG