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ETAS Journal Editors’ Choice, Number 1
Brigit Zogg: The secret lives of Walter Mitty and Stanley Stone, or: Writing inspired by reading
ETAS Journal, Volume 32 Number 3 (Summer 2015), pp. 28-30
Despite having occupied a large part of traditional language teaching approaches, literature and literary texts were relegated to the sidelines when language teaching and learning started to focus on the functional use of language.
Fortunately, they never lost their appeal, thanks to an enlightened advocacy that sees the role of education as fostering critical thinking skills and understanding the world around us rather than just passing on dry information. As a result, the use of literature in the ELT classroom has been enjoying a revival for a number of reasons. Teachers who use literature in their teaching note that literary texts: a) appeal to learners with different learning styles while providing opportunities for multi-sensorial classroom experiences; b) are rich sources of linguistic input that enables learners to practise the four skills of speaking, listening, reading, and writing while learning grammatical structures, new vocabulary, and critical thinking skills; c) introduce learners to a variety of cultures, including their own, and instill into them awareness of ‘difference’ while fostering tolerance and understanding (http://goo.gl/aX3Pyd). At the same time, literary texts expose readers to universal themes such as love, death, loss, defeat, or triumph allowing them vicarious experiences of common goals and similar emotions found in people of all times and places – a glimpse of what the Czech novelist Milan Kundera calls “parallel history”. Brigit Zogg’s The secret lives of Walter Mitty and Stanley Stone, or: Writing inspired by reading is my pick as the inaugural ETAS Journal Editors’ Choice article for the way it foregrounds the role of literary texts in providing rich linguistic input, effective stimuli for students to express themselves in other languages, and a rich source of learner motivation. In this highly-creative lesson plan, Zogg turns to James Thurber’s famous short fiction The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1939), as the central text for a set of reading and writing activities for the teenage classroom.
At first glance, the choice of material appears incompatible with teenage classes: Thurber’s Walter Mitty has little in common with Zogg’s high-school students. However, through skilful handling of the story, Zogg manages to make her students see a connection between their own lives and that of the middle-aged ineffectual character who lived his life in fantasies of heroic conquest to escape the drudgery of his suburban existence in a real world that constantly eroded his sense of self. Like Walter Mitty, Zogg’s students also “feel trapped in everyday demands: getting up too early, lessons, homework assignments, exams, etc…” and like Walter Mitty, they too, according to Zogg, “…use their imagination to at least theoretically find alternatives where life is more exciting, more fun, and generally more attractive”.
As Zogg’s article shows, storytelling is a powerful way to introduce her reading and writing lessons and to capture her students’ attention effectively. The story’s plotlines draw the students and keep them there as they transform the unfolding events into moving pictures in their head and link their memories, emotions, and viewpoints to the lesson’s objectives. On the level of language, discussions on conflict and character motivation enable the students to hone their critical thinking skills as they examine sequence of events and their cause and effect; visualize actions, characters, and settings, and predict outcomes; write a critical analysis of the story; and devise creative responses. And as Zogg also finds out, her use of a literary text for her lesson does more than just improve her students’ attentiveness or foster their reading and writing skills. In fact, by engaging the students, it becomes one of her most effective classroom management strategies.
So, Readers, read on…and follow Birgit Zogg as she walks us through this lesson step-by-step towards its inspired and inspiring conclusion. This article is Brigit Zogg’s second contribution to ETAS Journal, but as with the first (Creative writing and ELT: Incidental treasure chest, Winter 2014, pp. 46-48), it shines in my mind for its content that evinces immense creativity, brilliant conception, and magical execution. I thank Brigit for enriching the pages of ETAS Journal with her fascinating articles and hope that she will continue to enthrall our readers with her amazing insights.
Ceres Pioquinto, PhD
Editor, ETAS Journal
The secret lives of Walter Mitty and Stanley Stone, or: Writing inspired by reading
This project is a combination of reading and writing activities, class discussions, and groupwork, all based on the short story The Secret Life of Walter Mitty by James Thurber. It went remarkably well with two different high school classes of mine and hopefully will work nicely with other students, too.
I believe it is better suited for teenage students than for anybody else. Although the main character, Walter Mitty, is a lot older than they are and lives a totally different life, he is still somebody they can easily understand and identify with: somebody who is frustrated by his boring life, somebody who has high aspirations but constantly ends up looking ridiculous, somebody who escapes into daydreams in order to flee the dreariness of reality. Like Walter Mitty, many high school students feel trapped in everyday demands: getting up too early, lessons, homework assignments, exams, etc. And like Walter Mitty, they use their imagination to at least theoretically find alternatives where life is more exciting, more fun, and generally more attractive. And last but not least, the recent film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (which is loosely based on the short story) has made the name familiar; even though most students might nothave seen the movie, they have heard or read about it. So let us look at the project in detail.
Setting: a Swiss grammar school. Students aged 16 or 17; their reading skills at CEF level B2 or a bit higher, their writing skills at CEF level upper B1.
Topic: James Thurber’s famous short story The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, first published in 1939, available both in print and on the internet. It is roughly three pages long – in my eyes an ideal length for my students: long enough to yield all kinds of interesting aspects, but not an intimidating 20 pages or so, where readers get lost in the wealth of details.
Part 1: Read the short story
I hand out copies of the text and ask the students to read the story, either as homework or in class. If I decide on reading in class, I can choose between silent individual reading or reading in groups, or rehearsed reading for the whole class (where different students prepare different paragraphs, then read those to the whole class). The task in each case is to read the text and look up vocabulary that the students think vital for understanding, without going into too much detail – relaxed reading, I call it.
Part 2: Write a 50-word-summary of the short story
I ask the students to work in pairs.
- Please sum up in precisely 50 words what the story is about. Time frame: between 10 and 15 minutes.
In pairs, because…
- students feel less exposed than when they are writing alone
- they work faster and contribute more than in a larger group
- I get ten summaries at the end of the exercise; some variety, but still a manageable number
In exactly 50 words, because…
- this forces the students to actually summarize, not just retell
- the resulting texts are short enough to read out to the class, and short enough for the students to remember and judge
- the restriction works as a challenge and makes the task more interesting (I think…)
There are three possible outcomes at the end of this activity:
A) All the texts are more or less the same quality, giving a reasonable summary of the story.
B) All the texts fail to clearly summarize the story.
C) Some texts give clear, helpful summaries, whereas others are not a great success.
Looking over the students’ shoulders while they are working on the task gives me an idea of which scenario to expect. If it is A, I can pick whatever examples I like to read out to the class at the end of the activity; if it is C, I will pick three or four of the positive examples and elegantly avoid the less successful ones. In scenario B, I would read three or four of those not-so-great texts, too – thus making the need for close re-reading of the short story the more obvious.
Let me give you an example of what my better students came up with:
Walter Mitty has a very lively imagination. While he drives (10 words) his wife through the town to the hairdresser’s, he sinks (20 words) into his own fictive world. There he doesn’t have (30 words) to get overshoes and puppy biscuit, but he can be (40 words) the heroes he wants to be: a surgeon, a commander… (50 words)
Not a lot to be added here; just read three or four of their summaries, nod approvingly, and proceed to the next step.
Part 3: Describe the two worlds Mitty lives in
Having thus established the general fact that Mitty lives in two worlds, I ask my students to take a closer look at the
short story in order to find out more about it.
- Take two highlighters and mark the margins of the text; one colour for the real world, one colour for the daydreams.
This does not take a long time, and the result will be evident: Five different daydreams versus four real-world interruptions. It is a good idea to work this out with the whole class and write the key points down on the blackboard or OHP for further reference:
Daydreams: Real world interruptions:
Commander of hydroplane Mrs. Mitty in car
world-famous surgeon parking-lot attendant
‘a crack shot with any sort puppy biscuit!
bomber pilot Mrs. Mitty in hotel lobby
Walter Mitty, the Undefeated,
facing the firing squad
Part 4: Finding the links/seams between the different parts of the story
This part of the process is probably best done by each student individually (so that s/he can circle the evidence in their own copies), or in pairs (two heads are better than one). It should not take more than 10 minutes, because by now the students are quite familiar with the story and have surely recognised some of the links already.
My input is something like this:
I would now like you to find all the links in the text between those two worlds. Where do you see elements in the real world that start him off into the next daydream and appear there again? And are there any details in his daydreams that cause him to crash back into real life?
Collecting contributions, we should come up with roughly the following connections:
- ‘rev her up’, ‘pounding of the cylinders’, ‘full strength in No. 3’ in the first daydream connects with ‘Not so fast! You’re driving too fast!’ in the first real-life episode.
- ‘I wish you’d let Dr Renshaw look you over’, ‘Have you lost your gloves?’ and ‘he drove past the hospital’ in the first real-life episode links to ‘removing his gloves slowly’ and ‘Dr Renshaw and Dr Benbow’ in his operation-room daydream.
- ‘I’ll wear my right arm in a sling’, ‘Don’t tell me you forgot the what’s-its-name’ and ‘a newsboy… shouting something about the Waterbury trial’ appear in the second real-life episode and connect it to ‘Perhaps this will refresh your memory’ and ‘he wore his right arm in a sling’ in the third daydream, where Mitty is the defendant in the witness stand.
- ‘You miserable cur!’ in this third daydream makes him remember the second item his wife told him to get:‘Puppy biscuit’. (This is probably the hardest link for the students to detect, as few of them would know the word ‘cur’).
- ‘Can Germany Conquer… ?’ and ‘pictures of bombing planes’ at the end of this third real-life episode lead Mitty into his fourth daydream, where he is a bomber pilot: ‘I’ll fly alone’, ‘to handle that bomber’ and ‘the Archies [=anti-aircraft guns] are pounding hell out of the air.’
- And finally, in the last real-life episode, the elements ‘Walter Mitty lighted a cigarette’ and ‘he stood up against the wall of the drugstore, smoking’ connect seamlessly with his last daydream, where he ‘took one last drag on his cigarette’ and then faced the firing squad. So far, so good.
Part 5: Outlining our own ‘Secret Life Story’
I tell the class that they are now going to write a story of their own, in groups, and it must follow exactly the same pattern that we just analysed in Walter Mitty. The main character, however, will not be a middle-aged American, but a teenage Swiss student – in fact he or she will be a student at Kantonsschule Rychenberg in Winterthur.
- So let’s decide on our heroine or hero: a student who attends lesson after lesson, and in each lesson drifts away into a daydream, only to be jerked back into reality all of a sudden.
- First decision: Is our character male or female? Student answer: male. (Ouch! Why did I ask in the first place?!)
- Next question: What is his first name? Student answer: Stan. Or Stanley. (No idea why, but then, why not? So Stanley it is.)
- Third question: What is Stanley’s last name? Student answer: Stone. (Alliteration, most probably; but it also evokes the dead weight of a student who just sits through his school days, plus I can’t help thinking of the past participle: ‘stoned’…)
- Right. And now let’s decide on Stanley Stone’s timetable for the day in question. Please name the subjects that you would like to write about in small groups:
- History (Muriel, Nico, David)
- Sports (Sandra, Norina, Franziska,)
- Geography (Sophie and Simon)
- Music (Rahel and Nina)
- Chemistry (Gregor, Luca, and Matthias)
- And so on, and so forth… Theoretically, we could also include lunch break and perhaps a free period; the main thing here is that I write everything down for everybody to see, either on the blackboard or the OHP.
Part 6: Writing in groups
And this is where we do our own writing. The students get together in their groups and plan, then write their texts.
There are a few rules that all the groups must adhere to:
1. It has to be a third person narration.
2. It has to be in the past tense.
3. The text has to start with Stanley walking into the lesson in question, and it has to end with the bell that
signals the end of that lesson.
4. There must be links between the lesson and the daydream; Stanley can’t just drift off into the blue without
5. Time limit: about 30 or 40 minutes.
At the end of this session, I collect the texts and at home combine them into the complete story. This of course is easier if the students write their contributions on laptops and email them to me, but it does not take so much more time when I have their texts on paper and just type one after the other into my computer. Either way, we end up with a short story just (okay, almost…) as nicely constructed and entertaining as Thurber’s, and in the next lesson I hand out copies of the complete text to each student.
Part 7: Read, enjoy, and feel proud!
(And sign one another’s copies, if you want to feel like a real author…)
Thurber, J. (1939). The secret life of Walter Mitty. My world and welcome to it. San Diego, CA: Harcourt, Brace and Company.
About the Author
Brigit Zogg, MA, has mainly worked as an ESL teacher at several Swiss gymnasiums, besides shorter periods of teaching German as a First or Second Language. She has also worked in teacher training. When she realised a short while ago that she had been doing this for 40 years, she retired and is currently starting a new life writing ESL teaching materials, working on her own creative writing projects, walking her dog, and learning to play the alphorn. She lives in Winterthur and spends a lot of time in the north of Germany.