Lesson Plans

Literature For Composition ©2000

by Barnet, Berman, Burto, Cain, and Stubbs

Lesson Plan 6

Chapter 9: "Reading (and Writing About) Fiction"
Chapter 10: "Thinking Critically About a Short Story"

Suggested Pacing

The following lesson plan covers two weeks of AP* class periods, offering a framework for Chapters 9 and 10.


  • Synthesize ideas on critical thinking about fiction through a discussion of disposition, or form.
  • Develop further strategies for taking both the multiple-choice and free-response portions of the AP* Literature and AP* Language tests.


Disposition, Continued
In recent years, writers have experimented with amalgamations of previous literary forms, creating, for example, genres we now call "creative nonfiction" or "reader response criticism"–genres that bring together elements of fiction and nonfiction or the personal and the critical. Especially with the advent of the Internet in writing classrooms, literary form is undergoing a revolution. Now a reader can enjoy a hypertext novel that combines traditional novelistic formats with images and sounds or a hypertext poem that puts together poetic lines with snatches of songs. As a result, disposition has become increasingly more dependent on ethos, or authorial voice, through the personalization of idea, rather than ethos created through a sense of logic and rhetorical distance.

But just as an architect must sketch a house based on the needs of the future homeowner, so a modern-day writer must custom design the "house" in which the writing will live. Despite the revolution in literary form that seems to suggest "anything goes" when it comes to form, certain houses still fit certain kinds of writing better than others–some houses are ideal for poetry while others better suit journal articles or encyclopedia entries. An architect would not build a glass house next to a mountain that experiences frequent rock slides, even if the view would be breathtaking for the homeowner.

That said, it is also important to keep in mind that no writing is predesigned to a certain structure. British Romantic writers wrote lyrics, Victorians penned dramatic monologues, and Moderns created free verse, but all these authors wrote what we call "poetry." These poets took the forms that were handed down to them from previous generations of writers and remade them into forms that fit the kind of writing they or their culture demanded.

In Wordsworth's The Prelude, for example, you see his poem's reliance on the structure of John Milton's Paradise Lost, yet Wordsworth's epic is revolutionary in that he transfigured a mythic form about God and Satan into a mythic form about the growth of an individual selfhood. In a similar manner, students will examine the structure of previous kinds of writing to ascertain how these structures function within later, perhaps seemingly unrelated, genres.

DAY 1:    Disposition and Reading (and Writing About) Fiction

Before beginning an examination of disposition and fiction, have students participate in a series of short, in-class writings that help move them from a highly-structured sense of disposition with the Ciceronian Oration to a much more loosely-structured sense of current disposition with a technique called stream-of-consciousness.

Stream-of-consciousness writing is a way of loosening the manacles of literary organization, a technique first employed in fiction by Modern writers such as Henry James, Virginia Woolf, and James Joyce. Quoting a small section from Joyce's Ulysses is one way to introduce students to the principle of stream-of-consciousness as a vastly different kind of writing than free writing. Students often confuse the two.

Ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if no more, thought through my eyes. Signatures of all things I am here to read, seaspawn and seawrack, the nearing tide, that rusty boot. Snotgreen, bluesilver, rust: coloured signs. Limits of the diaphane. But he adds: in bodies. Then he was aware of them bodies before of them coloured. How? By knocking his sconce against them, sure. Go easy. Bald he was and a millionaire, maestro di color che sanno. Limit of the diaphane in. Why in? Diaphane, adiaphane. If you can put your five fingers through it, it is a gate, if not a door. Shut your eyes and see.

Stephen closed his eyes to hear his boots crush crackling wrack and shells. You are walking through it howsomever. I am, a stride at a time. A very short space of time through very short times of space. Five, six: the nacheinander. Exactly: and that is the ineluctable modality of the audible. Open your eyes. No. Jesus! If I fell over a cliff that beetles o'er his base, fell through the nebeneinander ineluctably. I am getting on nicely in the dark. My ash sword hangs at my side. Tap with it: they do. My two feet in his boots are at the end of his legs, nebeneinander. Sounds solid: made by the mallet of Los Demiurgos. Am I walking into eternity along Sandymount strand? Crush, crack, crik, crick. Wild sea money. Dominie Deasy kens them a'.

Won't you come to Sandymount,

Madeline the mare?

Rhythm begins, you see. I hear. A catalectic tetrameter of iambic marching. No, agallop: deline the mare.

Open your eyes now. I will. One moment. Has all vanished since? If I open and am for ever in the black adiaphane. Basta! I will see if I can see. . . .

After reading the passage aloud, ask students how these seemingly unrelated thoughts actually form certain structural patterns. Even if students do not understand every word of the passage, they will readily see repetitions ("inelectable modality," "diaphane," the German words) and resurgences (colors, the use of the senses, admonitions, alliterations and assonances, the use of "I" and "he," places, dialects, paradoxes of seeing and hearing, onomatopoeia, movement). Students should notice other controlling factors, too; colors appear to blend into each other ("rusty boot" becomes "rust"); the "I" is also "he," so even though point of view switches, we stay with the same narrator (Stephen); speaking about a place becomes a rhymed ditty, a trace of a remembrance from childhood, which is then translated into a personification of poetic terminology ("A catalectic tetrameter of iambic marching"). Although on the surface Joyce's writing seems to be nonsense, it has a flow and flavor that connectedly makes sense.

Stream-of-consciousness results when an author puts on paper those thoughts that flit across the mind before one has a chance to engage the mind to think about them. As soon as the mind locks into these unconsidered thoughts, it wants to make sense of them. Therefore, to write in stream-of-consciousness, one must clear one's mind, see what enters, and before one's mind attends to what has entered, write down the phrase, word, or idea, then go through the process again of clearing the mind, and so on. It is a difficult process to get down what "streams" into the mind before reflection takes over.

  1. Ask students to engage in a stream-of-consciousness exercise of their own by closing their eyes and "looking" at the inside of their eyelids to "see" what they see. They should open their eyes and write down the first thing they think of, and then stop. They should then clear their minds and begin again. What they will realize is that the mind "hitchhikes" items that enter it: snatches of song, disconnected words, images without language. These hitchhiked items are rarely strung together in the manner of railway cars. Rather, they tend to be connected like a spider's web, from loosely related but also entirely different lines of thought. For example, the name "Sandymount" reminded Joyce's narrator, Stephen, of a nursery rhyme he heard as a child; the ideas are connected but not linear.

  2. Once students have written in stream-of-consciousness for at least 30 minutes, ask that they take any one part of their stream-of-consciousness writing and, for the next class, create a free-verse poem of as many or as few stanzas as they wish. You may want to remind students that a free-verse poem has lines of irregular length and is usually unrhymed and also set a minimum and maximum number of stanzas that need to be written. Having students rewrite their stream-of-consciousness as a poem, of course, gives form to the arbitrariness of their mental "streamings."

DAY 2:    Disposition and Reading (and Writing About) Fiction, Continued

For this class have students convert their free-verse poems from the previous class into a Shakespearean sonnet. Begin by reviewing with students the form of the Shakespearean sonnet, a 14-line poem in iambic pentameter–that is, five unstressed-stressed syllables per line, using the rhymed form abab cdcd efef gg. Often each quatrain represents a separate idea or metaphor with the couplet at the end used as a resolution for the poem. You may want to use one of the Shakespearean sonnets in the text as an example: Sonnet 29, "When, in disgrace, with Fortune and men's eyes" (p. 586); Sonnet 73, "That time of year thou mayst in me behold" (p. 68); Sonnet 116, "Let me not to the marriage of true minds" (p. 587); or Sonnet 146, "Poor soul, the center of my sinful earth" (p. 1267).

When students squeeze their free-verse poems into an even shorter structure with strict rhythm and rhyme, they will find themselves having to compensate by making any given word choice, rhyming pattern, and other poetic device do more than one job. Because a sonnet form forces concentrated meaning, language must be more precise to express students' ideas, metaphors, similes, sounds, connotative words, extended metaphors, and the like, which therefore all take on added value. The form of the sonnet, though restrictive, is also "freeing" in how it aids students as they come to understand the mandates of structure.

In essence, with these three in-class writings, students move from the most chaotic of literary structures (stream-of-consciousness) to one of the most limited (a sonnet). They also move backward through time, using a Modern technique (stream-of-consciousness), then a nineteenth-century poetic form (free-verse), and then, finally, a Renaissance form (the sonnet). Students should begin to see how even the most deconstructed of literary forms has a certain structure of its own and, despite its chaos, can be the basis of a highly restrained structure such as the sonnet. Thus, these short, in-class writings invite a discussion of the relationship between form and function in the modern era. Obviously, students have converted form. How does that conversion affect meaning? How is meaning (and, as a result, literary history) tied to form?

DAY 3:    Disposition and Reading (and Writing About) Fiction, Continued

Now that students have a sense of how disposition functions in contemporary writing, it is time to turn to a discussion of modern short fiction. In order that students become conversant in the technical language we use to talk about short stories, have them read Raymond Carver's "Popular Mechanics" (pp. 576–577). An extremely short short story–indeed, one that is often designated "sudden fiction"–"Popular Mechanics" is an ideal piece to use as students work through the basics of how literary critics talk about fiction.

Students should not read this story ahead of time; this piece should be performed as a dramatic reading in class. First, ask for three student volunteers, one to be the voice of the narrator, one to be the voice of the woman, and the third to be the voice of the man. The narrator should read everything that is not spoken by the woman or the man, including dialogue tags such as "he said" and "she said." In turn, the woman and the man should read only their dialogue–nothing else. Ask that the remaining students pay attention to what is happening in the story and what roles the narrator, woman, and man play.

After the dramatic reading, break students into six groups of no more than three or four students each (if your class size demands it, two groups may be assigned the same task, making for twelve groups). Once students are in their groups, have them work with the following reading prompts (i.e., one prompt per group):

  • Foreshadowing is defined as devices in a story that "prepare the reader for the outcome" (p. 194). Thinking about setting, description, dialogue, diction, character, point of view, plot, and form in "Popular Mechanics," explain what elements of Carver's story foreshadow his brutal ending and why you believe he chose such elements.

  • Setting is defined as "not mere geography, not mere locale . . . [but] an atmosphere, an air that the characters breathe, a world in which they move" (p. 195). Considering description, dialogue, diction, character, point of view, plot, and form in "Popular Mechanics," explain what kind of atmosphere Carver creates for his story and why.

  • Symbolism is defined as "certain characters and certain things in the story [that] stand for more than themselves, or hint at larger meanings" (p. 195). Looking at Carver's use of setting, description, dialogue, diction, character, point of view, plot, and form in "Popular Mechanics," decide what elements of the story are symbolic and what those symbols mean. (Note the cautions about true symbols versus false ones on pp. 195–196; it may help you decide what elements of the story are not symbols and why.)

  • Point of view is defined as the view "from which [an author] will narrate the story" (p. 197). Once you have determined the point of view Carver employs in "Popular Mechanics," decide why he chose that point of view. Try writing the first two paragraphs through another point of view; how does this revision alter the nature of his story? What would a different point of view do to the overall workings of "Popular Mechanics"–its setting, description, dialogue, diction, character, plot, and form?

  • Style is defined as "a way of reporting material" in a story (p. 199). Thinking about the linguistic parts of Carver's story–his diction, dialogue, description, point of view, and form–define his style in "Popular Mechanics." Be precise and give examples.

  • Theme involves what the story is about, what it adds up to, and what motifs hold the happenings together. "What does [the story] make of life, and, perhaps, what wisdom does it offer?" (p. 199). Using literary evidence from "Popular Mechanics," including such elements as setting, description, dialogue, diction, character, point of view, plot, and form, discuss what you think Carver's theme is and why. Is his theme important or powerful? Does it "offer wisdom"? Why or why not?

The groups should be prepared to share their findings during the next class.

DAY 4:    Disposition and Reading (and Writing About) Fiction, Completed

Convene the class as a whole group and discuss each concept in turn, looking closely at Carver's story and reading examples aloud. If you wish, begin class by once again reading the entire story aloud–reading it to the students yourself or, perhaps, choosing other student volunteers to perform another dramatic reading.

Make sure students understand Carver's use of minimalism and how this stylistic choice influences more than just his sentence lengths–it influences his diction, his character development, his foreshadowing and symbolism, his descriptions, his setting, his plot. Indeed, his decision to tell the story in a minimalistic way affects every aspect of "Popular Mechanics," including the story's overall structure and ultimate theme or meaning.

By the end of the period, students should have a strong working knowledge of what each of these terms means and will be ready to use them in their own analyses of fiction. In addition, the class will have collectively performed a close literary analysis of a short story, which will prepare students for close readings of other works.

DAY 5:    Disposition and Thinking Critically About a Short Story

The idea of the assignment originally came from a writing workshop led by Ron Carlson at the Ohio State University.

Today, students will write their own piece of sudden fiction. This assignment is highly structured, and its intent is to highlight form within the genre of sudden fiction. Here is the prompt:

Write a complete sudden fiction story–with dialogue, character, plot, setting, point of view, symbolism, and style–in just 26 sentences on any topic you choose. Each of your 26 sentences must begin with a letter of the alphabet in alphabetical order. In other words, the first sentence must begin with "A," the second with "B," and so forth. Sentences may be as long or as short as you wish, but, obviously, the length or brevity of your sentences will determine your story's style and tone. (Recall how Carver's use of minimalism directly influenced the subject matter and meaning of his story.) You may not skip or repeat any letter.

Allow students the entire period to write their ABC stories; they may need to finish them overnight. Ask students to bring these stories with them to the next class.

DAY 6:    Disposition and Thinking Critically About a Short Story, Continued

Returning to their ABC stories from the previous class, have students discuss the following questions. Before launching into this discussion, you may want several students to read their ABC stories aloud to the class. (It is interesting to compare how students negotiate the difficult letters "X" and "Z.")

  • What choices did you make, syntactically, in order to facilitate the ABC format? Did you use introductory clauses in some of your sentences? Did you have any one-word sentences or other sentence fragments? Did you begin sentences with verbs instead of nouns? Did you use run-on sentences in order to create more space for ideas since you had only 26 sentences with which to work? How did your syntax affect your story?
  • What diction choices did you make to facilitate the ABC format? Did you give a character a name that begins with "X"? Did you purposely choose to incorporate a "Z" word throughout the story so that it would not stick out at the end, calling attention to itself? How did these choices of diction affect your story?
  • Did you choose a certain setting or character in order to accommodate such letters as "X" and "Z"? (In the past, students have opted to write science fiction, for instance, so that they could use all kinds of bizarre "X"- and "Z"-words throughout the piece.)
  • Were you frustrated with the ABC format? What did the strictures of having to write within such a structure do to your story? Your creative process? In other words, how did you have to modify the way you write to fit this particular form?

This exercise helps students to think about relationships between sentences in a piece of fiction and how those sentences make up the architecture of an entire piece. It also graphically shows them that constricting one's creative processes to a proscribed form–a five-paragraph theme, a sonnet, a comparison-contrast essay, and so on–is both a limiting as well as a highly disciplined undertaking. When form precedes function, a writer must adapt function to fit the form. Otherwise, the writing suffers, as in the case of students who did not anticipate difficulties with "X" or "Z" and, as a result, came up with sentences that sounded out of place.

DAY 7:    Disposition and Thinking Critically About a Short Story, Continued

The ABC story facilitated a discussion about the relationships between and among sentences. Now have students turn to the casebook on Ralph Ellison's "Battle Royal" (pp. 239–266)–a series of pieces that may be discussed as either a set sequence–that is, a sequence that the editors chose ahead of time, or as a sequence that might be reordered. For example, one might have Ellison's interview or reverie on Oklahoma come before "Battle Royal." Taken separately, each piece in the casebook stands alone as a particular discourse on racism in the United States. However, when placed side-by-side, these individual literary pieces are molded into a whole–more complete than the individual parts.

To begin thinking about the casebook on Ellison's short story, each student should be assigned one aspect of writing to study as she or he reads the casebook and its interrelated parts. This aspect of writing becomes the central device that the student focuses on and that holds the casebook together for that student. In essence, each student becomes an expert on his or her assigned aspect of writing. Here are the aspects that students might consider:

  • narrators and their points of view
  • names and naming
  • images of African Americans, including metaphors
  • images of white people, including metaphors
  • politics/political images
  • images of reading and education
  • images of masculinity
  • foreshadowing
  • how characters are presented, including characters within nonfiction prose
  • depictions of class, which may be discussed in conjunction with depictions of race and gender
  • titles of narratives and essays as well as titles within narratives and essays
  • humor and satire
  • uses of visual representations and descriptions
  • symbolism
  • images of strangers
  • images of family, including for the good of "the race"
  • extended metaphors
  • language levels and diction

Spend this class period having students go through the casebook, making notes on their assigned aspect of writing. Ask them to bring these notes with them to class the next day.

DAY 8:    Disposition and Thinking Critically About a Short Story, Completed

Working only with Ellison's short story "Battle Royal," have each student present his or her assigned aspect of writing to the rest of the class, tracing how this aspect functions within the single piece of Ellison's short story and explaining how this particular aspect of writing changes the meaning of Ellison's fiction when all the pieces of the casebook are read together. Make sure that each student provides concrete examples from "Battle Royal" and the other pieces in the casebook to illustrate his or her claims.

Like Wordsworth's reliance on, and revision of, Paradise Lost, this exercise provides an opportunity for students to discuss Ellison's use of words and ideas from others–Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. DuBois–within his story "Battle Royal."

Through this discussion, students should come to terms with the complexity of disposition, how it functions both within a single piece of fiction and as part of a larger rhetorical whole. Students should see that Ellison's story changes its meaning and import with the addition of each piece in the casebook–that the chronological structure of the casebook influences a reader's interpretation of Ellison's work.

If possible, have students articulate the nature of these changing interpretations with the addition of each layer of the casebook. The intent is for students to understand that the compiler of the casebook is not an unthinking editor. Like the author of a short story (Ellison), the editor of the text has made conscious choices about the disposition of the pieces in the casebook that directly influence how a reader reads Ellison's story.


Remind students that in preparing to answer the questions in the multiple-choice portion of the AP* exams, they should first skim the selection looking for the topic sentence or thesis statement. They should then read the passage looking for patterns of organization, such as cause and effect, comparison and contrast, or problem and solution. As they read, students should be highlighting important words and phrases that help them understand what the passage is about.

DAY 9:    The Mock AP* Exam

To give students practice in writing timed essays similar to those on the AP* exams, provide the following writing prompt and have students complete their planning and writing in 40 minutes. Students will need access to their text in order to read the poem.

After reading Robert Hayden's poem, "Those Winter Sundays" (p. 759), determine Hayden's purpose, then analyze how Hayden achieves that purpose by the ways in which he presents his poem to the reader. Consider such means as overall organization, use of details, relationships among the poem's parts, and Hayden's decision about where to place the climax of his poem.


DAY 10:    An Analysis of Disposition and Literature

Take the list of "good writing" techniques that students developed in Lesson Plan 4, and ask each student to reorganize the list into no more than five or six main categories. Each student may name these categories anything she or he wants, provided all items on the list can be placed into one of the categories.

Once the students have established these categories individually, have them come together and decide which five or six categories of good writing they would choose as a group and what techniques of good writing they would place under each category. Then, again as a group, have students decide which of their five or six collective main categories should have top priority when a writer is considering what makes "good writing," which category should have second priority, and so on, until all five or six categories have been prioritized.

Finally, have the class write a collaborative three– to four– sentence explication of each category and an explanation of its priority for writers. Through this evaluation exercise, students will be "disposing" of their techniques of good writing through processes of critical thinking, or analysis.