Monday, November 4, 2013

Conflict... So easy, even a teenager can do it (in a second language!)

Yes, I know. I am a terrible blogger.

BUT I have an excuse for my lack of online presence these past few months. As a teacher, this time of year is always crazy busy. This year was even more insane than usual because I'm at a new school, teaching all new subjects!

I teach high school, specifically ESOL students (English for Speakers of Other Languages). It's exciting, fascinating, rewarding... but also unbelievably challenging, even when I'm teaching subjects I feel totally comfortable with.

It takes a lot of creativity and patience to teach high school ESOL. Intellectually my students are teenagers, but they're working with the language skills of an elementary student. Luckily, one of the classes I'm teaching this year is Literature so all the research I've done writing my first novel is definitely coming in handy!

Last month we were doing a lot around the theme of "survival" - natural disasters, extreme weather, etc. It seemed like a logical place to introduce types of conflict, which is one of the regular 9th grade English standards.

I admit, I sort of put the lesson together a few hours before class. That's just how it goes in teaching sometimes. (Okay, a lot of the time.) I hadn't really thought through all the challenges my students might have in terms of language.

Not surprisingly, about halfway through the lesson the kids were totally lost, and I was desperately trying to think of a way to get us back on track. Suddenly I remembered this blog post from the amazing Janice Hardy (who would make an incredible teacher, by the way!) over at the Other Side of the Story: The Best Advice on Plotting I've Ever Heard: Two Tips That Will Make Plotting Easier.

Basically, the idea is that story conflict can be reduced to this formula:
[goal] + but [problem] + therefore [solution/effect]
Providing "formulas" like this is actually a common ESOL strategy, except we call them "sentence frames." In other words, we provide students with the basic language they need to "frame" their ideas.

So, I scrapped whatever we were doing and told the kids to think about the last movie they saw and write down four things about the story:
(1) Character
(2) Goal
(3) Problem
(4) Solution
Once they had all that figured out, I wrote this on the board:
"_____________ wanted __________, but ____________, so ____________."
Plug in the character's name, goal, problem, solution - and, tada! A perfect summary of the story's conflict.

Then I helped them categorize all their "problems" until they ended up with the four basic types of conflict: Man v. Man, Man v. Nature, Man v. Society, and Man v. Self. (Though I used the gender-neutral "individual" instead of "man.")

Now that they had the tools they needed to discuss conflict, this suddenly became their favorite topic. We ended up talking about it all month, discussing the conflict in everything that we read.

What I learned in the process is that conflict can be tricker than it seems! But we always came back to the "wanted + but + so" formula, and it never failed when students were struggling to identify the conflict.

Take this example created by one of my students:
"The woman wanted to be happy and her husband to love her, but she was jealous of his daughter, so she killed her."
Grim, I know, but supposedly it was the plot of a horror movie.

Anyway, at first glance, a lot of students identified this as Man v. Man conflict - essentially saying the daughter was the problem.

But is that really what's stopping the woman from reaching her goal? Not based on the information we've been given. Her jealousy is what drives her to blame - and ultimately murder - her husband's daughter. Which makes it Man v. Self.

Basically, these are the questions I had the students ask themselves with each new scene or story:
(1) What does the character want?
(2) Why can't he get what he wants?
(3) What is he going to do about it?
If you can't answer all those questions, you don't really have effective conflict. Period.

I've been excited to write a post about this for a while, because I think this is a good wake-up call for writers of all ages.

Whenever I read a novel - or even a scene - with weak conflict, I think - Hey, if my students can do it, anyone can! There is no excuse for not having strong conflict!

It's easy to forget about the basics when working on something as complex as a novel. But as writers we need to ask ourselves these questions early and often, because we just might find that we can't actually answer them...

Teaching my kids about conflict has also had me re-examining (and improving!) the conflict in the 2nd draft of my current WIP. Which I'm happy to report is coming along steadily, despite my busy schedule. See how I brought it all back together at the end? ;)

Anyway, now that all the real blogging is out of the way... If you're willing to indulge a proud teacher, here are the summaries we chose to exemplify each type of conflict.

Keep in mind, most of my students have only been learning English for a year or two. I only fixed spelling errors, so please forgive their "creative" grammar. :)

  • Individual v. Individual "A boy wanted to get marry and move to another city, but he has a lot of trouble with his enemy and the enemy kill his family, so he fight with his enemy and kill him."
  • Individual v. Nature "A family wanted to be alive, but the end of the world is coming, so they run for life and get in a ship to be safe."
  • Individual v. Society "A little boy wanted to win the race and learn Kung Fu, but he just moved to China and he was being bullied, so he start learning Chinese Kung Fu and win the race."
  • Individual v. Self "Rio wanted to learn how to fly, but he was scared, so he make friends, then he wasn't alone and he finally learn how to fly."
Granted, these were from the very first day we discussed conflict. By the time our unit test rolled around, they were writing whole paragraphs! That might not sound like a big deal, but trust me. It is a very big deal.

Here are some of my favorites based on a prompt I gave them - which was really just one clip art image of an argument between two characters named "Jason" and "Kate."

This is the first thing this student has written where I could actually understand every sentence. Definitely brought a happy tear to my eye.

I love that intro: "This is a sad story of love." So adorable.

This student told me later that this is a true story about her life. Teenage drama at its finest!
Ps. Can you tell I was grading these late at night? I missed some pretty obvious errors. I swear, after seeing/hearing hundreds of mistakes every day they just don't jump out at me anymore, even in my own writing... It's an occupational hazard, but I wouldn't trade my day job for anything. :D

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