Saturday, November 20, 2010

"The Diamond as Big as the Ritz," Storytelling, and Personal Essays

Whew. It has been a while, hasn't it? My classes and I have met three times since my last post, so let me get right to it:

Four Tuesdays ago, I brought in F. Scott Fitzgerald's short story "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz" for my students and I to read. The story is long (taking up about 25 11x8 pieces of paper) and I suggested popcorn reading to keep the students attentive. However, one student told me about an alternative to popcorn reading, one in which the reader replaces a character's name with a classmates name, signaling the next reader. This worked great, as the kids were not only listening closely for their names to be called, but excited when their turn came so that they could be the ones calling on a classmate. Before reading the story, I told them a little bit about F. Scott Fitzgerald's life and work, and was surprised to hear that a few of my students had already read The Great Gatsby. I also told my students that my professor, John Irwin, considers "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz" the greatest American short story. That certainly got them excited.

We got through a little more than half of the story that period, and I was happy to see that the students really wanted to continue reading. The next week we were off for Election Day, but the following week we started from where we'd left off. I had the students summarize the story up to that point, reminding everyone of what had occurred. We finished the story with about twenty minutes to spare, and spoke about it some. It is a story that captures the imagination, and the kids loved it. I told them that if Fitzgerald could write such an amazing and fantastical piece about a diamond the size of a mountain, then they shouldn't be afraid to tackle their most bizarre ideas, so long as they adhere to the process and remain organized. We discussed the themes of the story, the historical significance, and why John Irwin might consider it the "greatest American short story." I was very happy that the kids not only made it through such a long story, but appeared to have enjoyed it very much. We spent the rest of the period sharing the bizarre stories from our own lives, and I urged the students to incorporate such tales into their writing.

This past Tuesday, I wanted to teach the students about personal essays. My goal is to collect a strong piece of writing from all of them by time the semester is over to make an anthology. I've noticed that some students are very capable of writing a story without a prompt, while others need more direction. I was hoping that those in the latter category would find inspiration in our discussion of personal essays, as everyone loves writing about his or herself.

We first read my favorite essay, Zora Neale Hurston's "How it Feels to be Colored Me." It is short and brilliant and if you haven't read it I suggest you do. It can be found easily on the internet. We then shared our thoughts about this essay, as well as discussed the life of Hurston, who was not recognized for her work until well after her death.

I then reached back into my own middle school days and had my students write a "This I Believe Essay." In such an essay the author writes a 250-500 word piece about a principal that he or she lives by. I had to do this myself in school, and even shared my essay with my students. The "This I Believe" essay contest is sponsored by NPR. I had brought in my computer so we could listen to the readings of some of the better essays that NPR has on its site. My favorite, as well as the students, was one entitled "Be Cool to the Pizza Delivery Dude." Each student began his or her own "This I Believe" essay, which we will continue working on after Thanksgiving.

Enjoy the Holiday everyone! It is my favorite of the year.


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