Break It Down: Scaffolding Style

All right.  The kids “got it.” They saw that Capote has a distinct writing style and that his style has something to do with lists and parenthetical remarks and sensory detail.  Is that all they’re expected to know? That the author—any author—has a style?  Or do I want more?

Of course I want more.

I want my students to recognize what style is and be able to articulate the stylistic elements in any author’s work.  I want them to distinguish one author’s style from another’s and describe the differences using the appropriate language.  What I want is analysis: a higher level thinking skill. Not so easy as simply recognizing the author has a style or that there are differences in writers’ styles.

It’s a skill that has to be taught—and in the beginning, students will benefit from some “scaffolding.”

So, once they’re “hooked” (See my blog post “A Matter of Style”), I provide my students with a checklist prepared by teachers at a school in Seattle, Washington—the Lakeside School—called Checklist: Elements of Literary Style. Yes, I thieved it. (I prefer to say “borrowed.”  After all, when people put items on the Internet, it’s an invitation for others to use them, not unlike the teacher down the hall pulling something from her file cabinet and saying, “Try this!”) I noticed, when I searched online again for the checklist, for this blog, that another teacher has borrowed it, too. Like me, she gives credit where credit is due.  Frankly, it would be hard to improve upon this checklist, so thank you, English teachers at the Lakeside School!

Pause now to go to this site:

http://teachers.lakesideschool.org/us/english/ErikChristensen/WRITING%20STRATEGIES/LiteraryStyles.htm

I also provide the students with a handout (below) that can be simplified by including fewer categories, depending upon the age and stage of the students or the characteristics of the particular author whose style they are analyzing, or by combining two categories (like #3 and #4):

Element of Style Example or explanation
1. Sentence structure
2. Pace
3. Diction
4. Vocabulary
5. Figures of speech
6. Use of Dialogue
7. Point of View
8. Character development
9. Tone
10. Word Color/Sound
11. Paragraph/Chapter Structure
12. Time Sequence
13. Allusions
14.  Experimentation
15.   Metafictional techniques

The students’ task—independently, in pairs, or in small groups, depending again upon all the variables of instructional planning and strategy—is  to examine the designated writer’s work—and find examples in the text of each of the elements on the checklist—if they apply.

For example, students will note that the sentences in “A Christmas Memory” are long (#1), full of lists and adjectives and subordinate clauses. The pace (#2) is slow, with much description—sensory images like the stove, the tipsy dancing in the kitchen, the tinfoil stars ornamenting the trees—and emphasis on the setting (the South—pecans, pine trees; and the Depression—FDR was the President, it cost a dime to attend a movie).  His diction (#3) is expansive—he’s long-winded and that contributes to the affectionate feeling he has for Sook and his lingering description of these Christmas memories. His vocabulary (#4) includes some unusual and/or multisyllabic words—for example, inaugurated, dilapidated, mingle, sacrilegious, skinflint, prosaic—but these alternate with simple words that describe images and scenes that are easy to understand and with figures of speech (#5) such as like a drunkard’s legs, blaze of her heart, turned our purse inside out that are easy to visualize. There is not much dialogue (#6), but lines such as “It’s fruitcake weather!” move the story along and signal significance.

And so on.

More sophisticated students might write for Truman Capote that his portrait of Sook (#8) is almost a caricature of an eccentric and solitary older woman, perhaps a simple-minded one, but by inserting his own parenthetical comments (#15), he not only softens our judgment but endears her to us.

The checklist provides a scaffold for students when they attempt to describe style.  It’s  a difficult literary concept—more difficult by far than outlining the plot or figuring out point of view or even determining theme—so the checklist and companion worksheet break the task up into manageable pieces.

Done often enough, the exercise will help students develop their understanding of what style is and, with practice, come to identify its characteristics with the same automaticity with which they identify the stages in plot development or analyze character.

Furthermore, the language of the checklist plus the examples they find in the text will provide the students with the support they need when their teacher—could that be me?—asks them to write a formal analysis of an author’s style.

Whatever the skill you want students to learn, break it down, break it apart. Make the goal attainable.

A Christmas Memory

In years when I was not running behind by December, when I hadn’t lingered too long on To Kill a Mockingbird or Great Expectations or any other of the books my freshmen read, back when so many days weren’t set aside for standardized tests and final exams and AR assessments, back when I had control of the calendar, I liked to set aside the last several instructional days of the semester for Christmas literature. Sometimes we read A Christmas Carol, sometimes Dylan Thomas’ “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” sometimes Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory.” My favorite, of course, was the latter—for two reasons. First, because the story lends itself to the students writing their own memoirs about Christmas—always a delight to read—and then, because I loved watching my students come slowly to the realization that the little boy narrator of “A Christmas Memory” and Dill Harris in To Kill a Mockingbird were one and the same person.

That was, of course, when such knowledge was still a revelation. Today, because of the Internet mostly, kids already know. This upset me at first. A perfectly wonderful epiphany: smashed. But I got over it. (The real Buddy as the model for Dill isn’t the only literary surprise the Internet has ruined. These days the kids know before they read the Odyssey or their first Shakespearean play that Homer wasn’t one person and Shakespeare may not have been Shakespeare.)

But back when Buddy/Dill was still a surprise, we’d read the story together—parts of it, at least, aloud.  Knowing where the story goes, I’d have trouble when the kites begin their ascent to the sky, when Queenie buries her bone, when Buddy’s best friend, Sook, says, “I could leave the world with today in my eyes.”  It was worse than that, actually.  I’d get choked up at the very beginning—when Sook first says: “Oh my! It’s fruitcake weather!”

The story is so rich:

  • In figurative language: “a pillow as wet as a widow’s handkerchief,” “the blaze of her heart,” and the stove “like a lighted pumpkin.”
  • In catalogues, or lists: the uses of the dilapidated baby carriage, the ways Sook and Buddy make money, the recipients of the fruitcakes, the contents of the trunk in the attic, the Christmas presents from the others, and most especially, the things Sook “has never done and the things she has done, does do.”
  • In sensory imagery: the ingredients in the fruitcakes, Haha Jones’ scar, the ornaments for the tree, Miss Sook dropping the kettle on the kitchen floor to awaken the sleeping relatives, Miss Sook herself in her gray sweater and Lincoln-like face.
  • The trip to cut the Christmas tree is a Christmas message all by itself, capped by Miss Sook’s response to the lazy mill-owner’s wife who tries to buy the tree, who tells the soulmates that they can always get another one. No, replies Miss Sook, “There’s never two of anything.”

It was easy after that to direct my students to their own best memories, to remembrances of grandparents, of favorite gifts, of pets who’d long since left them, to ritual and tradition, to ornaments they hang on the tree with delight year after year after year, to  Christmas confections, to sights and sounds and tastes that, unbeknownst to them, had been laid down already—at 13, 14—in layers of sweetness that will forever define Christmas in their hearts. They loved writing their own memoirs—evoking images, searching for similes, reaching for symbols like the kites that would carry their stories into light air. One year, a girl named Sarah wrote and wrote and wrote. Her lists were exquisite; her images, poignant beyond what was imaginable for her age. “She’s a writer,” her friends all said.  “You should have seen her in middle school.” Indeed.

But my favorite part of the lesson came after we had talked about style, after we had talked about Sook, after we had understood the message. I would ask the students to think about the boy, about Buddy. Until now, the focus had been on Sook—her superstitions, her quirkiness, her simplicity; on Haha Jones’ sudden philanthropy; on the relatives’ insensitivity; on the humor in Queenie’s sampling the leftover whiskey.

I asked my students to think about Buddy. “Is there anyone you’ve met this semester that Buddy reminds you of?” I’d ask them. A few literal ones would scan the list of kids they’d met that semester, their first in the high school. A few caught on to the fact that I was talking  about literary characters, who, to me and to them, too, were as real as any flesh and bone teenagers in the building.

The room is quiet. The students scan their memories, open their notebooks, reflect, try to remember the characters we’ve met.

I wait.

A hand at last. A voice, so quiet. Becca ventures an answer: “Dill?”

The room stays quiet. They take it in. Then, an almost audible, collective gasp.

Yes.

She’s got it.

Oh, that is so cool.

A Christmas memory.