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Volume 58, Number 5September/October 2007

In This Issue
Click for the Table of Contents

Classroom Guide

For students: We hope this two-page guide will help sharpen your reading skills and deepen your understanding of this issue’s articles.

For teachers: We encourage reproduction and adaptation of these ideas, freely and without further permission from Saudi Aramco World, by teachers at any level, whether working in a classroom or through home study.


Class Activities

This issue’s Classroom Guide is organized around the theme Narrative Strategies.

Theme: Narrative Stategies

What is a narrative strategy?
The phrase “narrative strategy” seems intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be. Look up each word, narrative and strategy, in a paper or online dictionary. Write down definitions for each. Then think about the two words together. Write a definition of narrative strategy.

The notion of narrative strategy appears in “The Brother from Manaus,” when writer Milton Hatoum discusses “one of the strategies of the narrative” in his book The Brothers. Hatoum kept the identity of the narrator anonymous until a third of the way through the book. He explains that he chose that strategy because one of the book’s themes is the problem of identity. Authors do that—they choose different techniques to get across certain meanings or feelings.

What are some more of these techniques? Authors pay attention to

  • the structure of the story
  • the point of view of the narrator
  • the genre (the type of story, such as mystery, fantasy, thriller, etc.)
  • the audience they want to reach
  • the characters
  • the word choices
  • the plot

Let’s look at a few of these more closely.

What narrative strategies do you use?
Without thinking about it, you use narrative strategies every time you tell a story. And it doesn’t have to be an “official” story that you’re writing for a class. It can be one of those everyday stories you tell to a friend about something that happened.

Let’s start by looking at the structure of a story. In what order do you tell the story, and why might you tell it that way? Your answer to those questions will determine one of your narrative strategies. For example, you might start with the most important point and then fill in the details. A story like that might start, “My long-lost uncle appeared out of nowhere and gave me a million dollars.” Or maybe you’d start with a problem, like, “I’ve been worrying about how I’m going to pay for college.” Then you might tell the story in chronological order, ending with the solution to the problem: “My long-lost uncle appeared out of nowhere and gave me a million dollars. Now I can pay for college.” Or maybe you start with the problem, then do a “flashback” in which you talk about your mother’s brother who joined the circus when he was 17 and hadn’t been heard from until yesterday—when he appeared out of nowhere and gave you a million dollars.

Think back to a story you’ve told recently. How did you tell it? If you told it more than once, did you tell it differently depending on whom you were telling it to? What kind of structure did you use? Make a graphic of the order of your story to show the different parts. Label the parts with titles like: “the problem,” “the solution,” “the background,” “the first event,” and so on. Use the examples in the previous paragraph as your guide. (You can also try this activity using the story from a tv show, a book, a movie or a magazine article.)

What do specific narrative strategies make possible? What do they make impossible?
Now read “I, Obelisk”, which uses a surprising narrative strategy that has to do with the narrator’s point of view. You may want to read the article twice, because you might not catch on right away to how the story is being told. When you’ve figured out the point of view, you’ll be able to pick up on the story and the details.

Discuss with a partner the point of view in “I, Obelisk.” Did it surprise you? Did you enjoy it? Why or why not? Now think a bit more analytically about it. Why might writer Frank L. Holt have chosen this way of writing the story? What could Holt include in the story because he used this point of view rather than a more conventional third-person informative strategy? Go through the article with a colored highlighter and mark the comments and insights that Holt was able to include, because he wrote the story the way he did, that he might not have been able to include otherwise. Compare your marks with others.

Now try a different way of getting at what this narrative strategy makes possible. Choose a paragraph from the article. Get as many of the paragraphs assigned to students as possible. Rewrite your paragraph in a third-person, informative style. Use any newspaper article (or just about any magazine article) as a model. How is your new paragraph different from the original? As a class, put together your revised article. Do you like it more or less than the original article? Why?

Now read “A Cypress in the Sahara”. Its narrative strategy uses a third-person, informative style. Rewrite paragraphs of this article, too, but this time use “I, Obelisk” as your model: Rewrite the paragraphs of “A Cypress in the Sahara” in the first-person style, from the point of view of one of the cypress trees. What do you think of the change? How are the two styles different? Find paragraphs in the cypress story that you think wouldn’t work, or wouldn’t work well, using the new form. Try it. Why doesn’t it work? What is lost by changing the style? Why do you think the authors chose their particular strategy as they did? Make a T-chart, listing benefits of the first-person strategy in one column and its drawbacks in the other.

How do narrative strategies relate to the purpose and content of a story?
Within its clever presentation, “I, Obelisk” is a history. It tells a story of continuity and change over time. What story is the obelisk telling? Make a timeline that starts with the “birth” of the obelisk and continues to today. Write a paragraph that summarizes the story “I, Obelisk” tells.

There are many different stories that can be told about a single time period. “I, Obelisk” covers a long period of time, with a close-up on one object. But the story of the obelisk also enhances other stories about the time periods the article addresses. Look at a world history textbook. Choose one of the time periods included in “I, Obelisk” and read more about it in the book. Write a paragraph about the obelisk that you could insert into the textbook. How would adding such a paragraph enhance the story the textbook tells?

How do narrative strategies affect readers?
Return to “A Cypress in the Sahara” and read the first two paragraphs. What kind of story is author Louis Werner telling? Hint: What do the paragraphs reveal? What do they conceal? When you read the first two paragraphs, what do you think Werner is writing about? Do the paragraphs make you want to continue reading?

Try it yourself. Think of an object or a topic you want to write about. Write the first two paragraphs of your piece following the lead of “A Cypress in the Sahara.” In other words, make it mysterious! Think of it this way: Your readers have a choice of zillions of things they could read, and time is limited. You want them to read what you’ve written, so make it interesting! Draw them in with your paragraphs. Make them want to keep reading. Trade your paragraphs with another student. Does your partner’s paragraph make you want to keep reading? Explain to the writer why it does. If it doesn’t, offer suggestions about how to make the paragraphs more inviting. Rewrite your paragraphs, using your partner’s feedback. Keep working on them together until you think they make your subject as interesting as possible.

How does the audience a writer wants to attract affect the choice of narrative strategy?
Read “Go West, Young Imam”. The television show it describes is a comedy. If you can access it, watch a segment of an episode of “Little Mosque on the Prairie” on YouTube. Think about how differently you might tell a story depending on the audience you want to attract. How might “Little Mosque on the Prairie” be different if the show were going to appear in a country where a majority of the people were Muslims? Think about the different narrative strategies on several levels. Would the structure of the story be different? (Watch several situation comedies, and you’ll be able to answer this one!) How might the characters be different? How might the sources of humor be different? (Think about the show’s timing: Would the same topics have been sources of humor before September 11, 2001?) Do you think such a show would even be interesting in a Muslim-majority country? Why or why not?

Analyzing Visual Images

So far you’ve been looking at techniques writers use to tell stories. Pictures tell stories, too, but they do so in different ways. In this section of the Classroom Guide, think about the techniques artists use to tell stories visually.

How do pictures tell stories?
Pictures don’t use the same kind of narrative strategies that appear in written texts, but they do tell stories. Consider two of the pictures that accompany “I, Obelisk.” Both are incredibly detailed. They show a lot of action. They also show tools, objects and measurement scales. (Don’t read the captions that accompany the pictures—at least not yet. That way you can examine the pictures without being influenced by anyone else’s description of what you’re seeing.)

Find the part of “I, Obelisk” that mentions the Romans moving the obelisk. That’s the background for the pictures. Although these pictures are not moving, they show action. Working with a small group, focus on one of the pictures. Make a list of all the actions you see happening in the picture. Then list all the objects that appear at the top and around the edges of the picture in which the obelisk is upright. What are the objects? Why do you think they’re there? Their presence might give you a clue to the purpose of the pictures.

Why do you think the pictures were made this way, with so much detail? What was their purpose? Might they have been instructions, like the kind you get with a bookcase you have to put together? Or engineers’ records for use when moving obelisks in the future? Or “news” reports for people at the time? Or historical records, so that future generations would know how the obelisk was moved? Answer the question in a report to the class. Use evidence from the pictures to support your point of view. If different groups come up with different answers, are all of them equally convincing, based on evidence from the pictures?

Julie Weiss Julie Weiss is an education consultant based in Lowell, Massachusetts. She holds a Ph.D. in American studies. Her company, Unlimited Horizons, develops social-studies, media-literacy and English as a Second Language curricula and produces textbook materials.