Wayne Trotman reviews a book that helps engage students
STORIES WITHOUT END
Taylor Sapp Alphabet Publishing, 2018 978-1-948-49211-9
Teachers of reading will be familiar with classes that have grown tired of the same hum-drum routine, where the lesson in question consists of a rather dull text followed by equally drab tests of comprehension. Stories Without End addresses such a Dickensian issue well.
This unique title engages students with literature through twenty-four intriguing short stories that will get even reluctant learners to flex their mental muscle. How can it do this, do I hear you ask? Well, as the stories have no end, students have to create their own. They also occasionally have to write about a character they admire, interview people about a scene they have drawn from a self-selected story, or even keep a dream journal. If all that doesn’t sound like pedagogical fun, I don’t know what does.
Student engagement is, of course, of the utmost importance in a reading lesson. Stories Without End encourages this by presenting learners with the unexpected, and getting them to think outside the box. Their assumptions will be challenged on topics as far ranging as gender roles, relationships, the meaning of success, and even reality itself. As you’ve by now perhaps worked out, this valuable material would be best used with teenagers at intermediate level and beyond.
Each story includes a ‘Before you Read’ section of two activities that may be done alone, in small groups or as a whole class. The short vocabulary pre-teaching matching tasks and warm-up questions are aimed at getting students to think about the topic of the text.
The stories themselves come in two formats, differing in length and level of difficulty. The fifteen in Part One, titled ‘Short Takes’, are each under 500 words and usually one page long. These tend to be on more general topics such as family matters and horoscopes. They are all completely open-ended with the aim of encouraging students to create what the authors term ‘flash fiction’ – fiction short in length.
“The reader is then asked to add one more sign and explain what will happen if that path is taken.”
The short text that begins this part, ‘Choose a Path’, describes what happened when three young people at a crossroads each followed one of the signs pointing to paths towards wealth, beauty and love. The reader is then asked to add one more sign and explain what will happen if that path is taken. My own personal choice was ‘success’; I wonder what yours might be.
Other topics in this section concern whether the glass is half-full or half-empty, choosing the right pet, magic beans, and social media. Although several questions appear after each story, they tend to elicit opinions rather than check understanding.
Each of the stories in this part ends with projects such as searching the internet for information on star signs or interviewing classmates about theirs. The nine short stories in Part Two are much longer, between 500 and 2000 words, and introduce the learner to texts that are closer to literature than the brief texts in the previous part.
A large amount of photocopiable supplementary material is available at the end of this book, all of which may be used with any of the short stories. This includes writing short or longer summaries of either the story or a favourite character therein or adding a new beginning or ending to the story. ‘Make a Movie’ in this section asks learners to adapt the story into a short film, then prepare costumes, props and settings before they start filming each other with their cell phones. I think you’ll agree this would be much more fun than going around the room simply checking comprehension.