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Lessons Taught, Lessons Learned Vol. II

Using Student-Produced Dialogues

 

by Michael A. Wilson
Lower Yukon School District

 

Several years ago I heard a teacher complain to an inservice presenter, "Our students come to school with no language at all. They can't communicate in English, and they can't communicate in Yup'ik." "No," I thought to myself, "that doesn't make sense. Of course they have all the language skills that they have needed so far. Just watch them when they are together with their friends, and you will see perfectly effective communication." I was left wondering, then, why the programs going on in the schools made the students seem so language deficient. 

My experiences with Whole Language have shed some light on this question. I have begun to appreciate the difference between building from the language of the students as opposed to taking the language of so many standardized textbooks and attempting to force it onto the students. I recognize that, in my fourteen years of teaching, I have done plenty of both, and the philosophy of whole language instruction has helped me to understand why some types of activities have proven to be so much more profitable (not to mention enjoyable) than others.

In every class I've taught there have been a few students who would invariably claim "I don't know what to write." Even after twenty minutes of spirited discussion, modeling, "bubbling exercises," and so forth, those dreaded words would be heard, and I would be nearly speechless with exasperation. Assurances to "just write whatever you think" or "don't worry about spelling and grammar for now" generally proved insufficient since, it seemed, the students had a strong notion that their writing was going to be evaluated ultimately as being either right or wrong, and a lot of students clearly anticipated the latter judgment.

It was very frustrating (and still is, when it comes up)since I do not pass such judgment on open-ended writing assignments. Some students were far more critical of their writing than I was inclined to be, and I was at a loss as to how I could get them over the insecurities which made free writing such an intimidating prospect. Why could a student explain to me what he/she was thinking about writing, but then be unable to actually write it down?

Quite by accident I found a type of writing activity which helps a lot. One day when I was teaching the use of quotation marks, I wrote a number of quotes from students on the board, and the class perfectionist duly corrected some of the grammar and incorrect spellings I had placed inside the quotes. I thanked her for her observations, but pointed out that to change what the student had originally said or how s/he had said it would be quite wrong. Inside quotation marks, "correct" grammar could be wrong and "incorrect" spellings, like "nuthin" could be very appropriate. In virtually any novel on the shelf, examples of this could be found.

Perhaps due in part to the contrariness of the junior high mind, this discovery was quite exciting. By writing with hypothetical quotations, one could write anything without having to defend unusual grammar and spellings. In such writing, quotation marks could, it seems, set you free.

I took notice of the unexpected enthusiasm in English class that day, and since then I have made increasingly greater use of dialogue writing. We pitch rules of spelling, grammar and punctuation right out the window and just write what people say and how they say it. (Secretly I smile, when I notice that most of those rules haven't really gone out the window at all.)

 

Getting Started

Within the first couple of weeks of school I introduce the notion of dialogue writing. We can readily find examples of dialogues in our reading books, library books; even the science and social studies books may have some. Dialectal spellings and non-conventional grammar are pointed out and justifications for their use are discussed. From this discussion we arrive at the Golden Rule of dialogue writing: We record exactly what people say, regardless of the properness of their grammar or pronunciation; inside quotes, anything goes.

We next look at the simplest dialogue format, which is play/script format. The speaker's name is followed by a colon, then his/her words are given. Voice and stage directions given in parentheses are noted; they will be given more attention later in the year.

Finally we prepare to try our hands at dialogue writing. Lest I hear, "I don't know what to write," I make the first several assignments fairly concrete. For example: When you go to lunch, listen to and try to remember a short conversation you hear between two people. You will be writing it down when we get back. Or: We'll take our restroom break now. When you get back, be prepared to write down what you and one of your friends said to one another during the break. Simple play/script format is used in the writing, and voice and "stage" directions are optional. The first question I'll be asked is, "How long does it have to be?" I'll answer, "It can be any length; just try to remember as much as you can and write it down." In my experience, these early results will range from 3-12 lines.

As a final step in this little activity I will, with the permission of the writers, photocopy the results and the next day I will hand copies to students who then recreate the conversations for us to hear. In the points of view of most of my students, these few minutes of hilarity are what this activity is all about. At least at the junior high level, there's something really outrageous about seeing your classmate-actors playing you and a friend, no matter how mundane the recorded conversation.

In these early attempts I do no formal evaluations on the writing, but I do save them for comparison with dialogues they will write later in the year. I occasionally have to exclude a dialogue from the oral reading activity if it threatens to embarrass or hurt a student. Students learn quickly to evaluate for themselves the appropriateness of their writing for class use.

 

Expanding Writing

The freedom to write in a natural voice and the pleasure of hearing the dialogues performed and enjoyed by others will motivate students to expand their writing, and they will generally not hesitate as assignments become increasingly more complicated and less concrete. Without prompting, most students will begin including more speakers and more voice and stage directions.

Examples of later writing assignments I give include: Think of a conversation you and your friends had over the weekend and write it out. Or: Write a dialogue of what you and your friends said as you were going Trick-or-Treating. Or: Write a conversation you had with one of your parents last summer. Or: write a conversation you had or you heard that really surprised you. Students will have to fabricate increasingly larger portions of their dialogues as they are able to remember fewer of the exact words. Eventually dialogues which are totally of the student's own invention can be assigned.

In addition, more sophisticated development and use of the writing can be achieved. As dialogues become more substantial, they can be reworked, expanded upon, polished and prepared for more formal presentation. Students may work in teams to select "plays" which will be readied for rehearsal and ultimate performance. I have had my classes develop some very satisfactory Christmas skits using this process, for the most part.

After students have written a lot of dialogues in simple play format, I begin requiring one more step in their writing process, that of converting the plays into paragraph format. A good deal of whole-group instruction and modeling is used at this time since a number of new skills come into play. Lessons are presented on:

1. rules of punctuating quotes in sentences

2. rules of paragraphing conversations

3. varying the placement and the wording of the he-said/she-said statements

4. converting stage directions into narrative statements

5. selecting between first and third person points of view.

 

Extending Writing Into Other Areas of the Curriculum

The dialogue writing activities I have described thus far represent the extent to which I have gone into the process with my own classes. I would like now to suggest some ideas for utilizing these writing skills in other classes.

In Reading Class:

  1. Hypothetical conversations between the student and a character or between characters can be created based on any book or story. These can be a fun alternative to the traditional book report, e.g., imagine you meet Julie (of the Wolves) as she is leaving Barrow. Walk with her for a few minutes and record your conversation, e.g., record what you think might have been said between the general and the Indian chief when they made their agreement.
  2. Students may develop creative writing based loosely on a book they've read, e.g., the rats of NIMH talked together about the scientists who kept them. Tell what the mice around your house might say about you if they could talk to each other. Write your conversation with the men who just rescued you from the Island of the Blue Dolphins.

In Social Studies Class:

  1. Creating conversations between the student and individuals from history or from current events will reinforce the important aspects of the individuals, e.g., talk with Adolph Hitler about his goals for Germany, and give him your opinions on his methods and goals. If you could talk to Sirhan Sirhan, what would you say, and how do you think he would respond?
  2. I believe that preparing for, conducting and writing up interviews could follow naturally from dialogue writing. These have many uses in social studies, e.g., interview someone who remembers the time before airplanes flew to this village. Record a dialogue between the village corporation president and yourself which explains the corporation's goals and your reactions to them. Prepare questions for a hypothetical interview between you and Mahatma Gandhi, then research his probable responses.
  3. Synthesizing conversations between important people also requires research and careful consideration of the people involved. Create the dialogue for that late-night meeting between Seward and de Stoeckl at which the purchase agreement for Alaska was negotiated. 

In Science Class:

  1. Most of the social studies activities can apply to the important people and developments in the sciences as well, e.g., create a debate between a Creationist and an Evolutionist. Create a conversation between two dinosaurs who have differing views on the cause of their species' future demise. Interview a Venusian. Base his/her answers on what you have learned about conditions on Venus.
  2. As an alternative to the traditional lab report, students may transcribe the conversations they have with their partners as they are hypothesizing, experimenting and observing. 

The possibilities go on and on. Such dialogue writing is not intended to replace other types of writing, but it is rather an alternative -an alternative which I have found fairly easy to develop in junior high students and one which is motivating. And the potential for taking this type of writing further, for incorporating art and drama to create fun, educational activities, is limitless.

For the past several years, my students and I have derived a lot of enjoyment from writing and performing student-produced dialogues. Even my most reluctant writers have developed greater confidence through writing and then seeing their words performed and enjoyed by their peers. As a result of developing in myself a better understanding of the Whole Language philosophy, I will be making even greater use of this technique in the future, extending its use into some of my high school classes and experimenting with some of the more sophisticated types of dialogues.

Foreword

Ray Barnhardt

Part I * Rural School Ideals

"My Goodness, People Come and Go So Quickly Around Here"
Lance C. Blackwood

Parental Involvement in a Cross-Cultural Environment
Monte Boston

Teachers and Administrators for Rural Alaska
Claudia Caffee

The Mentor Teacher Program
Judy Charles

Building Networks
Helen Eckelman

Ideal Curriculum and Teaching Approaches for a School in Rural Alaska
Teresa McConnell

Some Observations Concerning Excellent Rural Alaskan Schools
Bob Moore

The Ideal Rural Alaska Village School
Samuel Moses

From Then To Now: The Value of Experiential Learning
Clara Carol Potterville

The Ideal School
Jane Seaton

Toward an Integrated, Nonlinear, Community-Oriented Curriculum Unit
Mary Short

A Letter from Idealogak, Alaska
Timothy Stathis

Preparing Rural Students for the Future
Michael Stockburger

The Ideal Rural School
Dawn Weyiouanna

Alternative Approaches to the High School Curriculum
Mark J. Zintek

Part II * Rural Curriculum Ideas

"Masking" the Curriculum
Irene Bowie

On Punks and Culture
Louise J. Britton

Literature to Meet the Needs of Rural Students
Debra Buchanan

Reaching the Gifted Student Via the Regular Classroom
Patricia S. Caldwell

Early Childhood Special Education in Rural Alaska
Colleen Chinn
 

Technically Speaking
Wayne Day

Process Learning Through the School Newspaper 
Marilyn Harmon

Glacier Bay History: A Unit in Cultural Education
David Jaynes

Principals of Technology
Brian Marsh

Here's Looking at You and Whole Language
Susan Nugent

Inside, Outside and all-Around: Learning to Read and Write
Mary L. Olsen

Science Across the Curriculum
Alice Porter

Here's Looking at You 2000 Workshop
Cheryl Severns

School-Based Enterprises
Gerald Sheehan

King Island Christmas: A Language Arts Unit
Christine Pearsall Villano

Using Student-Produced Dialogues
Michael A. Wilson

We-Search and Curriculum Integration in the Community
Sally Young

Artist's Credits

 

 

Go to University of AlaskaThe University of Alaska Fairbanks is an affirmative action/equal opportunity employer and educational institution and is a part of the University of Alaska system.

 


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Last modified August 18, 2006