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Writing by Retelling
Kathryn Walker , 3/8/2010

Kathryn Walker is a PHAA graduate and holds a B.A in English from Hillsdale College, a Masters in Education from Eastern University, and PA Teaching Certification for English 7-12. After teaching AP Language and Composition for several years at Valley Forge Military Academy, she now lives in Lancaster and works as a consultant, evaluator, and online tutor in order to stay home with her baby daughter. Kathryn's husband Chris is a homeschool grad from Ohio-- who was also a star student in several of our AP Online classes during his high school years. Kathryn has published work in First Things, Touchstone Magazine, and Independent Teacher Magazine. This coming school year she will be teaching a section of online AP Language and Composition for homeschoolers.

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*A painting by Molly (Maya) Richman Inspektor, age 12*

I was surprised during my sophomore year of college to realize that Chaucer’s tales were not original. That is not to say that he didn’t artfully craft each of them, but the basic storylines were nothing new.  Pulling from sources like folklore, Greek myth, and medieval mystery plays, Chaucer used constructions his public was already familiar with, and made them fresh and poignant by tweaking the characters, events, and themes, often in startling ways. “The Clerk’s Tale,” for instance, was originated by Boccacio and then translated and commented on first by Petrarch and later by de Mezieres. Somehow thinking of the Canterbury Tales in that light made Chaucer seem a little more human to me.

In some sense, though, all of literature is a retelling: an adaptation of human events, conflicts, personalities, and themes as we perceive them. They say the best writers begin from their own experiences, but plain unaltered fact rarely makes good fiction.  Some works, though, are more evidently retellings than others. The Lion King and West Side Story, for instance, are close matches to Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet, while C.S. Lewis’s Till we have Faces mirrors Cupid and Psyche, and Shaw’s Pygmalion another myth by the same name. The question, then, is not so much whether a work is a retelling, but rather to what degree it is one.

When young children are learning to write, we are happy to let their stories follow the twists and turns of their imaginations, with little attention to story unities like plot structure or character development. But as students mature, we expect more structure, even art, in their narratives. Yet teaching the art of plot construction or conflict development is difficult. The best modern short stories are dazzling in their variety and eccentricity, and the rambling stories students craft are often either diffuse or moralistic in comparison.

So how do we teach students to write short stories? Consider how we teach young children to structure sentences. The Institute for Excellence in Writing, a popular elementary writing curriculum, has gained distinction for the fact that it allows students to focus on style in a manner that is separate from content. They take the information in a textbook paragraph, for example, and revise it according to a series of different sentence structures. Even before IEW’s time, simple dictation was a widespread method for composition instruction. These form-focused methods provide a framework for young minds to learn the basics of sentence and paragraph structure. Why could we not apply this same principle to the creative writing pedagogy in our upper level courses?

To put this theory to the test, I created an assignment for my AP Language and Composition students along these lines. Having studied the narrative through sources as diverse as Beowulf and Bill Cosby, students had the opportunity to choose a tale, any tale, and retell it. The possibilities available to them included elements as diverse as Greek myths, fables, fairy tales, classic novels, Bible stories, and modern films. Having just read Canterbury Tales, several chose to retell a retelling, and another crafted a modern-day rendition of the myth of Pandora, this time with a computer file taking the place of the box.  

With another story in mind to work from, students with little confidence in their creative abilities gained reassurance. I allowed them as much freedom in their rendition as they wanted, so they didn’t feel confined by the existing plotline. Just the foundation of conflicts, characters, and events was sufficient to get them started. Rather than wondering what to write next or how to make their stories complete, they spent their energy deciding in what unique ways their stories would spin off of the original tales.

Not only were the stories students wrote through this method well structured, they were also quite creative. Suddenly quirky characters and original settings developed in a coherent context. Fueled by a generic structure, originality bloomed in unexpected places. I found that the stories students retold ironically felt newer and fresher than those they composed from scratch.

Thus, with Chaucer’s Tales as a precursor, assignments to retell will remain an element of my curriculum. Parents working with beginning, stumped, or discouraged student writers might find a method like this similarly rewarding.


Comment by Rachel Califf, 3/22/2010:

Great article, Kathryn! I just finished re-reading Till We Have Faces --  a favorite of mine from college days -- and it was even better the second time around than the first. And I love this "writing assignment." I'm filing it away for when my 4 yo is... well, older. :)

And, btw, welcome to AP teacher-dom. :) It's a huge blessing and a great adventure!


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