Eighth Grade scholars in Ms. Kat Berger’s Fontbonne ELA class learned about character traits and proper citation methods this week as the class read through Roald Dahl’s classic short story “Lamb to the Slaughter.”
Scholars started the lesson by watching a short clip from the 1996 film “Matilda,” which is based on another Dahl story.
Ms. Berger used that fact to draw her scholars into the lesson, asking them to consider how Dahl might frame his stories differently when writing for adults rather than children.
Ms. Berger then led the class in a group reading of the story, calling on a variety of scholars to lend their voices during class on Tuesday. All scholars had already read the story once for homework.
Ms. Berger paused the group reading frequently, asking scholars to contribute their opinions on key aspects of the story, like where and when the story might be taking place and what elements in the story led the scholars to their opinions.
Scholars used key fact including the way the charters addressed each other, the lack of technology in the story, the fact that the main character, Mary, is sewing at home, and the consideration that Mary is drinking alcohol despite being pregnant to place the time period of the story in the 1950s.
“We use a close reading model where we read texts multiple times, each time with a different lens,” said Berger. “The hope is that they read it the first time for comprehension, and this time they read it for characterization. If we read it a third time, I'd have been asking questions or asking them to think about something else entirely.”
Scholars then tried to describe the main characters, Mary and her husband Patrick, again basing their opinions on textual clues, a process which Ms. Berger used to help teach proper citation of textual quotes.
“This is how you will need to cite for the whole year,” she told the class. “This is also how you will need to do it in college, so we are going to start the expectation for it here in middle school so you have it.”
Berger said scholars at St. Louis College Prep started learning proper MLA citation in sixth grade.
“Sixth graders are learning to use quotation marks correctly, seventh graders begin using the citation piece, and eighth graders eventually work on embedding quotes in sentences,” she said. “It is a pretty easy win in terms of college and career readiness. It is a critical skill for avoiding plagiarism, which comes with some pretty steep consequences, even at the middle school level.”
After leading the class in identifying Mary as people pleaser and Patrick as a distant and cold-hearted husband, providing examples of proper citation on her overhead projector, Ms. Berger acted out the first major plot point of the story – rolling up the paper she was reading from and acting like she was Mary swinging a frozen lambs leg at her husband’s head.
“Tomorrow we will get into what happens next,” she said, a tease that was greeted with moans of protest from scholars wanting to keep reading. “Today, we need to focus on where we are and start the group project. We are going to break up into groups to talk about the four main characters. One person in each group will be an artist to draw their character, one person will be a recorder doing the writing, one person will be a quote master in charge of finding all of the quotes to back up your opinions, and one person will be in charge oaf asking questions about the project.”
Ms. Berger said it was important for the scholars to work in groups on projects like this because adolescents need to talk to learn.
“There is a saying in education that the person doing the talking and the writing is doing the learning,” said Berger. “If I am the only one talking as the teacher, none of the kids are learning. Choosing their own roles is a management strategy that gives them ownership of the project and also builds in accountability.”
Berger said the class will continue to work on short stories next week, this time focusing on Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery.”