On the Tuesday morning following Labour Day, rather than listening for the 8:50 bell to ring, I will be casually chatting over a steaming cup of sweet, frothy something with a close friend and former colleague at a neighbourhood coffee shop.
It won’t be our first Day 1 of school spent not at school. But our conversation will doubtless return to reminiscing about our days in the classroom.
I gave my Grade 12 English students a memorable assignment in the late 1990s, one that I used again several times.
I found the idea buried in a professional journal. It’s a prime example of John Gray’s Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus.
An English professor from the University of California described it in her instructions to a first-year English class:
“Today we will experiment with a new form called the ‘tandem story.’ The process is simple. Each person will pair off with the person sitting to his or her immediate right. As homework tonight, one of you will write the first paragraph of a short story.
“You will e-mail your partner that paragraph and send another copy to me. The partner will read the first paragraph and then add another paragraph to the story and send it back, also sending another copy to me. The first person will then add a third paragraph and so on, back-and-forth. Remember to re-read what has been written each time in order to keep the story coherent. There is to be absolutely no talking outside of the e-mails and anything you wish to say must be written in the e-mail. The story is over when both agree a conclusion has been reached.”
Here’s what two of my students turned in. Let’s call them Marla and Neil.
The Tandem Story:
(First paragraph by Marla) “At first, Betty couldn’t decide which kind of tea she wanted. The chamomile, which used to be her favourite for lazy evenings at home, now reminded her too much of Bruce, who once said, in happier times, that he also adored chamomile. But she felt she must now, at all costs, keep her mind off Bruce. His possessiveness was suffocating, and if she thought about him too much her asthma started acting up again. So chamomile was out of the question. She’d switch to chai.”
(Second paragraph by Neil) “Meanwhile, Advance Sergeant Bruce Harrington, leader of the attack squadron now in orbit over Zontar 3, had more important things to think about than the neurotic meanderings of an air-headed, asthmatic bimbo named Betty with whom he had spent one sweaty night over a year ago. ‘A.S. Harrington to Geostation 17,’ he said into his transgalactic communicator. ‘Polar orbit established. No sign of resistance so far …’ But before he could sign off, a bluish particle beam flashed out of nowhere and blasted a hole through his ship’s cargo bay. The jolt from the direct hit sent him flying out of his seat and across the cockpit.”
(Later in the story: Marla) “Bruce struck his head and died almost immediately, but not before he felt one last pang of regret for psychically brutalizing the one woman who had ever had feelings for him. Soon afterwards, Earth stopped its pointless hostilities towards the peaceful farmers of Zontar 3. ‘Congress Passes Law Permanently Abolishing War and Space Travel,’ Betty read in her newspaper one morning. The news simultaneously excited her and bored her. … “
(Even later in the story: Neil) “Little did she know, but she had less than 10 seconds to live. Thousands of miles above the city, the Meribian mothership launched the first of its lithium fusion missiles. The dimwitted, bleeding-heart peaceniks who pushed the Unilateral Aerospace Disarmament Treaty through parliament had left Earth a defenseless target for the hostile alien empires who were determined to destroy the human race. … The prime minister, in his top-secret mobile submarine headquarters on the floor of the Arctic Ocean, felt the inconceivably massive explosion, which vaporized poor, pathetic, stupid Betty.”
(Marla) “This is absurd, Mrs. Melnicer. I refuse to continue this mockery of literature. My writing partner is a violent, chauvinistic semi-literate adolescent.”
(Neil) “Yeah? Well, my writing partner is a self-centred, tedious neurotic whose attempts at writing are the literary equivalent of Valium. ‘Oh, shall I have chamomile tea? Or shall I have some other sort of freakin’ TEA??? Oh no, what am I to do? I’m such an air-headed bimbo who reads too many Jackie Collins novels!’ “
(Marla) “Brain-dead jerk!”
(Neil) “PMS witch!”
(Marla) “Drop dead, you neanderthal!! “
(Neil) “In your dreams, you flake. Go drink some tea.”
Time for the teacher to interject.
(Mrs. Melnicer) “I really liked this one. Good work!”
Since the objectives of the assignment focused on the appreciation of another’s point of view, the building of respect for another’s opinion and heightening motivation to continue a meaningful dialogue, what took place seemed to the students a dismal failure.
However, in terms of meeting the objectives I had set for the assignment, and fully knowing where their “mistakes” were going to take us, the exercise couldn’t have been more successful. Or more fun!
Every good teacher – every effective leader, for that matter – knows that it is from our mistakes we all learn. It follows, then, that failure is something to celebrate; it is the very soil in which learning grows and knowledge blooms.
Both students received top marks.
Sharon Melnicer lives in Winnipeg.