“I’m going to give you a little dude,” I announced, holding up a handful of paper rectangles. On each is the empty outline of a cartoonish body.
“Now, be kind to this little dude. Don’t draw on his face, or crumple him up, or poke him with your pencil.” In every class, this gets a chuckle.
“This little dude is Junior. He’s going to live in your notebook.”
Handing out everyone’s little dudes there were a few jokes – fake rips, little dude fights between tablemates – but all of my students were taking care of their outlines. They placed them in the center of their notebook pages, quickly taking the two pieces of tape I tore off before moving on to the next student. Some students adjusted the orientation a few times, looking for the best spot before committing to the tape.
“Does everyone’s Junior have a home?” I asked. Most of each class chorused, “Yes,” with some notebooks flipped to show me their secured little dudes. Some students were still labeling him; “Junior,” they wrote, then waited, not drawing on his face.
“What are we focusing on today? Remind me?”
“Internalexternalconflict!” someone called out, every class.
Junior’s internal conflicts – his personal struggles, the problems he carries around inside him throughout this novel – we wrote inside of the outline. External conflicts we arranged around him, drawing arrows that press into him from all sides. Students offered conflicts and suggested where they belong, then defended their positions. There were great (multi-lingual) arguments happening, more like negotiations:
“Poverty is internal because it makes him feel so bad about himself.”
“But I think it’s external, because he was born into this poor family and this culture, so it comes from outside of him.”
“Yeah, so his low self-esteem is internal, but poverty is external.”
“Can we put them next to each other?”
In most classes, I did little more than write. I placed my “marker” on the SmartBoard and said, “Ok, here? What am I writing here? Do we all agree? Where else could it go?” My most energetic class had me dragging chunks of text around the figure on the board, pulling out his insides and swapping them around until we created a Junior they could recognize.
I had them 2nd period, usually their most zombie-like time slot, and their raised hands punched the air with enthusiasm that made me nervous for possible concussions.
My coworker’s son is in 3rd grade. He just made a mobile for his book report. My coworker smiled when he recounted his son’s excitement over making the mobile. Just a coat-hanger, some paper, some string and tape, he told me. So much better than a book report.
What we really had to do on Little Dude Day was review. For a lot of reasons, we didn’t end where I had hoped we would before the winter break, and we were coming back in the beginning of the middle of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Before we jumped back in, we needed to recap. I’ve been trying to decompartmentalize literary elements with my students, who come to me with the idea that plot goes here and characterization here and never the twain shall meet. I want to help them see the connectedness of all those pieces, the overlap and interdependence.
They showed me some beginning understanding of that as we wrote in and around our Juniors – “This conflict is why he is like the way he is,” one student said, after the poverty and low self-esteem connection was established.
“Tell me more about that,” I responded, because it is my mission to make everyone roll his or her eyes at me.
Eye-roll, sigh. “He draws the cartoons and says really crazy stuff because he’s not really happy, right?” I will spare you my torturous replies, though this student was not so lucky.
My number one advice for teaching high school English has become, “Be corny.” Sometimes, I say I don’t know what it is about corny, but I do know; corny is fun. So much of high school is not fun, increasingly so these days. I have seen many teachers do a similar lesson on internal and external conflict, using a T-chart. T-charts are the wrong kind of corny. It should go without saying that fun is effective, even in small doses. It is more memorable, more meaningful. And it is easy. It added about 6 minutes to my prep to print out enough little dudes for my four classes. (I had a student cut the pages in half. In my more efficient classes, they managed the tape without me.) The room was alive, as tired as we all felt coming off a week-plus vacation. Their noise was productive and sparkling, their silences thoughtful.
In one class, a student said the bullying Junior faces (external, they decided) makes him feel very lonely.
“Is lonely a conflict for him? Where should it go?”
They paused, some waiting, some thinking. One of my students was looking down at her little Junior, frowning. She mouthed, “Lonely,” and put her hand over her chest before looking up to tell me, “Internal. Inside.”
“Yeah, inside,” said the student next to her, touching her own sternum. “Right there.”