Monday, October 24, 2005

More on family stories

The students are beginning to think about writing their family stories. In preparation for this I read my students a short story by S. K. Martin about family stories – Three Daughter Stories published in The Age in 1996 where the author wrote about her grandmother. One of the three stories was very simple. My grandmother, she writes, was born in a tent. From this detail she weaves a scenario from imagination to posit how and why this may have happened. Martin knows that it occurred on the goldfields at Avoca but not what the family was doing there – whether mining gold or running a shop or some other occupation. So the details necessarily come from imagination.
It made me think about the two versions of the ‘missing brothers’ story in my husband’s family. As my sister-in-law overheard it in snippets as a child, the story was that three brothers had emigrated to Australia in the 1850’s from Scotland. Shortly after their arrival two of the brothers went missing and were never heard of again. But just after we were married we heard from Vernon in Tasmania who was compiling a family history and who had worked out that we were related to him. He knew what happened to the two missing brothers. They were part of a much larger family who migrated to Tasmania in 1853, and had never arrived in Australia, choosing instead to go to America. He had copies of letters written by the brothers from Chicago in the late 1850’s (complaining, in part, about the quality of the whiskey). They were still missing, as nothing is known about them after 1858 but it added greatly to our knowledge to think of them making their way in America. Similarly, in my own family (my parents migrated to Australia from Holland in 1955) there is a story where the details were missing. When I was growing up I took it for granted that when my mother cooked pancakes, she stacked them up and then served them to the family after having cut them in quarters. Nothing that could be the basis of a story here. But when I went to Holland and met my aunts and uncles for the first time this fact came up in conversation. They laughed and explained that my grandmother had a very large frying pan and cut up the pancakes for practical reasons. This reminds me of the story of the monastery cat (which had to be tied up during meditation) that I read at Computer Drone, where the original reason for a tradition or ritual is lost in the mists of time.

What’s all this got to do with teaching writing? The students are researching their family stories. In some cases, to follow up their family story they may need to write letters to relatives they don’t see often or who live in other countries. They may need to write advertisements to find out things, as Vernon did to find the Victorian branch of his family. They may need to write to Government departments to get Army records of a family member – oh, if we only had time to do this properly! The writing skills they gain in the process of doing the research will be transferable to other aspects of their education and to the future working lives (one would hope, anyway). But the stories they will find about their families and the original writing they do will be invaluable.

And here is another great idea for writing from Blended Edu: Social Media Resources for Learning using Flickr “we decided to use digital pictures for paragraph writing. Pictures easily lend themselves to descriptive and process writing. Students will be given an assignment first, then they will think about what they will photograph and then write about it. These types of assignments actively engage learners and put the students in charge of their own learning.”

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