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Double Timelines

May 30, 2011

During the last semester, I taught a piece “The Fixed” by Anne Dillard. It is a short memoir of a girl in school whose teacher brought a moth cocoon to class and passed it around for the students to experience it. During the passing around, the heat from the children’s hands triggers the beginning of the metamorphosis of the cocoon to the moth. The memoir describes the feelings of one girl, presumably the author, during this experience.

When I assigned the story, I asked my students to make a parallel time line for the events in the story and for the narrator’s feelings. From the presentation of the timelines to the discussion of the story, I felt that my students had a better understanding of how a narrative works on at least two levels.

I tried something similar with George Orwell’s “A Hanging”, but it didn’t work as well because I didn’t prepare for the activity well. “A Hanging” is a complex narrative. The conflict between the events and the narrator’s feelings are subtle and complex. One problem was a lack of sophisticated vocabulary for the emotions; another problem was inferring from the events presented in the narrative with the author’s intention when he included the events. While I think many students got the “main idea,” they were unable to absorb the complexity of the narrator’s thinking/feeling.

The double timeline provides a way to approach some types of writing in which the narrator’s feelings are as important as the events. I plan to use it more as a way to explore the complexity of the connections between events and reactions in narration.

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