In “There Was Once” (Good Bones, 1992), Margaret Atwood plays with Western culture stereotypes by questioning them to such extremes that the narrator is finally unable to tell her story. You may have worked with fractured tales before, but this ingenious exercise in deconstruction will get the students talking and analysing, revising — or perhaps confirming — their own viewpoints, and it will ultimately promote the development of critical thinking skills while working with the language.
1. In groups, students read the words in the box taken from the story they are about to read and make predictions by filling out a possible story map using those words. Groups share their story maps with the rest of the class. Discuss similarities and differences.
2. Although the text is a dialogue, it also works very well if either the teacher or one student reads one role and the rest of the students take turns reading the rest of the lines, resulting in a much more interactive reading experience. There are 24 lines for the second speaker in the text; assign each line to different students and allow them to practise reading their lines aloud for a few minutes. Read the dialogue as a whole class.
—There was once a poor girl, as beautiful as she was good, who lived with her wicked stepmother in a house in the forest.
—Forest? Forest is passé, I mean, I’ve had it with all this wilderness stuff. It’s not a right image of our society, today. Let’s have some urban for a change.
—There was once a poor girl, as beautiful as she was good, who lived with her wicked stepmother in a house in the suburbs.
—That’s better. But I have to seriously query this word poor
—But she was poor!
—Poor is relative. She lived in a house, didn’t she?
—Then socio-economically speaking, she was not poor.
—But none of the money was hers! The whole point of the story is that the wicked stepmother makes her wear old clothes and sleep in the fireplace—
—Aha! They had a fireplace! With poor, let me tell you, there’s no fireplace. Come down to the park, come to the subway stations after dark, come down to where they sleep in cardboard boxes, and I’ll show you poor!
—There was once a middle-class girl, as beautiful as she was good—
—Stop right there. I think we can cut the beautiful, don’t you? Women these days have to deal with too many intimidating physical role models as it is, what with those bimbos in the ads. Can’t you make her, well, more average?
—There was once a girl who was a little overweight and whose front teeth stuck out, who—
—I don’t think it’s nice to make fun of people’s appearances. Plus, you’re encouraging anorexia.
—I wasn’t making fun! I was just describing—
—Skip the description. Description oppresses. But you can say what colour she was.
—You know. Black, white, red, brown, yellow. Those are the choices. And I’m telling you right now, I’ve had enough of white. Dominant culture this, dominant culture that—
—I don’t know what colour.
—Well, it would probably be your colour, wouldn’t it?
—But this isn’t about me! It’s about this girl—
—Everything is about you.
—Sounds to me like you don’t want to hear this story at all.
—Oh well, go on. You could make her ethnic. That might help.
—There was once a girl of indeterminate descent, as average-looking as she was good, who lived with her wicked—
—Another thing. Good and wicked. Don’t you think you should transcend those puritanical judgemental moralistic epithets? I mean, so much of that is conditioning, isn’t it?
—There was once a girl, as average-looking as she was well-adjusted, who lived with her stepmother, who was not a very open and loving person because she herself had been abused in childhood.
—Better. But I am so tired of negative female images! And stepmothers—they always get it in the neck! Change it to stepfather, why don’t you? That would make more sense anyway, considering the bad behaviour you’re about to describe. And throw in some whips and chains. We all know what those twisted, repressed, middle-aged men are like—
—Hey, just a minute! I’m a middle-aged—
—Stuff it, Mister Nosy Parker. Nobody asked you to stick in your oar, or whatever you want to call that thing. This is between the two of us. Go on.
—There was once a girl—
—How old was she?
—I don’t know. She was young.
—This ends with a marriage, right?
—Well, not to blow the plot, but—yes.
—Then you can scratch the condescending paternalistic terminology. It’s woman, pal. Woman.
—There was once—
—What’s this was, once? Enough of the dead past. Tell me about now.
—So, why not here?
3. The students write down their personal reaction to the story independently for a few minutes. Their reactions should be just a few sentences long: “What do you think of the story?”, “How do you feel?”, “Do you like it?”, “Why?/Why not?” All the students in the class stand up and are asked to share their reactions randomly; if someone else has something similar, the student can sit down.
4. Once everyone is sitting down, the students discuss all the main ideas that have been shared as a whole group. Students often enjoy this clip from Monty Python on a rather different version of “Little Red Riding Hood”, which should help with the debate.
5. Refer students back to the story map they worked on at the beginning of the lesson and tell them that they will be writing a five-paragraph story using the same words in the box. In groups of four, students are numbered out for collaborative writing purposes:
– Students start writing their first paragraph introducing the setting and the characters. When the time is up, students hand out their papers to the person with the following number: number 1s to number 2s, 2s to 3s, 3s to 4s, and number 4s to number 1s.
– Students read the introduction and write a second paragraph with the first event in the story. Rotate papers again.
– Third paragraph: second event in the story. Rotate papers.
– Fourth paragraph: third event and rotate.
– The student that started writing the narrative reads the story and writes an ending.
Each of these stages should be timed, although the amount of time needed will depend on the level of the students and the type of support they need. This is also a great opportunity to have students proofread each other’s writings, have them edit their stories and hand in a final version to be shared with the rest of the class. How do their stories differ from the story maps at the beginning of the lesson?