My final project will be a teaching unit that explores the question "What makes a scary story?" It will be geared toward 7th and 8th grade students and it will use Edgar Allan Poe stories as its anchor texts. I plan to bring in scary movies, shows and books from popular culture, including parodies, to break down which elements make a story scary. The unit will lead up to a project in which students will write their own scary stories.
My goal with this unit is to do a genre study. I have seen Edgar Allan Poe units taught before as an author study, and I find the approach to be very ineffective. Asking students to find links between Poe’s life and his writing is very limiting and does not allow students to explore an essential question or create their own work. Instead, I would like students to look at Poe's stories (as well as other scary stories, films and television programs) and study the craft of writing a scary story and apply the techniques to their own writing.
The challenge I anticipate is creating a unit about scary stories that is not too frightening for 7th and 8th grade students. I will try to find ways to incorporate media in ways that teach the genre while still making my students feel safe.
1. Anticipatory Guide and Introduction to Edgar Allan Poe
The class will begin the unit by taking inventory of their ideas and opinions about scary stories by using an anticipation guide. It will be some version of this anticipation guide, which I borrowed from the ReadWriteThink website:
After completing the anticipation guide, the class will watch a clip from "The Simpsons" (Season 2, Episode 3) which is a take on Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven." It features an excellent dramatic reading by James Earl Jones and Homer Simpson, but the poem is introduced by a great conversation between Bart and Lisa Simpson about whether or not Poe's stories are still scary.
I might also include a SHORT PowerPoint presentation about Poe and his life and writing career.
2. Which one is the scariest?
In groups of 3-4, students will read three to five short stories from Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz. After reading, they will have to rank the stories (#1 is the scariest, #5 is the least scary) and write a paragraph justifying their choices. The results will be compiled as a large group and the class will try to answer the question "What makes a scary story?"
3. Choosing a Topic: Scary Movies
This activity will be a webquest done in the computer lab. Each student will have a list of iMDB's Top 50 Horror Movies (as compiled by user ratings). Students will have to run web searches of each title and determine what the "scary part" of the movie is. For example, for the movie "Jaws" a student could write "Shark attacks." After compiling their data, the class will try to split the topics in to categories (i.e. monsters, etc.). The purpose will be to get kids thinking about what to include in their own scary stories.
4. Horror Movie Parody: What do we expect?
The class will view an episode of the family sitcom "Boy Meets World" which does a great job parodying horror movie conventions (plus, it's hilarious). The episode is very self-aware, and characters practically call each horror movie convention by name, which is good for middle schoolers attempting to break down the genre. As students watch, they will be responsible for making a list of the horror movie conventions mentioned explicitly and parodied in the action. Whole class discussion will follow.
5. Edgar Allan Poe's Stories
At least 3 of Poe's stories will be read in class (including, but not limited to, The Telltale Hear, The Cask of Amontillado, The Monkey's Paw, Fall of the House of Usher, etc.). Students will discuss and "map" the elements of fiction used in these stories, and use them as references when writing their own stories.
6. Elements of Fiction
This unit might easily be used to teach the elements of fiction (and how they can be manipulated to create a scary story), but it might also be used as a review. Students will "map" the elements of fiction in Poe's stories as well as their own stories as a pre-writing activity.
7. How to Write a Scary Scene
This lesson will provide practice for translating scary scenes into words. To accomplish this, the class will watch several suspenseful scenes from films and television shows that have written versions (for example, "The X-Files" and "Harry Potter"). Students will watch a scene and have time to write that scene as a short story. Students will be given a transcript of the scene to help them along. Several students will share, then the class will look at the actual book versions and compare the ways they chose to present the story.
8. Ghost Hunting Articles
This is a great lesson plan I found that examines two journalists' experiences ghost hunting.
9. Scary Movie Review
After looking at a few mentor texts (film reviews from magazines and newspapers) students must complete a review of a scary (or suspenseful) film that they watch outside of class.
10. Writer's Workshop: Mini-lessons
As students begin the process of writing their stories, I would give a daily mini-lesson on the following topics:
- effective leads
- dialogue conventions
- snapshots and thoughtshots (writing description and including characters' thoughts)
- building suspense
- illustrating the story
This unit's focus is discovering what makes a story scary because the final assessment is for students to write their own scary stories. The links below are another teacher's take on the assignment and resources I might borrow in creating my own assignment. The process would involve several days of writer's workshop, including pre-writing, drafting, and significant peer revision and conferences with the teacher. I might also include a day where students are invited to read their stories to the class (with the lights low and scary music playing, of course!) My hope is that students are able to find ways to write scary stories without putting all the emphasis on gore, but instead making the fear psychological.
Goosebumps series by R. L. Stine or a Stephen King novel). This might include completing journal entries about each chapter, charting the elements of fiction, writing a review, etc.