Using Effective, Evocative Writing as a Model
Lesson 2 for Music in the FieldsPrint this Page
- Subject(s): Language Arts & Literature, Cross-Cultural Understanding
- Region / Country: Africa / Republic of Mali
- Grade Level(s): 6–8, 9–12
- Related Publication: Uncommon Journeys
Students will analzye the author's style to learn techniques for strengthening their own writing.
About the Story
The author reflects on life in rural Mali as a Peace Corps Volunteer among hardscrabble farmers. She writes of the resilience of the Malian people in the face of a harsh and often arid environment, the role that music plays in Malian culture, and the richness she experienced in a culture without the material wealth of her own country. And she records her admiration for Malian women who, she believes, hold the secrets to happiness in our world.
About the Setting
The Republic of Mali, in West Africa, has a population of more than 11 million. Almost twice the size of Texas, Mali stretches from the Sahara in the north to Guinea and Côte d'Ivoire in the south. The capital, Bamako, lies along the Niger River in the southwestern part of the country.
A country dominated by ancient tribal cultures, Mali has three major ethnic groups—the Bambara, the Fulani, and the Berbers. Although French is the official language (a carry-over from when Mali was part of colonial French West Africa ), several tribal languages are spoken locally, including Bambara, Fulani, Songhay, and Dogon. The majority of the population speaks Bambara.
In the 1300s, Mali encompassed an even vaster territory—much of West Africa—and dominated the gold trade across the Sahara. The city of Timbuktu, famous today for its remoteness, grew into a major cultural center at that time. The French colonized Mali at the end of the 1800s. In 1960, Mali gained its independence from France and today is an independent republic.
One of the poorest countries in the world, Mali has an annual per capita income of $245 ( U.S. equivalent). Only a tiny fraction of Mali's land is arable. The challenges of agriculture under these circumstances are exacerbated by frequent droughts. The country is not self-sufficient in food production, and hunger and malnutrition are widespread. Life expectancy is 46 years. Almost 90 percent of Mali's people are Muslim, and the culture of Islam permeates all aspects of daily life.
Unlike the United States, which generally experiences four seasons, Mali has two seasons—the dry and the rainy. As people have cut down trees for firewood and timber, and as livestock has grazed the withering grasses, the sands of the Sahara have spread farther and farther across land once fertile and vegetated, in a process called desertification. Desertification has affected not only the vegetation, but also the climate, creating shorter and shorter periods of rainfall.
Since 1971, almost 2,000 Peace Corps Volunteers have served in Mali, working to improve food production, water availability, environmental conservation, small-business development, and healthcare.
For further information on the work of the Peace Corps in Mali, visit the country-information section of the Peace Corps website at www.peacecorps.gov.
To analyze the author's style and use it as a model for writing
- Parched: Dry, arid
- Frantically: With great agitation and frenzy; madly; crazily
- Antiquated: Extremely old; out of date
- Music in the Fields by Carrie Young
- Remind students that a good way to improve their own writing is to model it after the writing of an author they admire. Suggest that Young's story contains several elements of effective writing that they can use as models for their writing.
- Writing Strategy #1: Show, Don't Tell. Point out that Young's descriptions are vivid because she uses a golden rule of writing: "Show, don't tell." Provide several examples of "Show, don't tell" in Young's work. Then ask students to find several additional examples. (Using a "Think-aloud" process is one way for you to highlight the "Show, don't tell" skill, as in the example that follows:
I'd like to take a close look at how Young describes the coming rain by showing, not telling. If I were telling about the rain coming, I could simply write "The rain was coming." But this sounds flat and boring. Young's description of the rain's arrival is much more interesting. She shows her readers by painting a vivid picture. She writes: "A faint wind slips by me. I look up, yet again, toward the hills in the direction of the wind and I see a few clouds beginning to blow over them. Soon darkness covers us and the rain begins to fall, frantic from the wait . It feels as if [the clouds] had been forced to hold their breath for weeks and now it has all broken loose." As I read these words, I feel I am right there with Carrie Young. I think I will try this technique in a piece of writing I am working on to see if I can make the writing vivid and interesting. I want my readers to feel they can actually see what I'm describing—like a movie in their minds.Ask students to re-read "Music in the Fields" and highlight images that create vivid pictures in their minds—places where Young "shows, not tells." Have students in small groups compare the images they've highlighted. Some examples:
- To describe wind: "Bright fabrics blow out from the bodies of the women, dancing and slapping in the air."
- To describe heat and dryness: "The sun is a third of the way across the arc of the sky. The air is parched. The dusty, dry red earth of the fields is quiet."
- Writing Strategy #2: Personification. One way to make inanimate things come alive is to attribute human characteristics to them. Young has employed this strategy, called personification, liberally in her descriptions of nature. Ask the students to examine the text in their hands and underline any nouns, adjectives, verbs, or phrases that assign human characteristics to aspects of nature. ["Fabrics... dancing"; "rain... (is) frantic"; "clouds... hold their breath"; "rain falls with a fury."] In a class discussion, have the students report their findings, then ask them to make up a nonpersonified substitute for each example and read it aloud to see how different the effect is.
- Writing Strategy #3: Using Present Tense. Another means of making the story more immediate is the use of the present tense. Help students discover that the author has employed the present tense and ask them what effect that has upon the writing.
- Once students understand the way Young makes her writing dynamic using these strategies, have the students practice writing a paragraph of their own, emulating Young. For students who have trouble starting, you may suggest titles for the paragraphs, such as "The Hottest Day of the Summer," "My Pet's Close Call," "There's Nothing Better Than Chocolate," "The Day the Hurricane Came Through."
- Have students compare their writing with that of a partner. Ask partners to underline the phrases or sentences that create an especially vivid picture in their minds.
Options for Older Students or More Advanced Writers
- Have students research life in Mali and then write a short essay about how they would adapt to living there. What would be easy? What would be difficult? What attitudes and personality traits would help them adapt?
- Have students think about how the story would be different had it been written by one of the Malian women. If you have not yet taught the concept of point of view in literature, help students understand this concept by drawing on examples from the story. Ask students to compare Young's point of view with what they would imagine might be the point of view of the Malian women. Ask students whether they think the Malian women would characterize themselves as rich, and whether the Malian women would agree with Young that they hold the secrets to happiness. Then have students rewrite the story from the point of view of a Malian grandmother.
- Have students brainstorm in small groups what they believe to be the secrets to happiness. Then, have them write an essay, working individually, titled: "The Secrets to Happiness I Wish All Americans Would Remember."
- Have students research and report on one of the following topics:
- Desertification in Africa and its effects on populations (Sudan and Mali are good examples)
- Cultural respect—even veneration—for the elderly in some cultures
- Concepts of wealth in various societies (including dowries)
Options for Younger Students or Less Accomplished Writers
- Ask students to write and illustrate a poem based on "Music in the Fields."
- Have students ponder how music helped fieldworkers where Young worked in Mali. Then have them write a short composition on "How Music Might Help Workers in the United States," or "How Music Might Help Workers in Our School," or "The Role Music Plays in My Family."
Framework and Standards
- Specific strategies can be used as tools for effective writing.
- What elements should we look for in evocative writing that can be useful in our own writing?
English Standards: 2, 3, 6
Social Studies Standards: I, IV, IX
National Geography Standards: 4, 7, 10
For more information on the standards in Uncommon Journeys, see the Appendix (pdf—160 KB).