National Writing Project

Building a Community of Stories and Writers: Lake Wobegon Comes to the Classroom

By: Lesley Roessing
Publication: The Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 4
Date: 2004

Summary: Inspired by Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Companion, Roessing has her middle school students collaborate to create their own fictional communities, write stories about the inhabitants, and finally produce radio shows from their stories.

 

Myrtle and Florian Krebsbach. What characters, I thought to myself as I turned off A Prairie Home Companion, the long-running National Public Radio show created and hosted by Garrison Keillor. And they were—characters, I mean. But they seemed so real. I just knew I would recognize Florian if I were stuck behind him, going thirty-five miles per hour, on the highway to St. Cloud, Myrtle's wig barely showing over the top of the seat beside him. After all these years, I had to keep reminding myself that these weekly stories of the news from Lake Wobegon, Minnesota, weren't real, that the town and its inhabitants were fictitious, figments of Keillor's imagination. If only my students could create such fictions.

I glanced at one of the short stories on my desk and groaned.

Brrrng! The telephone rang. Kristen answered it.

"Did you see the new boy in class today? Wasn't he cool?" Ashley shouted into the phone. "Do you think I should go out with him?"

I sighed and put it down; I could predict the rest of the story. I'll read it later, I promised myself and moved on to the next paper:

The football was thrown across the field. Matt grabbed it and ran for the touchdown. He passed the fifty, the forty, the thirty, the twenty, the ten. He looked up and was tackled. He got up and walked back to the huddle.

I don't know one middle school teacher who hasn't had her fill of these stories. "Write about what you know," we tell our students. Unfortunately, they do. They write about making the cheerleading squad, not making the cheerleading squad, losing football games, winning basketball championships—play by play. They write about boys. First-person narrative or not, the characters are not them or even their friends. The characters are wooden and one-dimensional; the plots are uninteresting, much as the kids see their own lives. The characters that students craft are usually thinly disguised versions of themselves—going to the mall, arguing over boyfriends, or trying to win the sporting event of the season. They are about as developed as their thirteen-year-old creators. Even though students have many interesting stories in their lives, they are not sophisticated enough to see those stories. Instead of looking at their towns, their quirky relatives and family friends, or a memorable situation, they focus on their daily lives as they see them—mostly boys and sports—and the settings that are there only to provide the backdrops: school, the mall, the sports arena.

Conversely, some students, immersed in their suburban community, write of characters about whom they know nothing: the young men of the streets, the young women having babies and AIDS, the world they think they have learned from television. And the settings? Nonexistent, or cursory, the required descriptions are placed at the very beginning of the story and never referred to again. "I do have a snapshot," Sara, one of my students, noted as she pointed to her three-sentence, two-sense depiction.

After ten years of these eighth-grade stories, punctuated by the few "couldn't-put-downs," I was at my wit's end. Was it unrealistic to think that my students could come closer to crafting stories like the writers I knew and loved? I had taught it all—sense of place, thought shots, snapshots, shrinking centuries, exploding moments, sensory imagery, action verbs, character charts, plot plans. Barry Lane, from whose books I had taken many of these ideas, was practically a member of my classroom. Where did it go wrong? How could I get my young writers to care as much about their characters as I cared about Myrtle and Florian? Where was their Lake Wobegon community? Community? The word resonated, touching off an idea. Why not build a classroom community in order to create a fictional community?

I decided to change my strategy. Before, students had written in solitary confinement, each developing his or her story, at least until a revision stage. Then, during revision conferences, students would help each other, but even then they mostly just went through the motions. I conjectured that if students were to fashion a community together, they would come to care about this fictional location and the people who lived there.

The Community Project

The first step was to introduce my students to Garrison's Keillor's Lake Wobegon, "a small town where the women are strong and the men good-looking and all the children above average." Completely fictitious and created by Keillor in 1975, Lake Wobegon is located in central Minnesota, a region that Keillor knows well. He invented a history for the town, gave it a slogan and a business district, and populated the town with colorful and memorable characters. Over years of listening to the weekly radio stories on Minnesota Public Radio, I have come to know some of the 942 citizens: Dorothy from the Chatterbox Cafe, Clint and Clarence Bunsen of Bunsen Motors (Clint also serves as mayor), Ralph and his Pretty Good Grocery Store, as well as various other members of the German Catholic and Norwegian Lutheran communities, including, of course, the Krebsbachs. To help my students visualize the town, we read "Home" (Keillor 1985), the creative description of the community of Lake Wobegon. I reminisced about some of its more prominent citizens.

Town Statistics for Kent's Court

Motto: "Live Long; Buy a Lot"
Location: Northeastern corner of Colorado, United States
Size: 2,754 acres
Topography: In a valley surrounded by mountains, three hills, and surrounding a lake.
Population: 2,296
Ethnicity: 90 percent white; 10 percent black
Religions: 100 percent Roman Catholic
Brief history: Founded in 1892 by Stebe I. He named areas of the town after himself and his three daughters.
Government: Mayor Stebe VI
Main industry: Mining and exporting turquoise from the Misty Mountains
Professions: Mine supervisors, miners, shippers, office staff
Economic status: Wealthy; average income exceeds $1,000,000/year
Health care: Kent Hospital, run by Nurse Betty
Residences: Mansions
Transportation: Bus and train stations; the main street is Mulah Pike
Recreation: Lake swimming and ice skating; soccer and football fields

Figure 1: Town statistics of Kent's Court (2003), a community created by some of Lesley Roessing's students

Then I played recordings of three of my favorite stories: "The Krebsbachs' Vacation" (Keillor 1993), in which Florian and Myrtle visit their son in Pomona, a slightly daunting situation for these two unworldly travelers; "Rhubarb," which traces the history of rhubarb and describes the time Dorothy made a batch of rhubarb pies, eagerly devoured by various members of the town (Keillor 1993); and "The Living Flag," in which the townspeople, decked out in red, white, and blue caps, form a living flag in celebration of Flag Day (Keillor 1983). I also shared Keillor's personal account of his invention of Lake Wobegon (Keillor 2000).

As the next step, I asked my language arts class to divide into groups of five students. Each group was to plan a fictional town using Keillor's strategy of basing the community loosely on the familiar but leaving room for creativity. I advised students to stay away from fantasy and instead create towns that would be recognizable in the real world. They were to plan the town's name, location, size, population, main industry, brief history, motto, demographics (ethnicity, gender, age, and religious compositions), and the professions and economic status of the citizens, with descriptions of the town's more prominent and colorful inhabitants. The town designers made a chart of relevant statistics. (See an example in figure 1.) Also, each group was to draw a map of its town, showing the residential, business, and industrial areas (if applicable), the roads, and the topography. (See figure 2.)

Figure 2: A map of Kent's Court, drawn by Katherine Boyle (2003).

The students divided the labor. These activities highlighted the students' various skills and multiple intelligences. Future cartographers, land-use and city planners, architects, economists, environmentalists, and engineers were born during those days. I don't think that I have ever heard so much discussion and compromise, or witnessed that level of student-generated research, because as one student said, "People have to live here."

Students investigated square mileage and populations of typical towns and villages, sizes of lakes, and the arrangement of communities. They evaluated products and industries. One group placed their town in a western state. The town's main industry was to be a diamond mine. After they completed some research, I noticed that the diamond mine on their map had been replaced with a more geographically correct turquoise mine. Other groups examined topics as varied as island life and Maine lobstering. Students planned, charted, and mapped their towns. They wrote introductions containing a description and a brief history modeled on "Home." (See figure 3.) While most of the students wrote their introductions as straightforward descriptions, a few groups were more creative. In a memorable "Introduction to Jacquesville," a town resident, Betty Rouchet runs some errands for her great-grandmother, Mildred Louise Edna Snizzleheimer. While noticing the beauty of her hometown, Betty relates the history of its settlement, and, as she travels through the town with her shopping list, the reader sees the town and its businesses through Betty's eyes and meets some of the citizens:

On the way to the bank, Betty passed City Hall. The mayor, Charlie Spunkett, waved to her from the window in his office and Betty returned the greeting. . . . Betty stopped at the Holy Donut to pick up a quick snack. Otto had made her favorite—chocolate sprinkled. Otto was one of the nicest guys in town. He had never been known to say an unkind word about anyone and was well respected.

Introduction to Kent's Court

Tucked into the far right corner of Colorado lies the town of Kent's Court. Surrounded by three rolling, green hills, the people of Kent's Court walk to and from their houses. Workers maze through the Smithmill Mines, mining turquoise from the Misty Mountains. The crystal blue Kent Lake is the center of the town, surrounded by the school, hospital, sports fields, fire and police stations, and borough hall. Through the Courtalina Hills wind railroad tracks, leading to the station. Behind the railway station is the Kent Airport. The only way to come in and out of Kent's Court is by plane or train.

Kent's Court is governed by Mayor Stebe the Sixth. Stebe the First founded the town in 1892, and being mayor has been the family profession ever since. The first Stebe came over from Europe looking for a nice, quiet place for his family to settle. On the way to the west coast, the weather turned bad so Stebe and his family took cover in the mountains, thinking they would be protected from the storm. While waiting for the weather to clear, Stebe discovered turquoise and decided to establish a town. He named the hills after his daughters, Jennapina, Katamina, and Courtalina, and the mines after his family name, Smithmill. In 1892, Stebe the First built a one-story [hospital] by the lake. When Stebe the Second took office, he added a second floor to the hospital. Every Stebe since that time has added a level, and, to this day, Kent Hospital stands six stories high.

Kent's Court covers 2,754 acres and contains a population of 2,296. The citizens of the town live in massive Victorian homes. Most of the town buildings are made of white marble, including the fire and police stations and the borough hall. The Chief of Police is Detective Tony Angelo. The town has a low crime rate so Tony's job is quite easy; however, Father Joff Nesland's job is rather difficult. Father Joff is the priest of Our Lady of Knowledge Church, which is located right by the airport runway. The parishioners want to move the church closer to the lake, but the town committee argues that there is no room. Feuds over the location of the church have been going on for quite some time, yet nothing has changed.

Once a week the Senior Citizens Club meets at the borough hall next to the lake. Head of the SCC is Old Man Kronny. Known to be grumpy and usually unpleasant, he, along with fellow members George Johnson, Lucy Thomson, and John Scrabble, complains about the "wild teenagers." Also along the lake is the Kent School. Miss Pencils is the most popular teacher of the grade 1–12 school. After grade 12, the kids either go to work in the mines or off to college.
Kent's Court is the idyllic place to settle and raise a family. There is a strong sense of community, and the neighbors look after one another. There is a close-knit environment where everyone is a friend and no one a foe. To the people of the town, there is no better place to live.

Figure 3: Introduction to Kent's Court, by Courtney Back, Stephen Boraske, Katherine Boyle, Jennifer Doperak, and Jonathan Wolff (2003).

The Town Stories

As the next stage of the project, each founding father (or mother) adopted one of their town's inhabitants, developed a character sketch that proclaimed one of that character's goals as well as a problem that inhibited easy attainment of that goal. The student then wrote a short story with that character as the protagonist. The different stories in each town could, but were not required to, overlap. Over the next few days, as they completed their drafts or stages of drafts, members read their stories to their groups, giving and taking revision advice (and, eventually, editing recommendations) with the goal of publishing the final drafts—along with their introductions, maps, and charts—in The Town Stories, a book that compiled all the class towns. Revision was much deeper and more interactive than usual because everyone in each group knew the town and its inhabitants, and each author was telling a story of the community. Therefore, everyone had a personal stake in the individual stories. At the end of the project, I gave each student a copy of The Town Stories.

Analysis of the Project

Incredibly, the individual stories were each well written, developed, and a delight to read, an improvement over the majority of previous writings. And this trend has continued through the four years of the project. The characters become as real to the reader as they are to the writers, and they are as real to the writers as children are to their parents. Characters may have been unusual or colorful, as students took flights of fancy (Hueslababa, the unibrow plucker of the Isle of Jacquesville), but they were consistent and felt as real as the quirky relatives and acquaintances we all have, like the fellow we meet in "A Night of Crime and the Dawn of Apology," by Melinda Clemmer:

The slow swish-slop, swish-slop of the rag filled the empty silence of Mike's Bar and Family Diner. Chris wiped the white rag, now dirtied with bits of peas and meat, one final time over the last table in the restaurant. It was dim now and quiet. No laughter came from the tables or music from the jukebox. No more talks between husband and wife, between waiter and customer, between friends could be heard. Chris hummed as he worked. His dance recital was fast approaching, and the song was one he would dance to.

Chris had been dancing since the time he could twirl. Just two years ago he had asked for, and received joyfully, new ballet slippers for his birthday, but they were growing tight now. There were beautiful ones in the window of the Hobby Shop that Chris had had his eye on for a while.

This is my third night working after closing time for Joe, he thought. He's got to give me a little extra money as thanks. That should help pay for those slippers.

Some of the characters were refreshingly normal, but not the type who usually appear in teenagers' stories. Take the couple in "Sunday Matinee," by Katherine Boyle:

The smell of pumpkin bread drifted throughout the house while Barbara was slaving away in the kitchen. Kitchen tools lay about on the counters, and food scraps covered the table. Stan hobbled into the room just as Barbara was taking the last loaf out of the oven.

"Mornin', Hun," Stan mumbled as he entered the dining room.

"Good morning!" Barbara carried a loaf of bread to Stan and served him breakfast. She sat down, watching Stan inhale the bread. He slouched over his food with his elbows next to his plate. His cane rested on the chair right by his side.

"Guess what?" Barbara asked cheerily. She didn't need an answer. She was planning on telling him anyway, and Stan knew it. "I was reading the newspaper this morning and I saw a movie ad for today. We never go out anywhere. We need a little excitement and it's a beautiful Sunday morning. What do you think?"

"Aw, Barb, we don't need a dumb, ol' movie to make us young. Can't we just stay home like we do every day?"

"That's the thing, Stan. We do that every day. We are an old, boring couple," Barbara pouted.

Stan just sat there, silent. Crumbs were scattered all over his plate and his glass of milk was just about empty. He studied her; he studied her hard. Her gray eyes dropped behind her small, oval bifocals. Her lips were thin and even, and her hair was a tight, gray perm. He finally made his decision and stated, "Fine, today we're going to the movies."

Barbara clasped her hands together and stood up happily. She came over to Stan, kissed his cheek, and took his plate and glass into the kitchen.

Unusual scene? No, but not one usually noticed and recounted by eighth grade students. Even more real, after having their snack during the previews, both Stan and Barbara sleep through the entire movie.

Waking up at the credits, Barb nudged Stan. "C'mon, Hun. It's time to go."

Together they walked out of the theater as people shot dirty looks at them. After stopping for a restroom break, they left Kent's Movie Theater and walked toward the car.

Before starting the ignition, Barbara said, "Thanks, Stan, I had a great time. And I thought we were an old, boring couple." She laughed lightly. "Maybe we can do this next week too!" She started up the car and drove off, back to their home, happily waiting for next weekend.

And the characters reflected their surroundings as settings became integral to plot, unusual in an eighth grade story. The settings were described in detail because the authors knew the towns, probably better than they knew or noticed their own surroundings. Locations took on their own stories; as the writers created environments, not merely settings, like the one in "Changes," by Jeanna Kolson:

Mr. Hickory looked around his small, tidy house that sat in the residential area off George Lane. It was neat as a pin. Not a piece of paper was out of place. The old, worn couch sat stiffly against the white wall, cushions carefully arranged symmetrically on the hard seat. The rest of the furniture, like the couch, was old but scrupulously clean. No particles of dust could be seen on the wooden table in the kitchen. The only other room in the house, the bedroom, displayed a perfectly made bed, clothed in crisp, white linen sheets. The dresser sat stiff and cold in the corner. The chilled, draining air tingled with a slightly fishy smell.

All authors knew the smells, the sounds, the sights of their towns because they generated them: the off-tune voice of the monk, Matthew, as he attempted karaoke in the local bar; the smells emanating from Holy Donut as the early-morning baking was completed each day; the projectile whizzing through the still classroom air, destined to hit Melvin, the teacher's pet. Then there were the conflicts: citizens were offended by the initials of Kathy Walters' store, Kathy's Klothes Korner; Señor Gonzales, mayor of a small town in the Aleutian Islands, relinquished his dream of joining an Olympic synchronized swimming team in order to provide swimming lessons to the children of his town; and Crash decided to live his life as a Sun-Up, despite his family's membership in the Sun-Down community.

Over the four years of the project, I have been amazed at the quality and innovation of the stories, student by student. I attribute this to personal ownership of the story as individual writers created their tales. The writers paid more sophisticated attention to components and structures such as diction, and even syntax, because they wanted their stories to ring true. The group members knew their towns and the inhabitants and their problems, and they wanted the reader to know them too. Authors considered dialogue, slang, and dialect because they knew how their characters should sound. They struggled with the writing because they wanted their words to be effective. In addition, writers discovered that they had points to make through their stories—a theme. They were passing on messages from, and about, their communities.

The second rationale for the quality of the writings was the collaborative nature of the project. Students wrote individually but refined together, discussing setting and characters continuously throughout the writing process. Writers were involved in the revision of each other's stories because each story was a part of their town. They were creating a community, a culture, and a culture is defined by its stories.

The Radio Show

Our project did not end with the written word. After the final revisions of the stories, each group voted on its best or favorite story. The next step was for each group to transform this story into a fifteen-minute live radio show, complete with sound effects and integrated commercials based on the businesses or products of the towns. For the radio show, members were to assume roles as playwright, advertiser, narrator/actor, director, and/or sound-effects person.

To introduce the students to the components of radio drama, I had the class listen to recordings of other segments of Prairie Home Companion shows, including an episode of "The Sound Effects Guy," in which Tom Keith, the show's resident sound wizard, showcased various sound effects. We also listened to Keillor's commercials for Lake Wobegon businesses, such as Bertha's Kitty Boutique (Keillor 1997). We looked at a copy of a script from a Prairie Home Companion show that we printed out from the show's website. Analyzing the script, the students saw what a radio script looks like, how cast members could play multiple parts, how sound effects could be introduced, and where commercials could be inserted. The town groups again divided the labor involved in planning and producing their radio shows, collaborating in revising—in some cases, dramatically—the original story. Students wrote slogans and jingles to include in their commercials and studied advertising techniques to sell their products. Finally, the class presented their shows to an audience of peers, parents, and teachers.

As each town chose its best tale and transformed it into a radio show, I expected the students to do little more than add sound effects and possibly some additional dialogue. What I found was that the students, in their groups, continued to revise and improve the stories as they coauthored the radio scripts. As each town assumed ownership of a story, the revision process was more cooperative and went deeper.

Additionally, as they practiced the radio drama, students used two strategies often ignored in the revision conference: speaking and listening. Group members heard their characters speak and, accordingly, made changes to present the stories they wanted to tell.

An example of such a revision effort is the Selwaulf Park radio broadcast of "Janet Jones's Cake." In the original story, "The Cake Caper," by Andrew Shaner, Janet had to bake a cake for the church's monthly "Make Your Own" dinner. Just like the other mothers of Selwaulf Park, Janet could not cook but tried to keep up the veneer of "perfection."

One especially panicked, single mother of two boys was Janet Jones who was concerned about the cake she had been working on for hours. . . . Still trying fruitlessly to bake this cake, Janet thought for a moment. [Janet's thoughts about buying a cake as the devil and angel within her argue the ethics.] Suddenly the cake in the oven exploded and spattered all over the viewing window. The batter dripped down slowly as if it were as thick as molten lead.

However, as we see in the radio script for "Janet Jones's Cake," by Emily Nagel and Melinda Clemmer, this scene was revised to add a monologue (Janet's thoughts) and sound effects and humor:

JANET: Let's see . . . 2 cups flour . . . check [flour hitting bowl]. 1-3/4 cups sugar [sugar added]. That should do it. Half cup of milk . . . uh, huh [splashing of milk]. 1 teaspoon vanilla . . . there we go. 1 teaspoon salt . . . we'll just skip that; who puts salt in a cake? 1/2 cup Crisco . . . you know, that's awful fatty. Oh, well, here goes. 1/4 pound of butter. 1/4 pound? Ha! Let's make it 1/8 and switch it to margarine. 2 tablespoons baking powder. . . . You know, I don't know why they call it by two different names? I mean baking powder and baking soda should be essentially the same thing, aren't they? Well, then, I just use these 2 tablespoons of baking soda [sound of box hitting bowl]. Oh, and 4 eggs.

One . . . two . . . three . . . four [sound of eggs cracking]. Mix for twenty minutes. Twenty minutes! Like it really takes that long [sound of vigorous mixing for about a minute]. There we go . . . done! Put in oven at 350 degrees for an hour. Let stand for 8 minutes. DO NOT OPEN OVEN WHILE CAKE IS BAKING. Well then, how do they expect me to check on it? [sound of creaking oven door] Timer set for 30 minutes; I'll check on it then.

COMMERCIAL for Mike's Bar and Family Diner

NARRATOR: We now return to the Small Town Tour of America. We last left Janet Jones of Selwaulf Park, Vermont, while she was attempting, fruitlessly, to bake a cake for her church's "Make Your Own" dinner. Half of the actual baking time has passed, and though she's not supposed to open the oven, Janet decides to anyway . . .

JANET: Well, I'll just turn this oven off and [sound of cake exploding] . . .

Conclusion

The entire project, which included a variety of reading, writing, speaking, listening, thinking, and research skills, took about three weeks (of eighty-minute class periods); the majority of the drafting, revising, and word processing was accomplished as homework.

I have seen the writing skills attained and used in these writings—both the individual stories and the coauthored radio shows—continue in subsequent writings of the students involved in this project. Writings after the project have maintained the excellence achieved in The Town Stories. One student, Steve Boraske, showed improvement that was typical of the group when he began his next creative writing assignment, a piece he called "Friends of Rivington":

On the outskirts of Philadelphia, there is a town. The town's name is Rivington Park, and it's not just any town. Well, in some ways it is a lot like surrounding towns. There are schools, a town center, libraries, and other buildings you would see in a normal town, except for one difference. Instead of a high-class town like the wealthy Monroe Court or a lower-class town like the poorer Johnsonville, it's a combination of both. Yes, one town, two different worlds, separated by a single street aptly named Dividon Avenue. In West Rivington, the lower class can be found. Run-down homes, strip clubs, demolition rings, and junkyards. In Rivington East you will find the upper class, their mansions, health clubs, stadiums, and golf courses. As you would expect, neither side shares much of what the other owns.

I asked Steve whether the project had influenced his writing, especially his sense of place. He said he thought it had. I have also seen a continuation of the caliber of the revision groups; even though students are not necessarily meeting in their town groups, the entire class was involved in the project and the procedure together, and a writing community was born. Writing has improved so dramatically that each year, after the project, I usually have a difficult time choosing submissions for our county's Young Authors contest. Students become interested in their community's writings, and I can look forward to curling up and having a good read.

As teachers we tell students to "write about what you know," and when they create a community as a community, they do.

References

Keillor, G. 1983. "The Living Flag." News from Lake Wobegon audiocassette. St. Paul, Minnesota: Minnesota Public Radio.

———. 1985. Lake Wobegon Days. New York: Antheneum.

———. 1993. "The Krebsbachs' Vacation." Lake Wobegon U.S.A. audiocassette. St. Paul, Minnesota: HighBridge Audio.

———. 1993. "Rhubarb." Lake Wobegon U.S.A. audiocassette. St. Paul, Minnesota: HighBridge Audio.

———. 1997. Garrison Keillor's Comedy Theater. Audiocassettes. St. Paul, Minnesota: HighBridge Company.

———. 2000. "In Search of Lake Wobegon." National Geographic 198 (6): 86–.

Lane, B. 1993. After the End: Teaching and Learning Creative Revision. Portsmouth: Heinemann.

About the Author Lesley Roessing teaches eighth grade language arts and humanities at Ridley Middle School in Ridley Park, Pennsylvania. She is a teacher-consultant with the Pennsylvania Writing and Literature Project.

Related Resource Topics

© 2019 National Writing Project