Today’s Secret Word

Today in class we had a secret word.

We are almost finished with our study of Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club. I’ve tried to process each story differently—sometimes through whole-class discussion, sometimes with reflective writing, sometimes in small groups, sometimes with activities.

Today was a whole-class discussion of “Double Face,” the fifteenth out of sixteen connected stories in that book. We began class with ten minutes of silent reading, as usual, and then I said, “Today you should know there is a secret word. When someone says the secret word, a cool thing will happen.” Everybody perked up a bit, and some started guessing random words: opportunity, dirt, joy, luck.

I told them, “You won’t guess the secret word by randomly stabbing for it. The best way to say the secret word is just to have the most thorough possible discussion of ‘Double Face,’ and someone will probably say it.”

Maggie asked, “But what if we don’t say it?”

“Then the cool thing will not happen.”

“Does it count if you say it?”

“I won’t say it. Now, let’s open the books to page 288.” (Literary discussions go better when the books are open.)

The Joy Luck Club has several themes that the students know pretty well by this point, so we touched on how those apply to this story, and then we started digging into the specific features of “Double Face.” “Double Face” has three aspects that I hoped would surface in our discussion. I always know what I want to cover in a literature-based discussion, but I don’t usually care about the order in which they are covered. With about fifteen minutes of class left, we had not yet talked about how this story displays variations on how characters in The Joy Luck Club believe in ways to know or affect the future. One example involves how the main character Lindo worked in a factory making little pancakes that were folded around slips of paper with English words written on them.

With that in mind, I asked, “How does this idea of knowing the future present itself in ‘Double Face’?”

Jon said, “Kind of with the fortune cookie thing.”

“Did somebody say FORTUNE COOKIE? That, my friends, is the secret word!” At which point I pulled out a bag of fortune cookies and we all enjoyed one.

Then we returned to Jon’s observation and resumed our chat about how the fortune cookies in the story are another example of a recurring theme.

This little gimmick can be used in all kinds of ways. If you ever have a discussion that starts to sag, try the secret word strategy, and please let me know how it goes!

I’d appreciate knowing any other discussion sparks teachers have used successfully.

Cross-posted on English Companion Ning.

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