Setting: it’s the time and location a story takes place. That’s it. That’s the lesson. Well, at least, that’s how I used to think about setting until I had to start teaching it to high schoolers. Ages ago when I was planning my very first unit for my very first teaching position (a unit on short stories), I quickly realized there was much more to setting that couldn’t be covered with a quick time and location definition.
Although it’s easy to discount the impact of setting, I realized that setting a strong foundation–see what I did there?–by exploring the nuances of setting helps students connect to elements of short fiction, like imagery, mood, and symbolism. It’s a great access point for students because the setting of a story is generally explicit. In other words, they can use setting to point them to other literary elements for literary analysis.
Since these literary elements and devices work together with setting, introductory lessons on setting are a great place to start when teaching elements of short stories. In addition, it also gives us an opportunity to use a historical lens to teach literary analysis while exploring the cultural and historical implications of a text. You can read more about how to use a historical lens for literary analysis here.
Activity 1: Setting the Stage
Before you even start reading a story, it’s helpful to make connections to mood. This is an experiment-style activity to do just that. First, select a few distinct settings. I like choosing settings that demonstrate distinctly different moods. The key is choosing short passages that reveal the setting and give off a distinct vibe (or mood, but my students like the word vibe).
Here’s an example from Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”:
Meanwhile the fog and darkness thickened so, that people ran about with flaring links, proffering their services to go before horses in carriages, and conduct them on their way. The ancient tower of a church, whose gruff old bell was always peeping slily down at Scrooge out of a Gothic window in the wall, became invisible, and struck the hours and quarters in the clouds, with tremulous vibrations afterwards as if its teeth were chattering in its frozen head up there. The cold became intense. In the main street, at the corner of the court, some labourers were repairing the gas-pipes, and had lighted a great fire in a brazier, round which a party of ragged men and boys were gathered: warming their hands and winking their eyes before the blaze in rapture.
See how the setting creates a spooky vibe?
Select three to four short passages. Assign one passage to each student; do this evenly so you have close to the same number of students reading one passage. Then, have them find an image that represents that setting. Finally, have them share in a shared Google Slide. You’ll want all of the images for that particular story on the same slide so you can view them together.
Now, here’s where the real magic happens! The pictures should have similar colors, tones, and maybe even images. It’s amazing to see how a skilled writer can create such a distinct setting and mood. This is the perfect opportunity to talk about why students choose particular images.
When you’re finished, you can move right into your selected story and your students’ awareness of setting and mood will be primed. This activity with three passages can be found in my Elements of Fiction Unit.
Activity 2: From Setting to Symbol
The setting of a work or elements in a setting may become symbolic when it comes to represent ideas, emotions, or beliefs. While some symbols are abstract symbols, focusing on symbols related to setting is a great entry point to study the impact a symbol has on the meaning of the story.
For this activity, start with a tactile replication symbol. This can happen in a variety ways, but the goal is for students to physically create the symbol. For example, students can use origami to create an albatross for “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” or playdough to replicate the statue in the poem “Ozymandias.” There is something powerful about connecting a physical piece of the setting to its meaning in the story.
So, think of a symbol connected to the setting and ask students to create a model of it with whatever supplies you have available. Then, the challenge is to explain how this symbol represents an idea, emotion, or belief connected to the meaning of the story. Ask them how this symbol illuminates the overall theme of the story.
Activity 3: Setting Pen to Paper
It’s one thing to analyze a powerful setting, but it’s a whole other challenge to write a powerful setting. This is why I like ending this setting mini-unit with a setting-focused writing task. It’s the summative assessment to tell me if they understand the elements of setting and can use them.
You may be surprised to find that the inspiration for this activity comes from my daughter when she was in preschool. Yes, that’s right, preschool. When she was an emerging reader, she did a lot of drawing and then explaining and eventually as she got older drawing and then writing about it. Now that I’m a literacy professor, I’ve had the opportunity to research writing in early childhood. Sure enough, one of the best strategies for pre-kindergarten is exactly what I described above.
So, I put a spin on this for my high schoolers studying setting. First, I had them visualize a setting. I asked them to close their eyes. Then, I ran through a quick guided visualization. Here’s an example of what you can say,
“Close your eyes. Take a deep breath. Breathe in and out. Without opening your eyes, visualize your surroundings. Where did you land? What do you see? What is above you? Is it dark? Are there stars? O, is it too bright for your eyes? What are you standing on? Is it soft and squishy or hard and smooth? In your mind, picture yourself reaching out your arms. Do they touch anything? Now with your arms wide, spin to the back. What is behind you?”
You can continue with more prompts, but this gives you an idea. Even if students struggle to “see” anything, it will give some ideas of things they should think about when creating their own setting.
Next, ask them to draw it out on paper or compile it with pictures from the internet. Now that they have this visual, they can use imagery to write out the scene. Again, this is somewhat backward from how we would typically read or write something and draw it out, but it’s a great strategy for students to grasp the detail and imagery necessary to write a powerful setting.
Check out The Writing Strategies Book: Your Everything Guide to Developing Skilled Writers by Jennifer Serravallo for more awesome strategies. This book is designed for grades pk-8, but so many of them can be adapted to secondary!
Activities 1 and 2 can be found in my Elements of Fiction Unit. This resource aligns both with the Common Core Standards and AP English Literature and Composition CED. Although it’s designed to be used with any text, I give over 35 high-engagement short story selections from diverse authors.
Activity 3 comes from my Narrative Writing Unit. This unit uses a scaffolded approach to teach students the elements of narrative writing breaking down the unit into six concepts: setting, mood & imagery, characterization, plot & conflict, point of view & tone, and theme.
Serravallo, J. (2017). The writing strategies book: Your everything guide to developing skilled writers. Portsmouth, NH, Heinemann.