Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Time to Talk: Telling Whoppers in Class

Once upon a time…
So begins many memorable stories.

Once upon a time, I attended a workshop where I learned a writing strategy I adapted to my speech classes: WHOPPERS.
To write a WHOPPER, simply constructs a story around a famous person, a place, and a thing. The student then composes a whopper, which I characterize  to students as a big fish story:

“You know how your father describes the minnow he caught in the American Falls Reservoir? Eventually, as dad tells and retells his fishing tale, the fish mutates into a twenty pound rainbow trout.” This elicits lots of nods, smiles, and “that’s right” responses from students.
To illustrate the concept further, I offer another example: “And that three-point buck your uncle tagged turns out to be a five-point buck he chased down Scout Mountain.” Even the girls know this story!

Adapting WHOPPERS to speech:

Since anecdotes and illustrations offer excellent supporting details in speeches, I asked students to create a whopper and to share their tall tales with the class. What a great success. Labron James figured prominently in several of the boys’ stories. Of course, in their WHOPPERS, L J failed to outscore my students. We had shark tales, stories about hanging out with celebrities in Hawaii, and a story about a road made out of Pop Rocks that Elmo tinkled on. Hey, boys like bathroom humor, and the story amused us all.

I haven’t assigned WHOPPERS in many years, but as we watched an animated version of three Canterbury Tales in my senior English classes, I recalled a time I assigned whoppers in conjunction with the C Ts. After all, the pilgrims’ stories, in their imagination and in their telling, constitute WHOPPERS, with each pilgrim attempting to out-tell the others. Remember, the Summoner responds to the Friar’s tale by having a host of Friars fly out of the devil’s booty when the devil lifts his tell.

Whether we call these stories "tall tales," "yarns," or "stretchers," as does Huck Finn, there's power to construct meaning in telling tales.  
At the end of the day, after listening to students’ hyperbole, my mouth ached from smiling so much, and my students experienced the power of “Once upon a time…”


  1. I enjoy using this one. I have adapted it to my junior English class, using an excerpt of John Smith's "History of Virginia." Students must create their own semi-factual, third-person account of an event, using word choice and imagery to spice up their writing. They tend to have a lot of fun with it...who doesn't like to embellish the truth?