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Short Story Writing Lessons from WritingFix..."The Scarlet Ibis" by

A Short Story-inspired Writing Lesson
A R.A.F.T. Writing Prompt from WritingFix

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a R.A.F.T. Lesson:
Guilty or Innocent?
how symbolic details make a case

inspired by James Hurst's
"The Scarlet Ibis"

This R.A.F.T. prompt was created by Rebekah Foster of the Northern Nevada Writing Project during a workshop for teachers.

This RAFT writing prompt was inspired by James Hurst's short story, "The Scarlet Ibis," which can be found in many short story collections, including the one pictured at right. Before writing to this page's prompt, students should read and discuss the craft of this fine short story author! A summary of the short story can be found below.


Role Audience Format Topic Strong verb
Defense Attorney or Prosecuting Attorney Jury Opening and/or Closing Arguments at a Murder Trial How responsible for Doodle's death was the Brother? Persuade

Lesson Overview:

After reading the short story “The Scarlet Ibis” by James Hurst, students will assume the role of either a prosecuting attorney or a defense attorney and prepare persuasive speeches for the jury in regards to the guilt or innocence of the narrator, Brother. Through this activity, students will see how small details and symbolic imagery present a case and set the stage or a debate about the criminality of Brother’s actions. Through the lens of the law, students come to understand the complexities of human relationships and human suffering.

Short Story Summary:

Set at the turn of the twentieth century, “The Scarlet Ibis” by James Hurst tells the story of a young boy and his brother. Doodle, the younger brother, seems to be incapable of achieving even the most basic of human achievements; however, in order to not embarrass his older brother (the narrator of the story), Doodle does everything he can to succeed. But small successes never seem to be enough for Brother, and he pushes Doodle beyond his physical limits. By the end of the story, readers wonder why suffering occurs when we refuse to accept each other as individuals.

The literary technique skillfully used in “The Scarlet Ibis” is symbolic imagery coupled with intricate and small details consistently supporting the main symbol. This symbol gives the reader a vehicle for understanding the complexities of human relationships. While reading, students find themselves pulled in to feeling for both Brother and Doodle, and as they read, they gather evidence for Brother’s guilt or innocence regarding his part of the tragic end. The details that Hurst includes in the story build upon each other, and it is only at the end where the title is clear and yet where sympathies are not. Students have to use the text and their own beliefs about the world in order to understand the meanings of the symbols and the lesson of the text

Reading the Story:

Before reading, pass out the graphic organizer and complete Section I. This will be a review of imagery and connotations of several concepts that will help the students understand how subtle choices an author makes relates to the text as a whole. Then, either review or present the definition of symbol.

Once that step is complete, introduce the story’s overview and RAFT assignment to your students, so that they understand their job will be to gather details from the text that revolve around the two main characters and the details which support the symbolic imagery of the story. Once they know that they are essentially lawyers gathering evidence, the text will become something they delve into when reading so that they don’t miss anything of importance. Finally, tell them to complete Step II on the graphic organizer as they read or listen to the short story.

After reading, spend a few minutes discussing how Hurst uses details and symbols to characterize Brother and Doodle. Have them put their thoughts into the metaphors listed in Section II of the graphic organizer. Next, have them determine Brother’s degree of guilt. Give them several minutes to write out a few sentences discussing their judgment and why they feel this way.

Re-Focusing on Story Excerpts:

Now, once they have made their judgments, have them go back to the text and use Section III of the graphic organizer to locate evidence from the text which helps them determine the guilt or innocence of Brother. These details should be taken from throughout the text and they should expand upon the details already gathered. Essentially, students should be looking for actions, thoughts, or words from the characters which would help them persuade a jury to believe their judgment about the character. This might be a good time to have students work together—especially if they have the same perspective or viewpoint regarding the guilt or innocence of Brother.

Because part of being persuasive is predicting or acknowledging the opposite case, have students pair up and share evidence with a student of the opposite opinion. Have each student jot down a few of the best examples of evidence from the opposing perspective/viewpoint.

Starting the Writing Assignment:

Tell students that they are now going to write either an opening or closing argument for a jury in regards to Brother’s guilt or innocence in the tragic events of story. The opening speech sets the stage for the trial to come, introducing the topic and presenting the evidence that will be seen or heard. A closing speech reminds the jury of what has already been presented and sums up the major points or ideas. Remind them that a prosecuting attorney is arguing for Brother’s guilt and that a defense attorney argues for his innocence. Review with students that in order to be persuasive to a jury that they need to include evidence from the text—weaving it in with their own words, ideas, and interpretations. They should also focus on two major persuasive techniques—using logic and evidence, and appealing to the emotions of the situation. The graphic organizer will help them with the first persuasive technique and their own beliefs and reasons will help with the second. Finally, remind them that because this is a speech, they might want to consider focusing on word choice, repetition, and sentence fluency when writing. Have them consider reading aloud to themselves as they draft their speeches.

The Rest of the Writing Process:

Once their draft is complete, have them switch with another peer. This peer should highlight the evidence used in one color, and the appeals to emotion in another color. This will help the writer physically see the balance between evidence and emotion used within the speech. The responder should write a two to three sentence argument against the speech in order to provide an opposing view that the author may want to consider including in order to refute. Another technique would be to use Traits Post-it® Note-sized templates to rate in the areas of word choice and sentence fluency.

Additional Ideas:

You might want to consider setting aside time for a debate, where students present their speeches in an attempt to persuade each other.

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