Story Setting and Writing Calls to Action

Image via Davide Restivo on

While designing a short story unit for my AP English literature students this past August, I was eager to identify stories that acknowledged the environmental challenges that we are currently facing.  I’ve always had faith in literature’s ability to help us enter into an imaginative awareness of what others are going through, but I’m increasingly motivated to find stories that can help us articulate solutions for environmental degradation as we develop this capacity for empathy.  My choice of focus for my Moving Writers posts this year is environmental literacy and eco-activism.  For me, preparing students for the future means giving them the tools to plan for sustainable living.  Doing this with a sense of solution-oriented urgency means wading through the gloom-and-doom rhetoric and identifying those resources that connect our students with an understanding of how to mitigate harmful human impacts: now, ten years from now, twenty years from now.

Following the Water?

“I’m in over my head.”  “I’m going with the flow.”  “I’m just floating for now.”  Our relationship with water can be seen in our metaphoric expressions, but we know it on a biological level: it’s in our blood, tissues, bones, and organs.  In 2010, the General Assembly of the United Nations declared, “Safe and clean drinking water is a human right essential to the full enjoyment of life.”  It is critical for all living things on Earth; in the effort to locate other life in the universe, NASA has used a ‘follow the water’ strategy.

Following the water is easier said than done in Paolo Bacigalupi’s story, “The Tamarisk Hunter.”  Bacigalupi’s story introduces us to Lolo, a water bounty hunter, who makes a living searching for Tamarisk trees in the year 2030.  Tamarisks are one of the few remaining sources of water in the perpetually drought-stricken Southwestern desert, as water from the Colorado River is diverted to the wealthy elite in California.

In the introduction to the short story collection, I’m With the Bears: Short Stories from a Damaged Planet, environmentalist Bill McKibben describes stories such as Bacigalupi’s as representing a departure from most literary work:

“Instead of being consumed with the relationships between people, they increasingly take on the relationship between people and everything else.  On a stable planet, nature provided a background against which the human drama took place; on the unstable planet we’re creating, the background becomes the highest drama.”

This shift in focus, which foregrounds the environment as the principal element in the story, tilts the angle from which we usually view setting in my English classes.  We typically discuss setting as something that mirrors a character’s emotions or helps to establish the mood of a story.  Reading “The Tamarisk Hunter” was a rare opportunity to consider setting from the lens of environmental stewardship and ponder what it means to share water resources.  As we read the story, we thought about these questions:

How does the story orient us to understand human accountability to the environment?How do environmental stories help us understand accountability to each other?

Teaching for Transfer

Annotating with my students is one of my favorite parts of teaching.  In the virtual context, it has been just as enjoyable.  As we read passages of the story aloud, we asked ourselves, “What do I notice?  What do I wonder?”  This think-aloud strategy reliably teaches me how much I might overlook without the benefit of hearing my students’ noticings.

Some key student noticings:

  • Although the story depicts a futuristic society stricken by the challenge of trying to meet needs when water scarcity has changed everything, it did not seem like a far-off possibility.  
  • The bureaucratic decision-makers seemed ruthlessly calculating: by considering “how many cities, how many people they could evaporate at a time without making too much unrest,” they clearly were shutting off water access in a strategic, gradual manner so as to forestall protests.  
  • The word “evaporate” had a double meaning – it both suggested the disappearance of water-stressed cities while reminding us how water liquid can change into invisible vapor.

For me, this is the difficult juncture of teaching about human impact on the environment.  It’s not enough to learn about climate change; I want to leverage the ELA classroom as an incubator for environmental problem-solving.  How can ELA teachers help foster the type of cognitive flexibility needed to both problem-find and problem-solve?

I’ve been interested in learning more about transfer theory ever since reading Jennifer Fletcher’s Teaching Literature Rhetorically.  The ability to transfer learning to new tasks is key to being the type of adaptive thinker needed to problem-solve.  I encouraged my students to look for analogous real-life situations to better understand that the conflicts surrounding sharing and protecting water resources in “The Tamarisk Hunter” are not merely fictional and far-off.  In mid-September, The Los Angeles Times published an article about protests occurring in the state of Chihuahua in Northern Mexico, where drought conditions are taking a nightmarish toll. My students and I discussed Patrick J. McDonnell’s article “Mexicans lash out over water sent to U.S.”, which gave us insight into the protests surrounding a 1944 binational treaty that mandates U.S. water distribution to Mexico via the Colorado River and Mexican allocation to its northern neighbor via the Rio Grande.

By pairing the story with a non-fiction article, we could track similarities between the two and map correspondences.  Estrella’s homework organizer does a great job of showing details in the two texts that resemble each other:

On a Padlet board, my students further reflected on the similarities they noted, such as:

  • “Water is being moved around from place to place, often from a place that needs it the most”
  • “A government is manually cutting of water to certain groups of people”
  • “In both instances, the water ticks and the Chihuahua growers are doing cheap labor and are being mistreated by the higher classes”

Thinking about these texts side by side helped us better articulate the underlying problem: current water-sharing systems are inequitable and have to adjust for climate change impacts, but can’t be altered without dire political ramifications.  Our next step was to write a call to action that would educate an audience, not just about the conflicts arising over water-shared resources, but also about the need to cooperatively protect existing water sources locally.  The inspiration for our writing task came from Fletcher’s conference presentation, “Teaching for Transfer by Teaching Rhetorically,” heard at the virtual Mosaic Conference last month.  She introduced me to the process of rhetorical problem-solving:

Image via

This progression of questions is incredibly useful.  It helped my students repurpose prior knowledge for a new context, while guiding them to be mindful of the audience considerations they needed to make to be effective communicators when writing letters or making speeches.  We would follow these steps for rhetorical problem-solving with Measure W as our case study.

Place-Based Call to Action

Passed by Los Angeles County voters in 2018, Measure W created a special tax for modernizing water infrastructure so a better job could be done of capturing, cleaning, and storing storm water.  Students were tasked with 1) identifying the best way to communicate a message about protecting local water resources before the election, 2)  directing their message to the audience who is in the position to effect change on this matter, and 3) referring to “The Tamarisk Hunter” and the Los Angeles Times article as they communicate the action they want their audience to take and explain why now is the right time to act.

Student Exit Ticket

The Measure W calls to action produced by my students powerfully illuminated the county’s need for modernizing water collection, protection, and storage.  As seen below, the ending to my student Melissa’s letter sensitively communicates the overlay of considerations – it isn’t just a “geographic” issue:

The story shows what happens at the end of this path of destruction and that the protests in Chihuahua, Mexico, against giving the U.S. water, is only the beginning. This is as much as a social and political problem as it is a geographic one. The government is limited or limits itself as to how much it will help so it is up to us as citizens in this county to hold our own. We can prevent the end, which is Paolo Bacigalupi’s “The Tamarisk Hunter,” and the path we’re so close to getting on, which is the drought of Chihuahua, Mexico. Change begins with us.

Writing a call to action after reading about drought-stricken environments was challenging, but it stretched students to transfer knowledge to a new context while exhorting an audience to vote in the collective interest.  It involved mental toggling between three settings, with recognition of the fact that the environment is changing and responsible human stewardship is needed.


What environmental texts are you bringing into the classroom this year?  How do you teach for transfer?  Share your reflections in the comments below or find me on Twitter @dispatches_b222.

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