Teaching Literary Elements: Conflict

September 01, 2017

Conflict is a term I introduce while teaching plot, but then spend a week diving into the difference between internal and external as well as the different types of external conflicts a character can face. Whether you are teaching these as new concepts for your students, diving in deeper, or just reviewing the basics, read on to find activities and resources that will benefit all levels of students.
Conflict is a term I introduce while teaching plot, but then spend a week diving into the difference between internal and external as well as the different types of external conflicts a character can face. Whether you are teaching these as new concepts for your students, diving in deeper, or just reviewing the basics, you'll find activities and resources below that will benefit all levels of students.

Terms to Teach
At the start of my teaching career, I taught primarily ninth grade students at an urban, Title 1 high school. My students came from a variety of K-8 schools, which meant they came with varying English Language Arts experiences. To ensure that all of my students started high school with a strong foundation in the literary elements, I found it best to give direct instruction followed by ample opportunities to apply terms and practice skills.

During my direct instruction, I introduced students to the following terms: internal and external conflict and person versus self, person, society, and nature. I may mention person versus fate/God, the supernatural, and technology, but focus more on the three main types of external conflict. Many of my students were unaccustomed to taking notes so I provided them with a guided note taking template. This three column sheet provided a structured space for the term, definition, and examples.

Activities for Reinforcement
Before applying these newly learned terms to a short story or novel, I like to give my students opportunities to practice using shorter texts or media. For conflict, using short video clips provides great visual reinforcement. I have collected examples of person versus self, person, society, and nature in this playlist. I play a few and have students identify whether the conflict is internal or external, the two forces in conflict, and whether it is an example of person versus self, person, society, or nature.

Another way I reinforce the types of conflict is by using a menu of activities based on Bloom's Taxonomy. Students choose activities from four different section of the menu: knowledge and comprehension, application and analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. Students examine short text examples of different types of conflict and can use their knowledge to complete tasks such as creating an informational poster offering ways for students to deal with internal and external conflicts.

If I have students who are still struggling to identify the different types of conflict after a few practice opportunities, I pull them into a small group and do some "drill and kill" with these free conflict practice handouts. In a small group, I can get a better understanding of where the root of their confusion is and give them immediate feedback as they work through a series of examples.

Incorporating Movement and Hands-on Activities
One year I taught at an all boys school so giving them opportunities to move around and get some of that energy out was a must. Using stations focused on conflict and characterization is one way I did that. I pushed together desks, but you can also use tables, to set up six stations around the room. At each station, students completed activities such as matching terms and definitions and categorizing types of conflict. Because all of the station activities involve matching, sorting, or sequencing, they are easy to check and offer feedback to students on their mistakes.

Another way to incorporate movement is having students act out different types of conflicts and have other students identify whether the conflict is internal or external, the two forces in conflict, and whether it is an example of person versus self, person, society, or nature. To make it more challenging you can do this like charades and not allow students to talk during their skit.

Texts to Read
Conflict is a central part of any story since, as I tell my students, without conflict, nothing exciting would ever happen! My favorite short stories to use when teaching conflict are: "Thank You M'am" by Langston Hughes and "The Lady or the Tiger?" by Frank Stockton. Both of these pieces have several different types of conflict, which allows students multiple opportunities for analysis.
In "Thank You M'am," the main character Roger attempts to rob an older woman, Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones, but things turn out much differently than he or the reader expects. His conflict is against Mrs. Jones just as much as it is with himself. In "The Lady or the Tiger?" a princess must decide whether her lover will be married off to another woman or mauled to death by a tiger because her father, the king, disapproves of her relationship with a commoner. The ambiguous ending drives students crazy; they can't believe that there isn't more to the story.

Creative Application
Once students seem comfortable with the terms or if students need a challenge, I introduce students to a digital breakout, "Conflict Resolution Specialist" for additional practice. A digital breakout is an online scavenger hunt-like game where players use teamwork and critical thinking to solve a series of challenging puzzles in order to open a series of locks.

In this breakout, students are applying for a position as a conflict resolution specialist for a prestigious company. Since the initial interview went great, they've been called back for a final test of their conflict skills. They have to interact with a variety of text and media to solve a series of puzzles and prove they are a perfect fit for the job.

In addition to needing content knowledge to successfully complete the game, breakouts require students to think critically, communicate, collaborate, and use creativity. I also love breakouts because they provide students with many opportunities to fail and try again. Every unsuccessful attempt to open a lock forces them to reexamine their information and their thinking.

Assessment
While many of the activities described above allow students to show their understanding of skills and terms, as a summative assessment I use a set of text-based assessments, each with a reading passage and 10 multiple choice questions, to assess my students’ knowledge of conflict. The variety of passages and text complexity levels allows me to retest students as needed and make accommodations for struggling readers. The variety was also helpful in the years that I had classes whose eyes tended to wander during quizzes or tests.

You can find all of my resources for teaching conflict here.

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