Building a Story Within a Story

From FUTURESTATES collection, lesson plan 12 of 13

Audience: This lesson is designed for high school students of all ability levels.

Duration: This lesson will take 2-3 days, depending on the class.

Summary of the Lesson: This lesson focuses on the narrative techniques of a frame story. Extension activities invite students to write their own frame stories and to research tent cities of the Depression era and of today.

National Educational Standards: This lesson addresses the following Common Core Standards in literature:

For grades 9-10
Analyze how an author’s choices concerning how to structure a text, order events within it (e.g., parallel plots), and manipulate time (e.g., pacing, flashbacks) create such effects as mystery, tension, or surprise.

For grades 11-12
Analyze how an author’s choices concerning how to structure specific parts of a text (e.g., the choice of where to begin or end a story, the choice to provide a comedic or tragic resolution) contribute to its overall structure and meaning as well as its aesthetic impact.

Curricula Writer: Carla Beard teaches high school English in Indiana. She often presents at NCTE and has served as Teacher in Residence for the Indiana Department of Education, where she helped teachers integrate technology into their classrooms. She maintains Web English Teacher, a web-based resource for English Language Arts teachers.


Teacher Preparation

  • Preview the film, which is a little over 17 minutes long, not counting the credits.
  • Read the synopsis and watch the film The Making of Tent City. The comments in “The Making of Tent City” will help the viewer understand the writer/director’s intent.
  • Set up web access to view the film online.
  • Have a projector available so that all students can view the film.
  • For the introduction, bring a small, empty picture frame and a large picture, poster, or map.

Objective: Students will analyze the effect of parallels identified in the two plots of Tent City.

Lesson Structure

Introduction to the concept of a frame story (5-10 minutes)
Direct students’ attention to a large picture, poster, or map. Hold up the smaller frame in front of the larger picture. Ask students, “If I put this frame right here, what happens, at least for a moment, to your attention?” Students should respond that the frame causes them to focus mostly on the framed section of the picture. Help students reach the conclusion that the frame’s purpose is to draw attention to what is inside it.

If students are not already familiar with the concept of a frame story, take a moment to explain it to them. Explain that this is an ancient storytelling technique. The purpose of the outer story is usually to introduce the inner story, which is the more important plot. Some stories, however, establish a narrative tension so that the outer and inner stories influence one another. That is the case with the story for today.

Pre-viewing activity (15-20 minutes)
Divide the class into small groups and give each group one set of questions (below) to discuss. After 5-10 minutes, ask them to share their thoughts with the whole group.

  • When people lose their homes in your community, where do they go? How do they cope? Does anyone try to help them?
  • Sometimes young people notice aspects of a situation that older people don’t see. If you disagreed with a major decision your parents were making, how might you approach them?
  • What can people realistically do when corporations act illegally or when their actions are legal but have a negative impact on a community?

Middle (about 50 minutes)
Distribute the Tent City viewing guide. Explain to students that you will show the film twice. Prior to the first viewing, ask students to just watch the film to understand what is happening. They will not be expected to analyze the film until they see it a second time.

After showing the film the first time, allow a couple of minutes for comments or for questions about anything students did not understand.

Explain that students should take notes using the viewing guide as they watch the film a second time. Because it can be difficult to watch and take notes at the same time, they might want to divide up the work with a partner.

Then show the film a second time. When it is finished, give students a few minutes to complete their graphic organizers and compare answers. Then engage students with the post-viewing discussion questions (see Teacher’s Guide):

  • When Matthew said that he had no choice, was he making excuses, like Ivan said, or was he seeing a bigger picture that a child can’t see?
  • Do you agree with the family’s decision? Why or why not?
  • Would you have made the same decision for your family?
  • What do you think Tent City will be like? How will people treat Matthew and his family when they move into the Tent City?
  • At what point did you guess that the story would end the way it did?
  • The director chose to use black-and-white photographs for the inner story. How does this affect the telling of the inner story? What does this add to the overall narrative?
  • What elements of the inner story highlighted or emphasized the conflicts that were taking place in the outer story?

End (Time determined by needs of the class)
Invite students to respond creatively to one of the following scenarios by developing and presenting a digital story. Encourage them to use the frame story narrative technique.

  • Tent City continues to grow. It develops problems with crime, sanitation, and chronic unemployment. What happens to Ivan and his family?
  • Tent City continues to grow, and eventually the people of Tent City become the largest block of voters in the city. They want programs to help them get back into their homes. City Council, however, is strongly influenced by Zone Bank, which wants the houses vacant. What happens next?
  • Ivan and his family are still living in Tent City when he graduates from high school. Does he have any regrets? What will he do after high school?
  • After Mr. X fell into the city’s water supply, things happened just the way the president of InkaZone planned: there was an epidemic, and the company made billions of dollars selling the only available cure. Did the company get away with it?
  • Someone fished Mr. X out of the reservoir and repaired and re-activated him. What happened next?

Suggested Assessments
Teachers may wish to use one of the following sites to assist in developing a rubric to assess student work:

Additional Resources
Other titles that use the frame story device:

  • The Panchatantra (collection of short stories from India)
  • The Canterbury Tales by Chaucer
  • The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County by Mark Twain
  • “Alice’s Restaurant” (song) by Arlo Guthrie
  • The Princess Bride by William Goldman


  • Investigate and analyze predictions for Tent City as posted on the FUTURESTATES Predict-O-Meter.
  • Formulate and post their prediction on the FUTURESTATES Predict-O-Meter site.

Beginning (5-7 minutes)
Reactivate prior knowledge by reviewing discussions related to the film.

Middle (30-35 minutes)
Students will investigate predictions as presented on the Predict-O-Meter located on the FUTURESTATES website. After selecting and evaluating three of the predictions using the evaluation rubric, students will develop at least one prediction to post on the website. The proposed prediction will be evaluated by a peer and approved by the instructor before posting. The predictions may alter the course projected in the Predict- O-Meter predictions. Students may require an example of a valid prediction. Using the rubric to instruct the students, prepare a sample prediction and lead the class in an analysis of the statement. The following is an example of a proposed prediction and the evaluation of it using the prepared rubric.

Proposed prediction: “In 2030, census data reveals that 50% of the urban population lives in tent cities.”

  • Is the prediction based on realistic possibilities? Yes. Tent cities are growing, and the economic recovery is very slow.
  • Do the consequences of the prediction support the film? Yes. The tent city is growing in the film.
  • Do known events in the past support the prediction? Yes. We can look to the Hoovervilles of the Great Depression as support.
  • Is this prediction plausible? This is the evaluator’s opinion based on the evidence presented in defense of the prediction.
  • Film module:
    Tent City
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