written by: Peter Boysen
• edited by: Trent Lorcher
• updated: 2/19/2014
This is a lesson plan to help you with teaching John Updike's very first short story to a high school English class. It is beneficial to connect your students to the text for them to really take interest in the story for a better learning experience and a better teaching experience.
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Connecting Your Students to the Text
You may have Ace Andersons in your class right now -- talented athletes who have been the fastest, tallest, or strongest as long as they
can remember. They can't yet envision a time when they will not be able to play their sport, even though most of them will not play in college, and the numbers that make it into the professional leagues are infinitesimally small.
Ask your students to envision a day in their lives at age 23. Or 26. Have them answer in a whole-group setting, or have them pair up and discuss among themselves. Many of your students may have specific plans; others will get a blank stare in their eyes.
This may be the most challenging part of your lesson plan. John Updike, even in his earliest stories, was an artisan when it came to syntax, diction, and detail.
For syntax, have your students look at the first paragraph, specifically focusing on the quick rhythm of the sentences. There is some sort of separation between clauses and phrases (periods and commas) every four or five words, with a few exceptions. Ask your students why the author might have chosen to write the paragraph that way.
Syntax and mood have a close connection. Ace Anderson got fired from his job today because he wrecked a car he was moving for his boss. It's not his first time getting fired -- in fact, he's felt just about no success at all since he finished high school. He gets in the car, lights up a cigarette, and blasts the radio; only then does he feel better about things. The nicotine and the music speed up his mind -- start an adrenaline rush that he's not felt that entire day, and the quick pacing of the first paragraph reflects the fast heartbeat that goes with desperation, anger, and fear.
For diction, there are many examples. Look at the paragraph that starts, "A key scratched at the door lock." There are many ways to announce someone's arrival home, but to have the key do it is a perfect example of one rule of storytelling: show, don't tell. The scratch suggests Evey's weariness after a day at work, her uncertainty about her long-term prospects with Ace, and possibly Ace's own nervousness about the arrival of his wife. After all, he has to tell her he's lost his job. He hears her heels clicking into the front room with that same anxiety. These two diction choices heighten the suspense.
Detail is closely related to diction, but there are some images that tell the reader a lot about the people in this situation. When Ace picks up his daughter, she's wrapped in a blue blanket -- a color normally associated with boys -- at her grandmother's house. This isn't behavior that one typically associates with loving, doting grandparents. Having Ace decide to run the half-block home, instead of driving, may seem minor, but it tells volumes about his unsatisfied levels of energy, his general anxiety, and his poor decision-making (he carries his infant daughter "like a football" while running home). One could view this as a microcosm for Ace's current situation.
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The first two activities should fill all of the time you need for a 45-minute lesson plan. "Ace in the Hole" opens itself to quite a few creative responses, which you could have students do on subsequent class days or as homework.
1. What happens after the song ends? Write the next paragraph of this story. How does Evey respond? Be sure to be able to tell your class why you made the choices you did for her next action.
2. Describe the events leading up to Ace's firing from his boss' point of view. What is his opinion of Ace? Be sure to work that into your narration.
3. What do you think Ace and Evey look like? Draw sketches of them, using details from the story and from what you can guess from their personalities.