Using Effective, Amusing Writing as a Model

Lesson 4 for Help! My Father Is Coming! and The Visit to Vijay's

Students will use the author's writing as a model to achieve vivid description and engaging humor in compositions of their own.

About the Story

"Help! My Father Is Coming!" and "The Visit to Vijay's" are excerpted from Chapters One and Six, respectively, of Jim Toner's memoir, Serendib.

Toner's book is an engaging story of how a largely estranged father and son came to understand, accept, and respect each other under the most unlikely of circumstances. The curmudgeonly, elderly judge from Cleveland, Ohio, had never been out of the country and appeared ill-prepared to visit the rural parts of a land where he would be besieged by flies and all sorts of imagined crawling dangers, as well as no electricity or running water, no plumbing, and the ravages of a civil war. Nevertheless, he adjusts to cultural mores remarkably different from his own during the course of his monthlong visit.

About the Setting

Serendib, or Serendip, is the name by which Sri Lanka was known centuries ago. The name is the source for the word "serendipity," which means the accidental finding of something good. The country was subsequently named Ceylon. First under Portuguese influence in the 16th century, then under Dutch influence in the 17th century, the country became a British colony around the beginning of the 19th century. It gained independence in 1948.

Sri Lanka is an island about 270 miles from north to south, and 140 miles from east to west, some 18 miles off the southeast coast of India. Largely flat or with rolling hills, Sri Lanka has high mountains in the south-central region of the island. Its exports are mostly agricultural, consisting of tea, rubber, and coconuts.

Sri Lanka, with a current population of just under 20 million, experienced many years of conflict between the minority Hindu Tamils, of the north and east, and the majority Buddhist Sinhalese. The Tamils were fighting for independence. That long-standing struggle was exacerbated in the late 1980s by infighting among the Sinhalese. A cease fire and efforts at an enduring peace are under way today.

Greetings in Sri Lanka are an important ritual. Toner writes that when he encountered his father at the airport, "Before I knew what to do, before I knew if I should shake his hand or embrace him or hoist him onto my shoulders, I pressed my palms together beneath my chin and said, 'Ayubowan, Dad.' Cindy smoothed down his wild hair and explained that ayubowan is the Sri Lankan welcome. 'It means that the god in me is greeting the god in you,' [she said]." (Ayubowan is the greeting used by the majority Sinhalese population. The minority Tamils use the greeting wanacome.)

Vijay, who features in the second selection, is a native of Sri Lanka, a member of the minority Tamil population, and a close friend of the author's.

Peace Corps programs in Sri Lanka have been active, on and off, since 1962. They have focused on English language improvement, agricultural and environmental projects, education and teacher training, and youth work projects.


To examine the ways a writer can capture and hold a reader's attention
To write a short personal narrative using some of the techniques Toner used as a model


  • Sinhalese: [sin-ha-LEEZ] A member of the majority ethnic group of Sri Lanka. The Sinhalese make up about 74 percent of the population.
  • Wanacome: An important Tamil greeting in Sri Lanka, which means "the god in me welcomes the god in you"
  • Ayubowan: An important Sinhalese greeting
  • Mesmerized: Awestruck; spellbound; captivated
  • Skewer: To pierce with a long pin or object
  • Sari: A style of dress—a long piece of cloth wrapped around the body and draped over the shoulder—worn by women in India, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan
  • Sinhala: [sin-HAH-luh] The official language of Sri Lanka, spoken by the Sinhalese
  • Tea plantation children: Children whose parents work as tea-pickers (who earn little money)
  • Demigod: A godlike person
  • Splay: To spread apart
  • Wadee: A hamburger-sized clump of fried lentils or beans
  • Betel: The betel palm bears a fruit called the betel nut, which many people in Southeast Asia chew for its mild stimulant effect
  • Brain drain: The departure of experts from a country, often through emigration
  • Ablutions: [ab-LOO-shuns] The washing of the body
  • Martyr: [MAR-tur] A person who chooses to suffer (or die) for a cause
  • Rupee: Local money
  • Ramayana: an influential epic poem important in Indian culture
  • Krishna: An important god in the Hindu religion
  • Sanctity: Holiness
  • Lemon grass: A coarse, tall grass that smells like lemon and is often used in Southeast Asian cooking
  • Tamil: [TAM-uhl] A member of Sri Lanka's largest minority ethnic group. Tamils make up about 18 percent of the population. 


  1. Ask students how Toner captured and held their attention in his story. Give them time to examine the story and respond with detailed examples. Students will probably focus on the following techniques, among others:
    • The lead sentence, "I didn't invite him," is short, punchy, and intriguing, all at the same time. Who wasn't invited? Why not?
    • Liberal use of dialogue lends immediacy to the characters. Rather than describing his father, Toner lets his father talk, and we learn what he's like from apparent firsthand experience.
    • Description is rich and vivid, and makes use of similes. For example, Toner writes, "lemon grass as tall as our eyes." That conveys information much more evocatively than saying the grass was more than five feet tall.
    • Toner's imagery is exact. Describing Vijay's sisters sitting in a row, one behind the other, the author writes, simply, that they were "sitting toboggan-style.
  1. Discuss with students in what ways Toner's writing is humorous. Can students identify some of the particular ways Toner achieved these effects? [Toner uses hyperbole and sarcasm to add humor to his story.] Ask students to select a scene they thought particularly funny in "The Visit to Vijay's" and study it in depth. Have them note in the margins how Toner structured his writing—his description, his use of dialogue, for example. Have them underline places where Toner used hyperbole or sarcasm to make the scene even more humorous. Then allow the students to share their observations in a class discussion.
  2. Ask students to write a first draft of a brief personal narrative. Have them try to incorporate as many of the devices Toner used to capture and hold his readers' attention. Point out that one way to become a better writer is to model one's writing on the works of an author you admire.
  3. To provide students with further guidance in drafting their personal narratives, you might consult author Nancie Atwell's checklist "Qualities of a Memoir That Works" (Atwell, 2002, page 100).
  4. For homework, have students draft their narratives. When they return to class, students should pair up and review one another's papers. Remind them to use Toner's techniques as criteria for their feedback.
  5. Journal Activity. Conclude the study of "The Visit to Vijay's" by asking students to respond in their journals to the following prompts:
    • As a result of reading this story, I learned that when people from different cultures meet, ...
    • As a result of reading this story, this is what I became aware of about how good writers write:
    • Reading this story has made me want to know more about ...

Enduring Understandings

  • Understanding and respecting the customs of another culture requires flexibility, compromise, sensitivity, and hard work.
  • Effective writing can serve as an example for learning how to write well.

Essential questions

  • How flexible do you think you would be in another culture?
  • What can one gain from being open to people or customs that, at first, seem strange?
  • How can existing writing serve to improve one' s own writing?


English Standards: 1, 3, 6
Social Studies Standard: IX
National Geography Standards: 4, 10
For more information on the standards in Uncommon Journeys, see the Appendix (pdf—160 KB, linked to above).

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