Imagined Realities: Short Story Writing with Middle and High School Students

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Imagined Realities: Short Story Writing with Middle and High School Students

 

Amanda Smith



 

As a college student earning my B.A. in Creative Writing, I spent several years fussing over characters I created like they were immediate family members, wondering what they would wear to work, why they would choose that tie. I lived the characters. I shared my characters, chapters, and short stories with peers during workshops as we sat around a table in a windowless room, never truly thinking about how I was learning to develop skills as a writer.  Flash forward to the present, and I am desperately trying to crack my cranium to understand what I did when I wrote, wondering how on earth I could explain it to middle and high school students. Novelist Anne Bernays expresses a similar stupefaction: “Nothing I had done before—editing a magazine, publishing five novels—prepared me for trying to explain how I’d done it or, more daunting still, to translate what I worked at every day into curriculum” (23).

 

Embarking upon research, I secretly hoped I would discover some sort of recipe that I could distribute to students about how to write fiction. Two cups plot, one cup character, three tablespoons dialogue, a dash of detail, bake until golden brown. But, of course, there is no such recipe. And even if I had one in my back pocket to copy and distribute on 3 x 5 cards to students, no formula could capture the essence of what makes fiction tick. Teaching fiction writing is nowhere near an exact science, but there are things we can do to make the experience exciting and worthwhile to students. Short stories provide the perfect medium for students to learn and explore fiction writing. Heather Lattimer, teacher and author of Thinking Through Genre, points out that, “because [short stories] are short, they are often more focused on a single main character and a single conflict [than a novel is]” (159); this makes them ideal for students to read and write. 



 

Playing Around: Why Students Need to Write Short Stories

As I suggest teaching fiction writing to secondary students, I am aware that I will inevitably come nose to nose with skeptics who consider it to be nothing more than fun and games. They will ask, why teach students to write stories when we can be instructing them in more useful, more sophisticated forms like the argumentative essay or perhaps the research paper? How on earth will writing fiction prepare students for the Regents exam? For college? I will push the skeptics aside for a moment to allow you to look closely at what fiction writing has to offer. You will see that it is far from “frilly and unrigorous playtime.” As Randy Bomer notes in his book, Time for Meaning, it provides students with “a hard rehearsal of valuable habits of mind” (137).

 

To quell the concerns of critics, I will begin by examining the academic values tied to fiction writing. In “The Gold Standard: Defending Creative Writing in the Classroom,” practicing teacher Christopher Hood explores how fiction writing “teaches contextual thinking” (27). When students write short stories, they utilize many of the skills they will continue to develop in more traditional writing assignments. Fiction writers tap into “grammar, syntax, [and] vocabulary” skills in the process of “finding a voice and communicating to a reader” (Hood 27). Consider the skills necessary to write a “critical lens” essay on the Regents exam. To earn a top score on a Regents essay, a student must develop her ideas fully and clearly, use precise and engaging language, maintain focus and direction, and show control of spelling and grammar conventions. Good fiction also includes fully developed ideas, language that captures and maintains the interest of readers, a sense of direction, and demonstrates understanding of conventions. If fiction writing can help students develop and practice the same important skills they need to write in other genres, why not teach it?



           

Teachers often struggle to justify the value of writing to students. Since many young people prefer watching television to picking up a pen, it is no surprise that writing does not matter to them. But when you ask them to write short stories, you invite them to write about something that matters. The characters they bring to life on the page, the authentic conflicts they explore, the ways their characters respond to these conflicts—all of these basic short story elements allow students to bring their own purposes and meanings to what they write. Students can create characters that have concerns and face conflicts similar to those they experience, making characters seem more real. When students relate closely to their characters, they will invest in what happens to them; this will help them write an engaging story that readers will also be invested in.

 

The ideas, issues, and discussions that spring forth from the short stories students write are valuable to every member of the class. Relationships, the pressure to fit in, violence, substance abuse, self-image, and the future are some of the concerns that weigh heavily on the minds of many students. Fiction writing provides them with the freedom to explore these topics, among others, and express their feelings and opinions about them. Since most students have similar concerns about these topics, short stories that address these concerns give students a medium with which to communicate to each other. Sharing their fiction allows them to discuss, negotiate, and debate issues that matter to them. In “Telling Stories Is True Writing,” high school English teacher Michael McClure suggests that “letting [these issues] emerge from the class response to a student’s story” allows both “writer and audience [to] feel more greatly invested in the meanings so discovered; the issues become theirs instead of merely an agenda I impose on them” (94). Short story writing fosters a sense of ownership in students; the act of writing is no longer just an assignment but a way for students to communicate about issues that matter in their lives with passion and purpose.



 

Short story writing can help students express their own concerns and relate to each other, but it also helps them see the world through perspectives different from their own. It gives them a chance to connect to and understand new realities and possibilities. When imagining a character, a fiction writer steps outside of herself and sees the world from that character’s perspective. Even if a writer can sympathize with or understand the character’s problems or conflicts, she must discover the unique ways the character responds to obstacles. Creating a fictional character gives young people, who often look no further than their own problems and concerns, the opportunity to open their minds to new ways of thinking and seeing life.  Put simply, creating characters helps students build character personally. As Bomer suggests, “If [students] imagine a world through the eyes of someone who is not themselves in constructing a story, there’s a chance they may be a little less likely to see other human beings as objects or stereotypes” (137). When we encourage students to imagine new perspectives through fiction writing, we foster a kind of growth that transcends mere academics. We challenge them to become considerate, open-minded adults.

 

Getting students to open their minds to new perspectives may sound like hard work—it is. But, in the midst of such hard work, students may (gasp) find short story writing to be fun.  Keep in mind that if students are having fun writing, they just might work even harder and be more invested in writing. McClure acknowledges the value of fun in the classroom, citing the theories of Vygotsky that link play to hard work. He suggests that “Stories can often be play for students—not only in the act of writing, but in response group work, in class presentations, in publication, and in discussion of imbedded meanings and implications” (95). Teachers who introduce and explore the craft of fiction writing with their students might uncover one of the most effective ways to encourage students to become enthusiastic writers.


 

It’s a Story That’s Short…Right?

 Before teaching short story writing, we need to be sure of what we mean when we refer to the form. Certainly, we have read short stories, but can we give students a quick and easy definition of short story that they can record in their trusty notebooks? A glance at the entry for short story in NTC’s Dictionary of Literary Terms shows us that we might not find a convenient, thrifty definition. The entry evokes a sense of ambiguity, noting that “the tremendous diversity of the short story prevents a strict, universally applicable description of the genre” (202). Take, for instance, the issue of length; the range identified by the dictionary as characteristic of short story is “from about 500 words (a “short short story”) to about 15,000 words” (201).

 

Are there any characteristics unique to the genre? Though the dictionary emphasizes the lack of uniformity across the genre, it points to several general characteristics, namely the inclusion of “a very few characters, a single setting, and a single incident” (201). But these elements are not required criteria. In an attempt to distinguish the short story from its longer sibling, the novel, the NTC dictionary notes that the two forms “share most of the same elements and techniques, but the short story reveals character, usually by means of a single central and representative incident, whereas the novel traces the development of character through a series of incidents over a span of time” (202). So, a major distinction of short stories is their narrow focus on one character and one major conflict.


 

The historical origins of the short story are as broad and inclusive as the characteristics of the genre. The NTC Dictionary identifies the following historical roots of short story:

During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, storytelling took the forms of beast fables, exempla, folktales, and chivalric romances… It was not, however, until the nineteenth century that the modern short story emerged as a distinct genre in the works of such writers as Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Poe, Prosper Merimee, Honore de Balzac, Guy de Maupassant, Anton Chekhov, E.T.A. Hoffman, and Sarah Orne Jewett. During the twentieth century, the form has greatly varied, refined, and extended by such modern masters as O. Henry, Katherine Mansfield, Rudyard Kipling, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Flannery O’Connor, and John Cheever, among many others. (201)

 

If we turn to a published writer of fiction for more clarification, we find even more questions. Novelist, critic, and essayist Francine Prose explores the ambiguities of the short story form in her essay, “What Makes a Short Story?” and offers a piece of advice: instead of trying to define the short story, read extensively, thoroughly, and frequently. She says that, “by reading many and varied examples, we develop an almost instinctive sense of what a short story is, so that when we read one we recognize it, just as we recognize our own instincts and emotions” (12). Reading is the stepping stone to introducing students to short story writing.


Reading to Write

You cannot expect your students to write engaging, complex, and creative short stories if you have not introduced them to engaging, complex, and creative short stories. Reading—and rereading—short stories is the first step students must take to begin thinking like writers. Without this experience, students are left to draw what they write and how they write from the genres with which they are already acquainted: television, movies, and video games. As Karen Jorgensen points out, the short stories students produce directly reflect their knowledge of these genres, often resulting in action-driven narratives with one-dimensional characters built on stereotypes (5). Put simply, these stories are far from anything we would like to read.

 

Begin the study of short stories by exposing students to examples of the genre. In her groundbreaking book, In the Middle, Nancie Atwell suggests reading stories aloud so students can “hear how writers used the short form” (396). Bomer advocates selecting several high-interest “touchstone” short stories for the class to read together to develop a collective understanding of the “values and craft” found in good fiction (138). You need not be stifled by time constraints because most short stories are just that, short. In a class period, students can read the touchstone short stories as cohesive texts and reread them to uncover embedded layers of meaning that they may have overlooked or did not fully understand the first time they read them.


 

When selecting the short stories, choose texts that will benefit fledgling short story writers. Alleen Pace Nilsen, a professor of English and former co-editor of English Journal, supports the use of Young Adult (YA) short stories as springboards for reading workshops. Nielsen notes that, because “the problems in the books are likely to be ones that readers or their friends have experienced or thought about” and “most YA authors write in a succinct and straight-forward style,” among other reasons, YA short stories “can provide teens with inspiration and models to follow” (81). Since many published YA short stories resemble short stories that your students may produce, they make great models that students can refer to throughout the writing process. The characters in YA short stories are usually adolescents with traits, interests, and concerns similar to students’: basketball players who are trying to make the varsity team, eager sixteen year-olds yearning to pass driving tests and get first cars, high school seniors trying to reconcile their own hopes for the future with the hopes their parents have for them. A student might write a short story inspired by a time he considered telling a lie to get something he wanted after reading Gary Soto’s “The No-Guitar Blues,” a YA short story in which the main character, Fausto, tells a lie and lets the guilt he feels motivate him to make a change. When students read about characters with which they can identify in YA short stories, they see that the experience and knowledge they have as people can help them write interesting, meaningful fiction. See Appendix A for a list of suggested YA short story collections will serve as models and touchstone texts.

 


Character, Character, Character

Reading short stories can show students what can work and give them taste of what they can do in their own writing, but they must do more than read. You must teach them how to read like fiction writers.  Consider the follow conversation I heard during my fieldwork in an eighth-grade classroom. It demonstrates some of the common problems students have when they think about characters in short stories. 

 

“What do we know about Roger?” Mr. Henderson [1] asks a roomful of antsy students. A mere nanosecond passes and eager hands shoot into the air, fingers waving energetically.



“He’s a boy,” Lauren says confidently.

“And he’s poor.”

“Jimmy’s a thief!” another student shouts before being called on.

 

As a new observer of Mr. Henderson’s class, I am overwhelmed by the students’ enthusiasm for Langston Hughes’ short story, “Thank You, M’am.” I imagined some students would be disengaged and bored; perhaps a few would daydream, gazing out the window at the pastoral delight that rests just beyond the football field behind the school. But there are no daydreamers here. While any teacher would be happy to have such willing and active students, there is something missing here. No matter how bright-eyed and eager these students seem to be, their discussion of Roger is, well, flat and uninspired. Inaccurate? Not entirely. Incomplete? Without a doubt. If you try to incarnate Roger, the main character of “Thank You, M’am,” simply based on what the students have said, you end up with a one-dimensional, cardboard cutout. Roger becomes a miscreant who steals with no clear motivation to commit crime other than the fact that he seems poor.


 

How can you help students inject life into their discussions of characters? How can Mr. Henderson transform his students’ perception of Roger from a paper-thin, unremarkable character to the complex, round individual he is? Heather Lattimer suggests several ways to get students to look beyond superficial aspects of characters and to inspire them to think deeply and critically about characters, which will ultimately help them create and develop characters in their own work. Begin by teaching students the value of making inferences while they read short stories. When readers infer things about characters based on textual evidence, they get clues that reveal more about who characters are as people. To introduce students to this concept, model the ways you make inferences when you read short stories. Lattimer suggests turning to an excerpt from a touchstone text, placing it on a transparency on an overhead projector for the entire class to see. After reading the passage aloud, demonstrate to students how to generate inferences that will result in a more complex understanding of a character by explaining what you can infer about the character, what in the text led you to that inference, and how the text evidence supports the inference (Lattimer 165). To reinforce visually students’ comprehension of this process, write your inferences beside the textual evidence you find in the story to show how you support your ideas. Had Mr. Henderson done this with “Thank You, M’am,” his students would have learned to look for clues in the text to determine important characteristics about Roger aside from the obvious. He could have highlighted the passage of dialogue from the story where Roger says, “There’s nobody home at my house,” and inferred that Roger gets little support or supervision from his family, which might have inspired him to hit the streets and steal. This kind of inference can lead students to a deeper understanding of the character and his motivations.  After modeling this process to students several times, have them practice doing the same as a class and individually. As students examine the text closely to make inferences, the observations they make about characters will be far more insightful and complex than those they initially made.

 

After students have practiced making inferences about characters, introduce them to reader-character conversations. Show them how to talk to a character by asking questions. As Lattimer points out, an “interior conversation between a reader and a character would not only enliven the story and bring the characters to life, but would also support students’ understanding of characters and their perspectives” (166-7). Get your students to generate questions that probe into the inner consciousness of the character. Mr. Henderson’s students could have asked Roger the following questions to find out more about him and who he is: How did you feel when Mrs. Jones asked you if you were ashamed of yourself? Where is your family when you are out on the streets? What was it like walking into Mrs. Jones’ home? Were you nervous? Why did you frown when Mrs. Jones said that she was once young and wanted things she couldn’t get? Did you buy the blue suede shoes you wanted after Mrs. Jones gave you the money? Did you want them as much as you did before? Demonstrate the questioning process as you did for the lesson on inference so students have a clear idea of what they need to do.


 

Once students have generated several good questions, have them answer these questions by assuming the character’s perspective. Tell them that this activity is one of the most useful in learning to understand a character deeply. To answer their own questions about the character, they must crawl into the character’s skin, walk in the character’s shoes; they must become the character. When they do this, they achieve one of your underlying objectives for having them read short stories prior to writing their own; they are thinking like writers. As you encourage students to assume the character’s perspective and provide thoughtful responses to their own questions, remember to direct students to specific textual evidence for support (Lattimer 170). Without support from the text, students might be tempted to rely on speculation in forming their replies instead of closely reading for truth on the printed page, something good readers always do.

 

All this talk of reading short stories, of searching for deeper meanings within characters, and you have yet to tell students to begin writing their own. As I have suggested, teaching students to read and understand characters is crucial to master before they can imagine writing short stories. Learning to make inferences and engaging in a dialogue between reader and character through questioning and answering are all effective ways you can arm students with tools they need to approach short story writing.



 

Picking Up the Pen…to Brainstorm

Before you can expect students to draft a sentence, teach them to generate and develop ideas. One of your greatest responsibilities when teaching short story writing is to guide students through a meaningful planning process to foster these ideas.  Just as the reading workshop focused on understanding characters, the best way to introduce students to the prospect of writing short stories is to continue focusing on characters. Since so many practicing teachers, researchers, and authors agree that character should come first, begin here. 

 

Collaborate with your students to create a character as a model for what they will do independently as they imagine characters for their short stories. Have students work together to select a name for the character and determine characteristics such as age, gender, family information, and likes and dislikes. Students will dig deeper into the character they have created, developing ideas of what the character fears and worries about, what he is proud of, what relationships he has with family and friends, and other issues that concern him (Lattimer 179-80). This collaborative model will ease them into the challenge, alleviating some of the intimidation many students feel having to imagine and develop characters of their own. Though collaborating to create original character is a great way to introduce students to the idea of independently creating a character, many students will need to be coaxed further to begin the brainstorming process. A wealth of activities and exercises are designed to help students develop rounded characters; see Appendix B for “Getting to Know You: Bringing a Character to Life,” adapted from Marty Brewster’s article, “Rooming with Characters.” This is one of my favorites.



 

One of the most basic, yet effective tools you can use to help students develop their characters is Nancie Atwell’s “Main-Character Questionnaire.” Have students work in pairs; one student asks a series of questions to the other, who assumes the role of her main character when responding. Atwell suggests using a questionnaire including a range of questions, from basic to in-depth: How old are you? What is your family background? What is different about you? How would a friend describe you? What are the important things in your life? (404). She notes that this questionnaire “forces writers to back off, slow down, and attend to building a person that their readers can be with through the events of the story” (403). By encouraging students to slow down and consider specific aspects of their characters personalities and lives, this questionnaire will help them determine the most important things to reveal about the characters in their stories.

 

Another vital tool you can have students use to collect the ideas they generate as they develop their characters is the writer’s notebook. It provides students with a place they can store their ideas, a place they can refer to throughout the writing process for inspiration and clarification. Bomer has his students use their notebooks “to build the elements of the fictive dream … to help them get to know the worlds of their stories better” (141). He identifies a number of strategies that you can suggest to students to help them bring the “fictive dream” to life, including timelines, character biographies, and character sketches. However, he stresses that these are not requirements but suggestions of ways students can dig deeper into characters. The notebook can also be used for freewriting, which Bomer considers useful when trying to help students understand “the ways their own experience is informing their work” (144). Since so many students get stuck on the notion that fiction is “made up” and, therefore, has no room for their personal perspectives and concerns, freewriting gives them the opportunity to make meaningful connections between their lives and the stories will write. Fiction writers—and their attitudes, feelings, and life experiences—lurk in the stories they write. Bomer notes that these “issues provide the engine for our work” (144). Without trying to comprehend their own realities, students cannot imagine fully the realities of their characters and their worlds.



 

The next step of teaching students short story writing is to turn their attention to conflict. No matter how well students know their characters, they do not have a glimmer of a short story until they engage the characters in some meaningful conflict. To get students thinking about possible conflicts for their stories, Lattimer suggests teaching students to identify “stress points” for characters “based on important relationships, pressures, and expectations—positive and negative” (181). A stress point can be anything that could eventually result in a conflict situation. Consider, for example, a character whose parents are divorced and rarely sees her father. The fact that she does not see her father often can be a stress point for her. After having students identify several stress points in their characters’ lives, have them brainstorm potential situations that could arise from the stress points; from these situations emerge the fuel for possible conflicts for their stories (Lattimer 181-2). By developing each stress point into several potential situations, students are not confined to just one idea for a central conflict. When students recognize the possibilities presented by a single stress point, they can expand the breadth of their imaginations.

 

Just as engaging in reader-character conversations helped students understand characters during the reading workshop, author-character conversations can get them to dig deeper into their own characters to establish a central conflict by thinking the way fiction writers do.  Fiction author Donald Gallo points out that “most authors of fiction … put themselves in the place of the characters—take on their roles—and write from their point of view” (57). It was something I did each time I imagined a new character for my short stories in college. One particular character comes to mind—Callie, a teenager who blames herself for the kidnapping of her younger sister. I remember stepping out of my shoes and into Callie’s, walking for days in her worn ballet flats. I looked through her eyes and into her reflection in a mirror, trying to understand what she saw and why she saw it. I became Callie countless times before I wrote the story, to learn more about her, to determine her central conflict. Without becoming her to my fullest extent, I had no story. As students move toward establishing focal conflicts, have them engage in author-character conversation to understand and become their characters like experienced fiction writers do. Appendix C illustrates an example of a “conversation” Heather Lattimer had with Timmy, the hypothetical character she and her class created together. This example demonstrates questions a student can pose to get a character to open up and reveal potential conflicts. Latimer begins by asking Timmy, what are you mad about? He opens up about being upset that his best friend, Mike, abandoned him for new friends. The anger and resentment Timmy feels towards Mike becomes clearer in the conversation when he reveals that he broke into Mike’s room to take back a good luck charm he gave Mike. Like this example, your students’ author-character conversations will open the door to possibilities for conflict and help them identify the conflict they find most intriguing and practical.


 

Ready, Set, Write

Now that your students have two of the most fundamental and important elements of their short stories fresh in their minds and notebooks—their characters and focal conflicts—you can let them plunge into writing their drafts. And, considering the time and energy they have invested in the planning process, they will be more than willing to take this plunge. The best thing you can do as students begin drafting their stories is let them write and see where their writing takes them.

 

But your role does not terminate here. As students write, identify and address obstacles they encounter along the way. How can you do this? By holding ongoing conferences with students, you can determine problems students have and direct them to solutions. Some of the most obvious and useful resources you can suggest are the touchstone texts, as well as other short stories students have read in the unit. As questions about technique and style arise, point students to stories that use specific techniques and styles effectively to help them improve and revise. High school teacher Mitch Cox describes a student who struggled with using third-person point of view in her story but, after looking at how an author of a touchstone short story used first-person in the form of a journal narrative, she was inspired to experiment with this point of view successfully (42). Urging students to reexamine touchstone texts to find solutions to their problems empowers them to use the skills they developed in the reading workshop and improves their overall reading comprehension.


Another route you can take when conferring with students is to refer them to each other for help. Though students write their own unique stories, the issues that come up in one student’s work may parallel those that their peers have. When observing a student having trouble explaining relationships between characters, for instance, suggest that she discuss this with a student who has overcome this problem so they can share experiences and identify workable solutions (Lattimer 189). Together, students can recognize the vast possibilities for where their short stories can go. There is no “black and white” or “right or wrong” in short stories; students have before them countless options to work with when they write them. When students confer with each other and share suggestions and ideas, they will think, “I could do it this way, that way, or the other way, so I’ll try it this way, and then come back and try again if I don’t like it” (Bomer 152).

 

Sometimes you will notice that a few (or many) students need help with the same technique or element of craft. When observing such a trend, present a lesson or conduct exercises to address students’ needs on topics such as setting, dialogue, point of view, or any other topic that seems valuable to cover. You can incorporate touchtone texts into these lessons by directing students to passages that use the technique effectively, giving them a familiar frame of reference as they try to improve the technique in their writing. Appendices D and E, from Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter’s What If? and Harry Noden’s Image Grammar, respectively, provide excellent examples of fun, engaging exercises geared toward improving dialogue and sensory detail. It is crucial, however, to make sure that students are given ample opportunity to apply what they learn in these lessons directly to their own stories.



 

Revision is an essential element of a successful short story writing unit, but a formal multiple draft submission process may not be necessary. When students are given ample time both in and out of class to develop their stories, receive continual support and guidance in the form of teacher/peer conferences, and participate in lessons given in accordance with need, they will rework and revise throughout the writing workshop. How much time is ample time? Lattimer identifies a period of three weeks that her students spent “rereading, revising, and improving… stories” (189). This may be too long or too short for you; the time can be adjusted, of course. The important thing to remember is that students benefit most from ongoing feedback from you and their peers through direct communication. Another useful tool that may help guide students as they write and revise is a checklist developed by Barnaby Conrad in The Complete Guide to Writing Fiction, containing questions that determine how well important elements of their stories are developed (See Appendix F).

 

As students revise their stories, you may witness some of them getting stuck or frustrated, unsure where to go with what they are writing. While there is no definitive solution to this dilemma, Damon Knight offers advice for how you can help students move forward and keep writing in his book, Creating Short Fiction. When a student’s writing comes to a halt—for example, he is unsure about what his character will do next—Knight suggests that the writer may not “know enough about the character…[or] now knows more about her than [he] did when planning the story” (173). If it appears that your student needs to dig deeper into his character to determine what will happen next, direct him back to some of the character development strategies previously discussed. A student can engage in several author-character conversations as long as it helps him understand and write his character better. Since many students will know more about their characters now than when they were planning, they also run the risk of getting stuck somewhere along the path of writing. You may need to encourage them to step back and recognize how this deeper knowledge informs their writing. Knight recommends that writers “skip the troublesome part and come back to it later” or, in some cases, “simply leave it out” (173). Letting students know that it is okay to skip around and omit as they write will help them feel more comfortable and confident as they work towards a polished draft.



 

Grading and Evaluating Student Writing

One of the most difficult tasks you face is finding an effective, meaningful way to evaluate and assess the short stories students write. Many teachers cringe at the thought of grading creative assignments; as Hood remarks, “Grading creative writing is like putting a price tag on art: We do it, but always with the awareness that there’s something incongruent happening, something a bit absurd” (28). Regardless of any reservations you have, grading is usually necessary. To establish grading criteria and guidelines, create a rubric specifically tailored to the short story assignment. A rubric will not only remind you of what to look for in student work, but, when given to students as they receive the assignment, it will also give them a clear picture of your expectations. As Soven notes, “Spelling out the evaluation criteria can help to decrease students’ anxiety about writing” (146). Less anxiety and a clear understanding of expectations means that students have a greater opportunity to succeed. Instead of distributing a teacher-designed rubric, you can also collaborate with students to create one with their input.

 

There are other aspects of student progress related to short story writing that you can evaluate a little more subjectively. A great way to assess learning in the reading workshop component of this unit is to have students write reflections on the experience. A written reflection will allow students to consider the ways they have improved as readers, while showing you what worked (and perhaps what did not work) during the reading workshop. Lattimer recognizes the value of this reflection in her students’ responses, noting that “they were thrilled to realize how much they had grown, and each was able to identify areas to work on for future growth” (192).


           

Whether you like it or not, you also need to acknowledge the creature lurking in the shadows of the classroom—the NYS standardized exam. Though you can guarantee that students will not write short stories on the 8th grade ELA or Regents exams, the skills they develop and hone while learning to write short stories are not extraneous to the testing process. The thorough, close reading that students do to write short stories will improve their reading comprehension, aiding them in the reading and analysis tasks on the state exams. Perhaps more than any other writing assignment, short story writing gives students practice in establishing and developing voice in writing. For students to imagine, create, and develop their characters successfully, they must write with a strong sense of voice, a writing skill that is essential in earning the top scores on state exams. Short story reading and writing will give students a firm grasp on literary elements and techniques that they should know for the exam; a student who uses metaphor and simile in her story effectively will be able to write about these techniques in a critical lens essay with ease.  Short story writing requires a working command of conventions, such as grammar, spelling, and syntax, which will help students avoid surface errors as they compose essays on the exam. If you give students extensive practice with these skills while they have fun writing stories, they can apply them successfully to the writing they do on the NYS exams.

 

 

 


Publishing Short Stories

After all the hard work of imagining, creating, and writing short stories is done, celebrate students’ achievements by publishing their work. One of the simplest options for publication is creating a printed class anthology and distributing copies for students to share with their peers and families. Stories are, after all, meant to be shared. As an added bonus, when students know that their work will be put into print and read by an audience larger than one teacher, they will be encouraged further to produce short stories they are proud of. Knowing they are accountable for the work they do often motivates them to put their best feet forward. In addition to publishing a class anthology, you can hold a Short Story Reading for students to read their stories aloud to each other. For any of us who have had the chance to attend events where authors read their work publicly, we know the absolute joy of listening to fiction coming alive through their voices. Students will also appreciate this experience.

 

Is short story writing fun and games? Considering the personal, academic, and creative development that you will see in your students as they write their first stories, you will hardly care what the answer to that question is. If students can have fun while they strengthen their critical thinking skills as readers and writers, then you are on to something good. As students read and reread touchstone short stories, not just as readers but as fiction writers, they open their minds to a level of analysis that enable them to surpass the NYS Learning Standards. So let the fun and games begin!


 

Works Cited

 

Atwell, Nancie. In the Middle. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1998.



 

Bernays, Anne. “Pupils Glimpse an Idea, Teacher Gets a Gold Star.” Writers on Writing: Collected Essays from The New York Times. New York: Times Books, 2001. 23-27.

 

Bernays, Anne, and Pamela Painter. What If?: Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers. New York: HarperPerennial, 1991.



 

Bomer, Randy. Time for Meaning: Crafting Literate Lives in Middle and High School.   Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1995.

Brewster, Marty. "Rooming in with Characters." English Journal 77.6 (1988): 65-66.

Conrad, Barnaby. The Complete Guide to Writing Fiction. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest, 1990.

Cox, Mitch. "Writing like Writers." English Journal 78.2 (1989): 40-43.

Gallo, Donald R. "The Writing Processes of Professional Authors." English Journal 83.5 (1994): 55-60.

Jorgensen. Karen. The Whole Story: Crafting Fiction in the Upper Elementary Grades. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2001.

 

Knight, Damon. Creating Short Fiction. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1997.


 

Lattimer, Heather. Thinking Through Genre. Portland, ME: Stenhouse, 2003.

McClure, Michael F. "Telling Stories Is True Writing (Research and Practice)." English Journal 80.2 (1991): 93-95.

Morner, Kathleen, and Ralph Rausch, eds. NTC’s Dictionary of Literary Terms. Chicago: NTC Publishing, 1991.

Nilsen, Alleen Pace. "Readers Responding: Creative Writing and YA Literature." English Journal 86.3 (1997): 81-86.

Noden, Harry R. Image Grammar: Using Grammatical Structures to Teach Writing. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1999.

 

Prose, Francine. “What Makes a Short Story?” On Writing Short Stories. Ed. Thomas Bailey. New York: Oxford UP, 2000. 3-12.


 

Soto, Gary. “The No-Guitar Blues.” Baseball in April and Other Stories. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1990.

 

Soven, Margot. Teaching Writing in Middle School and Secondary Schools: Theory, Research, and Practice. Needham Heights, MA:  Allyn & Bacon, 1999



 

 

 



 

 

 



 

 

 



 

 

 



 

 

 



 

 

 



 

 

 



 

 

 



 

Appendix A: Suggested Young Adult (YA) Short Story Collections

 

The YA short story collections listed below deal with a diverse range of topics, including cultural, racial, gender, friendship, and familial issues.



 

 

Jennifer Armstrong, ed., Shattered: Stories of Children and War


Sandy Asher, ed., But That’s Another Story

Marion Dane Bauer, ed., Am I Blue?: Coming Out from the Silence

Bonnie Christensen, ed., In My Grandmother’s House:  

Maxine Clair, Rattlebone

Judith Ortiz Coffer, An Island Like You : Stories of the Barrio

Robert Cormier, Eight Plus One

Chris Crutcher, Athletic Shorts: 6 Short Stories

Bruce Emra, ed., Coming of Age: Short Stories About Youth and Adolescence

Paul Fleischman, Graven Images

Mary Frosch, ed., Coming of Age in America: A Multicultural Anthology

Don Gallo, Thirteen; Connections; No Easy Answers; Join In

Don Gallo, ed., Sixteen: Short Stories by Outstanding Writers for Young Adults

James Howe, ed., The Color of Absence: 12 Stories About Loss and Hope

Kristin Hunter, Guests in the Promised Land

David Levithan, ed., You Are Here, This Is Now: Poems, Stories, Essays and Art from the Best                  

            Young Writers and Artists in America

Anne Mazer, ed. America Street: A Multicultural Anthology of Short Stories; A Walk in My            

            World: International Short Stories About Youth

Norma Fox Mazer, Dear Bill, Remember Me? And Other Stories

Nicholasa Mohr, El Bronx Remembered; In Nueva York

Walter Dean Myers, 145th Street

Beverley Naidoo, Out of Bounds: Seven Stories of Conflict and Hope

Cynthia Rylant, Every Living Thing

Peter Sieruta, Heartbeats and Other Stories

Gordon Snell, Thicker Than Water: Coming of Age Stories by Irish and Irish-American Writers

Gary Soto, Baseball in April and Other Stories

Piri Thomas, Stories from El Barrio

M. Jerry Weiss, ed., Big City Cool: Short Stories About Urban Youth

Lawrence Yep, ed., American Dragons: Twenty-Five Asian-American Voices

 

 


 

 

 



 

 

 



 

 

 



Appendix B:  Getting to Know You: Bringing a Character to Life

(Adapted from Brewster, Marty. "Rooming in with Characters." English Journal 77.6 (1988): 65-66.)

 

Context: This assignment would be useful for teachers who are just beginning a unit on short story writing with their students. It requires students to make frequent observations and remarks about their characters over the span of at least one week. A long break (e.g., Thanksgiving, Spring Break) may be an ideal time to assign it. 

 

Objective: The goal of this assignment is to provide students with an opportunity to imagine and thoroughly develop a protagonist of a short story they will later write. This assignment will show them “that characters develop plot instead of plot developing characters,” a concept many novice fiction writers struggle to understand and apply to their writing.

 

Assignment: Distribute magazines to the class. Have students look through magazines until they find a face that interests them that is at least 3” x 5”. Once each student has selected a photograph, instruct him/her to clip it from the magazine, take it home, and tape it to a door or mirror in his/her room. Next to the photo, the student should tape a blank sheet of paper. Let them know that this photo will come to represent the protagonist of the short story they will later write.

 

Throughout the week, the students should confront their character photos as frequently as possible to learn as much as they can about the person in the photo. As students think of details about this person, they should write ideas on the blank sheet of paper. Have them consider these aspects of the characters’ lives:






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