When’s the last time your students got to write creatively? Or craft a piece of fiction that was entirely their own?
Today on the podcast we have something a little different. Tom Newkirk’s latest book, Writing Unbound: How Fiction Transforms Student Writing, is all about the power of fiction. Tom believes that it’s what inspires writers and motivates them to improve their craft. But over the years, fiction has fallen to the wayside in many classrooms.
Tom set out to create Writing Unbound to show just how important fiction is and offer educators a roadmap to integrating it back into their teaching.
To inform his thinking, Tom conducted 40 in-depth interviews with students and teachers around the country to learn about how they make space for fiction in their classrooms. In this episode, you’ll hear pieces of those interviews with commentary from Tom that illustrates just how broad, expansive, and exciting fiction can be.
Below is a transcript of this episode.
Tom: Writing Unbound began with a question—why aren’t students given more opportunities to write fiction? After all, fiction is at the heart of the English Language Arts. Yet writing fiction often dies out in middle school—if it lasts that long. And, in my experience, students want to write fiction.
So what’s missing? If we want to engage students in their writing, if we want to build fluency, why do we restrict ourselves this way? To explore this question, I interviewed teachers who bucked this trend—and made a place for fiction.
So… why not fiction writing? Let’s begin with Laura Bradley, an eighth grade teacher who has her students write novels in November:
Bradley: I have sensed over the last few years a lot of emphasis on students learning argument writing, a lot of talk about preparing for college kind of writing, and so I think that that causes teachers to focus on it more. I feel like as long as I've been teaching, which I started 30 years ago, fiction writing was often viewed as, creative writing for fun, as if it's not an academic pursuit. It was just more of a for fun thing. The two teachers even didn't have a lot of guidance in how would you teach it and assess it as opposed to the rubric for the standard expository writing.
Tom: My colleague Tomasen Carey, also finds that grading is an issue:
Tomasen: And it's really hard for someone who doesn't write to quote unquote grade a piece of fiction. It's almost like it's further out there than if they have a rubric on a persuasive piece and there's very distinct elements. I think there's a comfort level with them grading that and knowing what to do with it. But if you don't write fiction, if you don't write regularly, I don't think it's in their wheelhouse, and I think there's a big disconnect.
Tom: And former eighth grade teacher Linda Rief, says “creative writing” is often viewed a less rigorous than argument or exposition.
Linda: But I think people do diminish. And I wonder if they see fiction writing as creative writing, and therefore, it's less than what analytical writing or evaluative writing is or memoir writing is. And yet, it would seem to me that you would have to be engaging in a thought process that was even more complicated than memoir writing.
Tom: Of course fiction can be unwieldy for teachers. So long, so resistant to rubrics, so…wild. And students may not be aware of the craft issue involved. In these cases flash fiction is an answer. I asked Linda Rief about it.
Linda: It has almost all the characteristics of a short fictional story, but it's short. What's different is every word has to count. [cut]. And in flash fiction particularly, it does 180 degree turn at the very end. So you're reading this story truly believing this is what's going on, and in one or two sentences, you are totally turned upside down, but you realize that it's been so tightly crafted that you almost should have suspected this before you got to those last one or two or three sentences.
I just like the tightness of it. I like the fact that even the title has to kind of give you a hint about what is happening or what is going to happen. And there's an awful lot of, kind of conjecture about what you think might be going on, and then you're just totally surprised at the end. The tight crafting of it makes you work really hard at no wasted language.
Tom: I asked her how she approached it with students:
Linda: I do the same thing with flash fiction that I would with any other genre. I find seven or eight pieces that either kids have written in the past, I have written, or I've found a couple of flash fiction books, but you have to be really careful because some of the are, they're a little too mature for some of the eighth graders. So I had to pick and choose maybe three or four, but I read seven or eight pieces, and then we talk about, in the same way we would talk about memoir or talk about poetry, what do you notice?
What do you notice is happening in this story? What do you notice the features are of this that make it different from some other genre?
Tom: So could you say something about those features?
Linda: Well, features like, they notice only one or two characters. They notice some tension between those one or two characters. Dialogue has to be really, you can't have wasted dialogue because that dialogue has to move the story forward. So if you're going to have a character say something, it has to give us some information about what's going on in the story. So, teaching kids how to write tight, I think is a really valuable thing for them. The 180 degree turn is huge. Flash fiction also does what Ralph Fletcher says: start at the waterfall. Just jump right in, the story jumps right in without giving us an awful lot of background. And the title has to also be really thoughtful to give some type of, when you look back at the title, you think that was a definite clue as to what was going to happen in this story.
Tom: So what prompts do teachers use to free up students to write fiction? Tomasen Carey described the way she used drama and improv—so students could think outside their typical selves. She started with an excerpt from Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street—where Esperanza declares that her name doesn’t fit her.
Tomasen: That’s the developmental place where they are, where everybody's looking at you. And, but when you're not, you, it doesn't matter. You're being somebody else you're saying, I don't care what you think, because this isn't me.
So they get the costume, which doesn't make sense and some kind of object. And the object I tell them is the problem. You know what you know, and it could be anything from a spoon to a shoe to, but I think it gives them a path. If you start with the problem, then you can think about what you're wearing and make it go from there. And there's, it's silly, everybody looks ridiculous. So there's not a sense of, again, high stakes or seriousness to it. It's like, let's be as goofy as we can. Let's see where we can make this go. And I think they love that.
Tom: Scott Storm, a New York City high school teacher, launches his students by becoming, in his words, “the weird writing teacher.”
Scott: Right, and so we start with on, usually on the first day I have everybody, we move all the furniture and everyone lies down on their back on the floor and I play some sort of instrumental music. Usually I play Johan de Meij's, Lord of the rings symphony. And I do like a kind of imaginative, you know, of a story as they're listening to the music. Right.
I tell a story and it's done in the second person. Right? So it's like, you feel like this, and now you're running and you're flying and they're doing all these other things. And they're visually imagining that these things are happening. And then we wake up and we free write, right away.
And so that I do this kind of series of very strange kinds of things like this in order to get people first to just be okay in this very collaborative space. But then also to know that writing can come from lots and lots of different places. And so we talk about how to have a writer's notebook. We think about where writing can come from. We play a game where we're like, okay, someone pick any object in this room and someone will pick an object. And I get a bunch of strange objects for this like umbrellas and all kinds of different things. And so we'll pick an object and then everyone has to make a story based on that object.
Tom: But what about the novel? Kids want to write them—but they’re usually unaware of what it takes. Laura Bradley describes her process…
Laura: So a lot of the prep work before they start writing is to try to force them, even though we don’t want it to be too rigid, we try to force them to have some kind of a plot outline, bullet points of where their story will go. We also talk about writing the ending. We have three or four different suggestions for how to write their ending. And so if we have time, we actually have them write the ending before they start writing.
Tom: Mentor texts, mentor novels are also crucial.
Laura: That's actually part of the NaNoWriMo curriculum. The first thing that they have the students do is choose their model novel as a way of getting a sense of how a novelist does all of those things. Sometimes I will take pages out. So I share a different book with them every day. I do a quick read aloud from a different book every day, so that we have an ongoing list of books they might want to read. And so I often will use those, I might copy a page out of one that has something that we want to look at for that lesson.
So for a lot of them, it's that issue of not realizing how much they need to develop a scene, that they'll have a scene in their head and they'll write it down almost like a summary of the scene because they haven't really realized that, oh, I have to take the time to show the setting and to really show what the characters are maybe thinking and doing. And so, adding that in is a big part of our discussion around, “well, what should I do today? Should I keep writing? Or should I go back and find places that I need to develop?”
Tom: Laura also teaches a special lesson on the “inciting incident” that opens a novel
Laura: I think the day one of writing is always hard. What is their inciting incident, right? What launches their character into the story? And so I have a slideshow that shows the inciting incidents from probably a dozen different books that we have looked at that I've shared with them throughout the semester.
So Hatchet by Gary Paulsen, the book starts with the young, like early teenage boy, getting on a plane with just a pilot and the plane crashes and the pilot dies. And so clearly this is a whole new life for this kid out in the wilderness. Harry Potter is there finding out he's a wizard. Let's see. Are you familiar with What Happened to Cass McBride?
Laura: Dark, dark, disturbing the kind of book that when I read aloud, they line up at the door to run to the library to get it because... But it's very disturbing and it's a high school girl who gets taken from her room at night and buried underground, alive, with a walkie talkie. [cut] But then I also have... I tell them your book doesn't have to start with something really scary or awful. Jordan Sonnenblick is one of my favorite YA authors, and he has a book where a student who has moved a lot in his life, at the beginning of this book, he's moved yet again. And he decides he's going to reinvent who he is at this new school. So he sets up this whole lie. So we talk about how it doesn’t have to be a tragic event that starts their story.
Tom: Not surprisingly, the writing conference is key to sustaining the writing process. Linda Rief talks about how she approached fiction writing, particularly when students were writing types of fiction she doesn’t enjoy as a reader. This is a crucial skill for teachers to maintain when teaching fiction.
Linda: I would hope that when I'm talking to kids about their writing, that I know enough about the kids and that when they read a piece to me or are truthful about how I can help them, I'm entering into that conversation with them in terms of their intent, not so much my intent, and I don't want to make it my writing. I may not... I don't love science fiction and I don't love fantasy writing, but so long as they can tell me what they need help with, I can certainly, I mean, I feel like I can help them somehow craft that writing or give them suggestions that help them build on their intents.
Tom: Scott Storm describes how he uses conferences, particularly when students are stuck.
Scott: Oh yeah. Everyone always wants to know. "Okay, I'm stuck." Right? I'm stuck is a typical thing. And they're stuck usually for one of three reasons. Either they are saying, "I'm stuck at the beginning of a chapter and I don't really know where to go." Right? Or like, "I've told so much of this story that I'm not really sure what to do next." That's one type of stuck. Another type of stuck is they're really concerned about the language. Right. And so sometimes people get really caught up in the grammar. Right? Or in thinking that it has to be in sort of a standardized grammar. And so kind of unfettering them from that is sometimes part of the teaching. Right? And the third kind of stuck is sometimes a harder stuck to deal with really. It's the kind of, I'm stuck because I feel like I'm not good enough or I'm not a writer. Right? And so I think, at least a third of my conferences are about just building you up and telling you, yes, you can do this, and looking at all the strengths that you already have in your work and thinking about how to build off of that.
Tom: Another sticking point—students using violence or offensive language. Laura Bradley has experience dealing with this.
Laura: So, because the books in my library are filled with language that I don't say out loud, when I'm reading aloud to them, I will edit because, the books are appropriate for them, but I don't want to use the language in class. So it doesn't seem right to then edit out their own writing. So we talk about when would language like that makes sense in a story. I have kids who write soldier stories, war stories, this is the way they would talk. And so, we do have that conversation. I do say, well, what if I took a page of your novel and shared it with your parents, would that be okay with them? And when we're going to be taking an excerpt and maybe publishing it or reading it aloud at the bookstore to the community, then we talk about not using language that might be offensive.
Tom: And grading—how does that happen?
Laura: The grading comes out of smaller assignments that are sprinkled throughout, but not the actual draft of the novel. And then when it's over, I am not going to grade 150, 35 page stories that are rough drafts. They're rough drafts.
And so like good English teachers do, you take this massive amount of writing that they've done, and I say, okay, pick a two to three page excerpt that you will now revise into something that you want me to assess. And so then that's when we talk about, well, what should be in that excerpt. And I do say, well, you need dialogue because I need to know that you know how to write dialogue. And we need to see details of a setting. We need to see details of a character. The things that, throughout the semester, we've all agreed a good story would have those things.
Tom: Fiction is a limitless format, and so there are endless ways to teach it, to engage your students with it, and to learn to love it as a reader, writer, and teacher. The excerpts we heard today are just a fraction of the diversity of thought that exists among writing teachers. All these ideas and more are what you will find it Writing Unbound, a book that invites teachers to take the opportunity to let their students love of fiction have room to breathe and grow in the classroom.
Thomas Newkirk is the author of numerous Heinemann titles, including Embarrassment, Minds Made for Stories, The Art of Slow Reading, The Performance of Self in Student Writing (winner of the NCTE's David H. Russell Award), and Misreading Masculinity. For almost three decades, Tom taught writing at the University of New Hampshire where he founded the New Hampshire Literacy Institutes, a summer program for teachers. In addition to working as a teacher, writer, and editor, he has served as the chair of his local school board.