An Old Class, A New Risk: A Mini Fiction Workshop in IB English

Previously on Stefanie’s Moving Writers Posts (or, perhaps for the sake of this TV-style intro, As the Pencil Sharpens): In writing conferences with seniors last month, the most popular response to the question “If you could write anything, what would you like to be writing right now?” was “a short story.” 

And so, on today’s episode: My students’ eagerness to write some fiction strengthened my resolve to push aside a familiar play in favor of a new text, the short story collection The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. And while we studied short stories, I explained to my seniors, we would write at least one, too. 

The idea sounds so easy in theory. When we read Orwell’s essays we “write like Orwell,” so when we read Adichie’s short stories, we’ll write like Adichie, too. Right?

Except I haven’t led fiction writing workshops before and I have only been a part of one. And the short story demands precision, clarity, and cleverness–there are few ragged edges or loose threads in the mentor texts students may study. And we’ll have about a month to read at least seven stories that are official texts for our IB assessments.

How will I balance our reading and writing? How can I be prescriptive enough to prepare students for their IB exams while also giving students plenty of freedom to write what they want? 

What have I gotten us into?

I’m nervous about this new unit (especially since I’m only about a day ahead of the class with my planning), but with a new IB curriculum on the way next year and some current units feeling a little tired and staid, I think that this ought to be a year of change, a season of risk. So my beat (at least for the fall) will be about the ways I’m taking risks in the classroom to push students’ and my own learning forward. The risk for this month: incorporate short story writing into what will already be a packed unit on short story analysis.

Want to join us? Here’s what we’ve done so far:

    • To begin, we read some outside-the-required-reading mentor texts from Chekhov, a master of the form, and Ali Smith, a 21st- century short story innovator. (The language and a few scenes from Ali Smith’s “True Short Story” make it tough to teach, but if you’d like to be moved (and for the treasure trove of short story definitions at the end of the story–I shared just that excerpt with my classes), please check it out sometime!) 
    • I found a helpful craft text on my grad school bookshelf, Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer. We’re using excerpts from the book–Prose’s analysis of how much we learn from the first sentence of “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” for example–to help us pay attention to the choices that the best writers make.
    • We used Padlet to put Prose’s approach in practice for our own writing. Everyone wrote the first sentence to a potential short story, and the class discussed what the sentences already told us about their stories. 

 

 

What I’m learning:

 

  • I can’t lose sight of this goal/future assessment! It will be really easy for me to fall into our traditional class rhythm of reading at night, talking about the stories the next day, going home to read some more. I will need to be intentional about taking time to think about our own writing as well as Adichie’s. 
  • I need to carve out more thinking time. As I learned while trying to write my own first sentence of a short story on demand, fiction takes time. I will need to build in more brainstorming than I have for other writing projects. 
  • I need to write beside students. To be fair, I should do more writing with my students all the time, but I think this unit really requires it. I’ll have a better understanding of the tools, time, or inspiration students might need if I’m writing with them. 

 

Will we manage to keep balancing the reading and analyzing we must practice before assessments with the writing that could help us approach short stories from a new perspective? 

Will students’ (and my) stories turn out to be as satisfying as we had hoped when so many wished to be writing them? 

Tune in next time to find out! (I’m in as much suspense as you are!)  

Have any fiction workshop tips? Please pass them along below or on Twitter @MsJochman!

 

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