For the past two months, I’ve been posting about my seniors’ work with writing short stories inspired by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s short story collection, The Thing Around Your Neck. Writing short stories in lieu of literary analysis was a new challenge for all of us, and as I read the final products, I think we’ve stuck the landing of this leap (but I’m also learning how we can improve our form for next time).
In the spirit of the year-end lists that fill our favorite magazines and websites at this time of year, here is a list of what I have learned from taking this leap in my classroom:
1.When students are invested and have freedom, they will tell stories that move you.
This wasn’t something I learned (if anything, it’s a core belief here at Moving Writers), but it was something that this project reinforced. While, as I mentioned last month, students were really nervous to write short stories, once they had ideas, the stories they wrote were moving, and they created characters to care about, even after just a few pages. Contributing to what made the stories so moving was the knowledge that many of the students, following Adichie’s lead in stories like “Jumping Monkey Hill,” a piece that fictionalizes her experiences in early writing workshops, told stories that did not stray far from their own truths.
2. Second person point of view is cathartic and freeing.
MANY students gained the courage to be vulnerable thanks to second person point of view. The Thing Around Your Neck has two stunning stories written in second person perspective, and the instant empathy that such a bold choice engenders really excited my students. Most of the stories I read made “you” (rather that “she” or “I”) the protagonist, and I think that small change created enough psychic distance to make students feel comfortable exploring either the tougher moments of their lives or the darker parts of human nature. The popularity (and the power) of that perspective made me wonder if I should consider introducing it during memoir and personal narrative work. I wonder how many students avoid sharing some stories because they aren’t quite ready to own them as “I,” but they will share them with “you.”
3. Verb tenses are tough!
While writing as “you” seemed easy, demonstrating WHEN in time “you” were was more difficult. A few of Adichie’s stories shift between present and future or present and past, so students were keen to try that structure. Stories that were written in a rush sometimes started mixing tenses. Revisiting those confusing passages will offer a good lesson in how much one word (and one verb tense) can communicate.
4. Writers will surprise you.
I asked each writer to share a plan or draft of their story, and when the writers and I went over those plans, I was worried that they were headed to cliche-city, but time and again, the writers who had planned some conventional plots (“The Big Game,” a made-for-tv-movie Munchausen by proxy relationship) really surprised me and made choices that gave their stories emotional heft, even if the plot felt familiar.
5. We don’t have to replicate an external exam to practice the skills required for that external exam.
Adichie’s stories will be one of the texts students might speak about during the Individual Oral Commentary, one of our four externally moderated assessments for IB. For that assessment, students need to demonstrate how they understand and appreciate the effects of Adichie’s writing choices. We could have written standard analysis essays where students identified devices at work, shared quotes, and explored what those quotes revealed about the text. But you know what? Reflecting briefly on how they borrowed writing techniques from Adichie and what effect they hoped those choices might achieve exercised the same skills of identification and analysis. And the vagueness of some of my students’ reflections showed me where the cracks in our understanding of prose conventions are. I still recognize what we need to review…and that recognition came on the wings of delightfully varied and often heartbreakingly beautiful storytelling.
6. Bring a back-up plan.
As our writing time approached, a few very conscientious students were looking pretty nervous. Fiction writing was miles away from their comfort zone, and they were really worried about their grades (more evidence of why our grading systems and expectations need to be changed, but that’s a post for another day…). So I proposed some middle ground: if they really felt uncomfortable writing fiction, they could create a critical introduction to The Thing Around Your Neck, an essay that explored connections between the stories for readers who might purchase an anniversary re-printing (Jay posted about doing this with poetry a few years ago). This alternative still allowed for some imaginative play, and it required students to demonstrate analytical skills. These essays also served as a kind of retrospective for the unit. I was impressed by students who collected all sorts of “scraps” from our study and sewed them together in new and interesting ways.
7. Don’t forget to share.
Students turned in their stories while the Moving Writers crew presented at NCTE. When I returned to my classes, we had just one or two periods until Thanksgiving break, which would be followed by a deep dive into poetry from Seamus Heaney. I did not want to be the only person who saw and enjoyed these stories, but I also knew that not every student was ready to share their story with the whole class. So we went back to writing workshop roots and selected “golden lines.” All students had to read out loud at least one line they loved or that made them proud. The chorus of “ooohs” and “whoas” was one more thing to be thankful for a few days later.
Now that we have leapt once, I think that my students and I are willing to leap again. I’m not sure where or how we will jump next, but I will be sure to invite you along for the journey. As 2019 (and the decade!) comes to a close, I would just like to say thank you to you, dear readers, and to my colleagues at Moving Writers. This community challenges, inspires, and encourages me, and your enthusiasm and good humor lift the spirit on tough teaching days. As always, please reach out with your thoughts on the post in the comments below or on Twitter @MsJochman.
Wishing you a restful holiday season and a very happy 2020,