The phrase, “a message in a bottle,” conjures an image of a weather-beaten bottle, bearing a message from an earnest sender. It came to mind as I prepared to share a National Geographic encyclopedic entry about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch with my students. Eager to provide them with more opportunities to process the implications of the informational texts we read, I turned to flash fiction writing. Writing flash—a narrative in miniature often described as the “short short story”—helped us contemplate the enormity of this environmental plight and reinforced the importance of sharing stories to engage emotion and empathy when mulling scientific information.
After we read the encyclopedic entry, the ghastly images of the marine debris forming the garbage patch took hold. Thinking about the “cloudy soup” of microplastics and abandoned fishing gear alongside the sweet, sentimentalized image of “a message in a bottle” reminded me of a writing exercise I learned from flash writer extraordinaire, Kathy Fish, about juxtaposition. She describes how poets and mosaicists deftly jam two or more different images together, which can allow something surprising to emerge. Following her example, I invited my students to choose one item from List A (all words taken from the National Geographic entry we read) and one item from List B and combine them in a flash story between 100-200 words:
This juxtaposition exercise elicited flash gems—stories that glimmered as we held them up for inspection. I selected the two pieces below to share as mentor texts during class discussion. My students always lean forward and look alert on mentor text study days, even more so when they know their classmates’ writing will help us build our own repertoire of writing craft moves.
Student Flash Pieces as Mentor Texts
In her story, my student Alexa combined “sea turtle” and “ghost” to craft a domestic scene about a loggerhead sea turtle and his wife wishing to celebrate his promotion with his favorite meal of shrimp fried jellies. She draws on a specific detail included in the National Geographic entry: “Loggerhead sea turtles often mistake plastic bags for jellies, their favorite food.”
What seemingly begins as a charming tale about anthropomorphized sea turtles morphs into a poignant statement about the sea life who become innocent victims of reckless waste disposal.
- “Smart surprise”
- Use of supernatural aid
- Unheeded warnings
Students loved how Alexa created an unexpected turn of events, shifting the reader from a place of comfort to discomfort. They appreciated that the ghost was not stereotypically spooky and wondered if Alexa was influenced by the description of “ghost fishing” (what was described as seals and other mammals drowning in abandoned plastic fishing nets in the National Geographic entry). Her flash helped us consider how frequently we ignore warning signs, a question we need to ask more often given that so many actors continue to evade responsibility for marine debris cleanup.
In her story, my student Brisa combined “postcard” and “plastic water bottle” to cleverly deploy the trope of the discarded lover:
Brisa draws on a specific detail from the National Geographic entry: “The amount of debris in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch accumulates because much of it is not biodegradable. Many plastics, for instance, do not wear down; they simply break into tinier and tinier pieces.” The recognizably pining tone of the heartbroken lover engaged the reader in smooth misdirection. It is not until the last line of the letter that understanding arises.
- Point of view of an object
- Letter format
- Conveying an environmental message in an indirect manner
Students loved how Brisa set us up to experience a bout of confusion when we realize the letter has been written by a plastic water bottle. When we finish reading, we understand the parallel between feeling expendable in a shelved romantic relationship and the consequences of our “throwaway culture.” The bottle’s assurance that it can wait endlessly for its human to return is an ironic reminder of how long it takes for plastic waste to break down.
One student commented that more straightforward environmental appeals strike him as heavy-handed and preachy. As soon as something sounds like a lecture, he tunes it out. But his classmates’ flash pieces hooked him—he understood the pathos of the situation and had greater appreciation for those environmental organizations that were attempting to address the garbage patch while political actors were passing the buck. Flash writing can help students process the contents of an informational text as well as help them parse out and zoom in on details that beg more contemplation.
In historical examples of famous “message in a bottle” incidents, the messages operate as love letters, distress signals, or memorial tributes. When reading these three texts about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, we can see all three motives combine: To treasure that which we love about the global ocean and marine life. To sound the alarm about the immeasurable damage we have caused. To appreciate what we have before it is gone.
How do you help your students process the implications of informational texts? What has been your experience reading and writing flash fiction in the classroom? Share your reflections in the comments below or find me on Twitter @dispatches_b222.
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