Let them write fiction

It’s a funny thing – fiction. Writers use made-up stories to show truths in powerful ways. Adolescents are also storytellers – just ask their parents and other authority figures in their lives – though they are not always going for truth. Teachers can capitalize on this interest in telling stories by gearing English classes to write fiction as well as read it. In a mere five weeks of having my students write 1-2 pages of fiction a week, I see the following benefits:

I know my students. I can see the issues that matter most to them because they show up in the students’ writing. I have seen story lines on family, friends, pop culture, substance use, and inner turmoil. Allowing them latitude to choose topics does not mean I will accept anything, however. I have returned work as unacceptable when the student glorifies actions or attitudes that get in the way of life and learning. When I see issues that concern me, I address the student directly and either challenge or support them. I can also observe the attitudes students take to their writing – curious, honest, quitter, etc.

My students read the comments and critique I make on their fiction. I rarely make any formal corrections on these pieces of fiction. Instead, I take off my teacher hat so that I can read and comment on these pieces from my position as an avid reader of fiction. I make critique without correction. I ask the author questions. My students read these questions and comments eagerly because they deal almost solely with content and ideas. My students ask me, “Have you read it yet?” “What did you think?” “When will you hand back our fiction one-pagers?” In this case, they actually hunger for teacher comment and interaction.

My English language learners rehearse new language in a less formal way. Because the writing is always unfinished and ungraded, my Korean and Chinese students who wrestle with English grammar have a way to practice writing the language without the fear of failure. Fiction tends to have a more natural, even conversational, flow that more closely approximates the language they hear and need to learn to use each day – certainly more so than the language of formal analysis.

In the coming months, we will use these short fiction pieces as fodder for longer stories. As we strive to write good fiction well, and I venture to guide them, my students can begin to tell life’s truths with their stories.