I’d hit a snag in planning for my 7th grade English Language Arts class. The end of the quarter was looming and I had a few options on how to spend the few remaining weeks. I could:
A) Try to squeeze in a mini-unit
B) Give students time to workshop pieces for their upcoming summative electronic portfolios
C) Stretch the portfolio process out
D) Come up with something quick I could do in a couple of weeks
I prefer long units (think 7+ weeks), so the first option was out. And although B sounded nice, I wasn’t sure it was possible. Although my students were certainly capable of it, I hadn’t done a good enough job practicing our workshop skills throughout the year. It wouldn’t be a disaster, but it also wouldn’t be that useful. I hadn’t fully decided on how I wanted to do the portfolios. I knew I wanted to change them up, but I’m a slow thinker, and something as important as a portfolio cannot be rushed. That left me with D. I’d recently seen a few Twitter posts about Flash Fiction. Without knowing much about the genre I decided to give it a shot.
This project was born out of necessity, the need to find something novel to do for a two-week period between the end of a current project and the beginning of our electronic portfolios. This post describes my thought process as I planned and executed a piece of Flash Fiction.
At the time I knew almost nothing about the Flash Fiction genre, other than the stories were short. Also known as micro fiction or sudden fiction, Flash Fiction is a short (typically 300-1,000 words) piece of creative writing that contains every element of story grammar. That is, a piece of Flash Fiction has an exposition, an inciting event, a rising action, a climax, a falling action, and a resolution. Now these elements may be truncated or implied, but they’re there. A piece of Flash Fiction also focuses on a single moment in time. One theme, one mood, one moment. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly for instructional purposes, the genre requires a hefty dose of nuance. The author has to convey a lot of meaning using the fewest amount of words.
Once I read enough definitions and essays to gain an adequate understanding of the genre, it was time to find model texts to use in class. This turned out to be the hardest part of the project. I couldn’t find anything useful in the usual places. Two book titles kept popping up as I caromed around the internet: Flash Fiction Forward and Micro Fiction: An Anthology of Fifty Really Short Stories. I picked up both but was disappointed. If you are a teacher looking for exemplars, do not buy these books. The stories are way too abstract and inappropriate for middle school (and, I would imagine, much of high school). Everything else I found on the internet was either too short or too long.
After scouring the web without success I stumbled upon four free Flash Fiction stories on teachers pay teachers. As someone who enjoys reinventing the wheel, I’d never used this website before. I was, however, grateful to find the examples. They were a little short so I spruced them up a bit, fleshing out the stories to make sure that they were substantial enough to support discussion while still remaining true to the genre.
Mentor Text Study
I, like many others, am an advocate for the study of mentor texts. The idea, as recently articulated by Katie Wood Ray, is to involve students in taking apart a text. Mentor study takes the place of a transmission model of “here is a list of the genre’s characteristics. Now memorize and implement.” I’ve struggled with how to do this effectively all year. With only two weeks I decided to streamline the process. Groups of students (four per group) read the Flash Fiction examples, took notes on the text’s characteristics, and then discussed their findings.
I posted our genre noticings around the room so students and I could continuously refer to them throughout the composition process.
Compositions, Conflict Stations, and Slice of Life
After spending time discussing what makes the genre tick (albeit at a superficial level), it was time for the students and I to begin producing our own texts. Since I placed the Flash Fiction in our Struggle unit, I decided to focus on literary conflict. Students have been exposed to literary conflict for a number of years, so the amount of direct instruction required was fairly minimal. They knew the types and were able to correctly identify the conflicts for some of the stories and books we’d read aloud throughout the year.
Asking students to focus their drafts on literary conflict isn’t the easiest way to begin a piece of writing. So I told students to use the pictures as a starting point if they needed a little push. We took a day and a half to move through each conflict station (seven minutes per station).
Although the drafts were decent, I realized that some of us had lost the “slice of life” element of Flash Fiction. Much of this came from my reliance on the non-realistic pictures at each conflict station. Therefore on our last day of drafting I asked students to compose one piece of Flash Fiction that centered on their daily lives at school. We spent a couple minutes before hand doing some guided visualizations on each place to help them get in the zone.
Drafting and Question Conferences
Once students had written several different first drafts, they selected their favorite to continue working with. Since we were focusing on conflict (and spiraling back to story grammar) I created the following organizer and instructions.
After students wrote out their plot elements, I had them move around the room to participate in question conferences, an idea combining the work of Barry Lane and Carl Anderson. Questions are some of the most powerful revision tools I’ve come across. Developing writers constantly struggle with making the words on the paper match the vision in their head. Key details and context get lost somewhere in the story’s transition from brain to page.
Question conferences are an effective way to help students figure out what they need to add. Students circulated around the room, read out their work, and then copied down any questions their partner asked. If the partner asked a question about the setting then the author wrote the question in the ‘Setting’ box of the organizer underneath the sticky note. Once students spoke with a handful of others, they sat down, read their questions, and answered them on the sticky note. My thinking here was that by the end of the process each student’s organizer would be chock full of details divided by plot element. Students then wrote their second draft, making sure to include all of the added detail from the question conferences.
Editing and Feedback
Editing was the final phase in our abbreviated writing process. Selling kids on editing their piece is notoriously difficult. Since listening to your writing out loud is an effective strategy for locating errors, I asked each student to listen to his or her writing using a pair of headphones. Setting this up on the iPad is easy. Simply check a few boxes in the settings, swipe two fingers down the screen, and Siri will read your story to you. You can even change the speed, accent, etc. I had students listen to their piece multiple times on repeat as they fix little errors and switch around words.
I printed out everyone’s writing, posted them around the walls, and had students do a gallery walk to give feedback. Teaching students to give purposeful feedback is something I’m not particularly strong at. I like using Peter Elbow’s response prompts because they focus on what the piece did to the reader. How it made the reader feel, what it made the reader visualize, etc. Anything to rewire their brains from error-hunting to content-enjoying. We ended our two-week process by sharing out our stories to the room.
I don’t particularly like Flash Fiction. I’m really more of a maximalist; I prefer my fiction to be Biblical in length and scope. I prefer to be walled in by words, surrounded by sentences that weave a narrative I can get lost in. But that doesn’t really matter, because the kids loved it. During our portfolio many of them listed the Flash Fiction as their favorite assignment. I can’t wait to repeat this assignment next year. With more time (and the experience from this year) I’ll know to spend more time on the craft of writing Flash Fiction, the condensed language and the polysemous meanings. Have you ever used Flash Fiction in the class room? Let me know!