Snow Days and Portfolios

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In my Fiction classes, students prepare portfolios that count as their exams.  They revise their work, write a “Reflective Cover Letter” that introduces the portfolio and explains their revision process, and they present their portfolio to the class.
These days are among my favorite teaching days.
I love hearing the students speak about their writing process, the deep (mostly) understanding they have of what works and what doesn’t work on the page, the ways in which their busy lives get in the way of their writing, their love of the craft, and their understanding of their own strengths and weaknesses.  While I won’t go on at length about it here (ahem), these portfolio presentations  and the reflective cover letters reveal radically more than any standardized test could possibly reveal about these kids and what they’ve learned.

I sit and listen, often in awe.  So far this year, I have listened to one Fiction class–a group of eight young women, all sophomores in high school, young women who have delighted me and frustrated me — as all students can (teachers, you can back me up on this!).  I have wondered how to help them go beyond their scenes-called-stories, how to push them to read literary fiction that they normally might not choose, how to understand what makes a story a story, how to use all the separate elements that constitute a good piece of fiction — all while retaining their love of writing.

This, people, is my dilemma.  It isn’t entirely new, because I struggle, too, with the same basic notion in my English classes — how NOT to turn English class into an I-hate-reading class.  I’m afraid that too often, kids come to us with a love of reading, and sadly, English class can ruin that love.  I don’t want my writing classes to do the same, but as one student wrote in her cover letter — and read out loud to the class: “…it makes me really sad that something I used to love to do has turned into homework…”  OUCH.  That broke my heart.

But isn’t it inevitable?  I told her I understood, and I didn’t want her writing to feel like “homework” either (although maybe it’s the way she considers homework; we didn’t have that conversation).  I asked the girls for suggestions — because they know and I know that they need deadlines.  And the teacher in me can’t let go of the idea that they need some structure too.  They understand that the prompts I give them are highlighting a certain aspect of writing — i.e. using setting to reveal emotion, or effectively writing flashbacks or dialogue.  And, I always say, if the prompts don’t speak to you, ignore them and write what you want — though I do insist that they try to highlight the skill I’m after.

This same girl wrote in her cover letter: “The most important thing I’ve learned in fiction over the past semester if that you can’t write fiction like it is real life…fiction has to exaggerate events. I think before I realized this, I was scared of […] inflating things too much, but since then, I’ve had a sort of epiphany and understand that there isn’t a story if you don’t.  […] In my opinion, my most successful piece so far is XXX [leaving out title for anonymity’s sake — PS]. I think that solely through dialogue, it has tension […]. I think readers are more inclined to like it because it lets them feel smart by being in on the scheme and figuring out the plot.”

Here are some more gems from these young writers:

“One of the most difficult things with writing fiction for me is believing in the story I am telling…”  WOW — how do you get this kind of insight at such a young age?  She goes on: “I try to write with feelings that I have had and I think those feelings are at the core of fiction.  Maybe we have never been forced to live in the coat closet of our aunt’s home or sailed down the Mississippi, but we have all felt neglected or known distrust.  Capturing those feelings, though, and weaving a story around them is hard.  I guess with practice and becoming more aware of who I am as a person and learn my feelings I’ll be able to apply them more in my writing…”  OK, done. This girl doesn’t need me.

Another: “I think one of the most difficult things about writing fiction for me has been trying to complete a full plot arc within a story. I often have trouble creating the sort of plot that can be confined to a short piece that still carries the appropriate amount of tension.”[SIDE NOTE: I think this particular girl is a born novelist!]. She continues: “One of the most helpful things I’ve learned is how important tension and realistic dialogue are to the integrity of a story.”

And one more: “The most influential story that we read this year was probably “The Things They Carried”  I had no personal connection to the story, yet I did.  I felt like I was there through all of it.  I felt the heartache and strife, and I want to make my readers feel that connection in my work.”

So how to continue pushing these creative thinkers beyond what they’re comfortable with?  I should admit that I also test them on the concepts covered in our text Writing Fiction:A Guide to Narrative Craft by Janet Burroway and Elizabeth Stuckey-French.  Again, the teacher in me wants to hold them accountable for what I assign as reading (same reason I give reading quizzes, too, on the short stories I assign).  And, I think there are students who, while they understand the concepts, can’t yet apply them in their own writing, and I want to give them credit for that.  And, finally, I also think students who have taken a Fiction I class should be able to definite and discuss with some ease things like plot, setting, scene and summary.  I think they should know how to write effective dialogue–what it can and can’t (or shouldn’t) do, what constitutes point of view.

And yet I’m also reminded of the Q & A my Fiction II students and I participated in with Ramona Ausubel (ramonausubel.com) at the VCU Cabell First Novelist Festival http://novelist.library.vcu.edu).  We were discussing her award-winning novel No One Is Here Except All of Us and the first person omniscient narrator, asking her if she worried about her particular choice of point of view, how she could explain that her first person narrator knew things that were happening far away from her — and she told us that she didn’t think about those things at all; she just wrote.

So I wonder.  Am I asking too much of my students?  Should I simply ask them to “just write?”  Because I’m too afraid that if I do, I won’t be teaching them anything, won’t be shortening their learning curve any.  I’m afraid that they will write what they’ve always written and they won’t stretch beyond their current capabilities.  I’m afraid that if I don’t, they won’t experience “epiphanies” about fiction vs. reality; they won’t ever pick up “The Things They Carried;” they won’t learn to see that tension is important to the integrity of a story.  But I don’t want them to feel as though writing is homework either.

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4 thoughts on “Snow Days and Portfolios

  1. Cindy

    Those kids do need you and I think you should continue on! You are making a huge impact and just one girl thinking “homework” – well, it’s one girl and even though you (we/teachers) try to reach as many kids as we can – we can’t reach them all in the same way. Remember the students (now young adults) that went through your classes and then reached out to you to tell you how much they appreciated how you prepared them for their next phase of writing. Hope that makes sense. I say keep on keeping on!

    Reply
  2. Karen Franklin

    This is awesome, I wish I had had some direction/support from my parents as well as my teachers to help me flesh out what I could be with my writing as well as a person. I am excited to begin getting back to me, and picking up a pen again or should I say a keyboard.

    Reply
  3. Dee

    This story isn’t about “kids writing”; it is about you “teaching” kids to write more effectively, express themselves more genuinely, and elevate their writing to its highest form. Are you challenging them too much? Is there such a thing when you have a group of bright and dedicated students? You are a wonderful teacher. You may never bat 500 with each and every student but then again, neither does Big Papi and he too is wonderful.

    Reply
  4. Kate

    As one of your former students, I feel confident in saying that you’re doing an amazing job. You not only taught me how to read WELL, you taught me that I loved to read. I remember your class being engaging and challenging, and I think I owe a lot of my confidence and focus to our daily discussions. I was definitely more prepared for college than a lot of my peers, easily finding interest and comfort in my school’s eclectic English department. While I am grateful for how academically prepared your class made me, I am even more thankful of the perspective on literature I developed in your class. You encouraged all of our point of views and allowed us to feel confident in our opinions and interpretations of otherwise intimidating texts.
    It’s nice to see an adult that’s so thoughtful and reflective about “work”– it seems a healthy and useful practice to reassess and refresh one’s approach every once and awhile! Thanks for the post. I look forward to the next one 🙂

    Reply

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