*Disclaimer this post is part of the presentation that I gave at CEL Convention 2016 with my partner, Ms. Katherine Ondrof, from Westwood Regional Jr./Sr. High School.
I came across hint fiction for the first time in Dr. David Galef’s course, Creative Writing Pedagogy, at Montclair State University. I am incredibly grateful for Dr. Galef because without his influence, I would not have encountered these types of texts and the foundation for my students’ reading skills.
What is Hint Fiction?
In his anthology, Hint Fiction: An anthology of stories in 25 words or fewer, Robert Swartwood defines hint fiction as: “a story of twenty-five words or fewer that suggests a larger, more complex story.”
Furthermore, the design of hint fiction: “should not be complete by it having a beginning, middle, and end…it should be complete by standing by itself as its own little world.”
It is the process of students learning to enter and explore these worlds suggested by twenty-five words that enhances literacy instruction.
For the past two years, the first text we read together as a class has been:
“The Return” by Joe R. Landsdale
They buried him deep.
At the beginning of the year when we first examined “The Return,” I paired up the students and asked them to discuss the events transpiring in the story.
Typically, students figure out that the titles of hint fictions are key to understanding their meanings. With their partners, the students usually begin asking questions like “Who is the ‘him’ getting buried?” and “What did he do to deserve this punishment?”
I let them converse for only about a minute or two before interrupting them and sharing their interpretations as a class. I picked up this effective reading strategy at a Teachers College Reading & Writing Project conference at Columbia University led by Mary Ehrenworth (I cannot strongly enough recommend reading her book, The Power of Grammar).
This technique keeps all students engaged because their partners serve as an immediate audience for their thoughts, yet the students don’t speak long enough to become distracted. Before I learned this method, sometimes my “class discussions” would consist of three or four motivated students conversing with me in front of the other twenty sitting passively — not exactly an efficient approach for transforming teenagers into active readers...
When the students share their explanations of the events in “The Return,” they typically provide entertaining and creative analyses related to zombies or vampires. I blame Twilight and The Walking Dead.
What are “Good” Readers?
Once we have fun with their immediate reactions to “The Return,” I begin introducing the students to our class’s philosophy in regards to reading. I discuss with them how reading is an active process and we define what makes a “good” reader.
I try to abolish the myth that good readers automatically beam information from the text into their brains. Rather, I show them how expert readers actively think about textual evidence while they read. I also remind them of the basic elements of story. We start the year off by focusing on six “expert reader” skills: predicting, questioning, connecting, visualizing, evaluating, and clarifying.
6 Expert Reading Skills
My goal is to give my developing readers a purpose while reading, and to establish connections between specific evidence from the text and their understandings.
Usually, most students can ask questions and make connections to their personal lives or to the “real world” fairly well.
Sometimes they struggle to make predictions because novice readers get stuck explaining what has occurred in the text rather than explaining what will happen next.
A similar dilemma exists when the students try to visualize — some instinctively construct images in their minds, while others need to be prompted to examine the characters or the setting before they can form a mental picture.
Developing readers struggle the most when making evaluations or clarifications.
Despite teenagers’ natural inclinations to judge everything and everyone, they struggle to explain how and why they form their opinions. As we practice close reading, I have to prompt the students to consider what specific evidence is shaping their perceptions.
For most of my juniors, clarifying is even more difficult.
When struggling readers encounter a difficult or confusing passage, typically they skip past it. Students must recognize that even sophisticated readers happen upon challenging parts of texts. The difference is that advanced readers will confront these moments of confusion by rereading the text and using its context to create meaning.
As with the evaluation, I guide my juniors by asking them to consider the text’s structure — what about its use of syntax or diction reveals its meaning?
Hint fiction and these active reading skills are an effective combination because teachers can quickly assess how well students use specific evidence from the texts to construct meanings. This task is daunting, particularly at the beginning of the year; however, the students are less likely to be overwhelmed by twenty-five words.
I try to guide how they select textual evidence by reminding them of the elements of story: plot, characterization, setting, etc. I also prompt them to consider the hint fiction’s structure — in other words to read like writers.
We start by considering the story’s title and then move in chronological order. With this framework in mind, the students begin developing their meanings for the text by seeking out characters and settings.
I stress the need for them to anchor their interpretations to specific evidence, particularly to prepare them for college reading and the new SAT with its emphasis on close reading.
My hope is that as the year progresses and these conversations reoccur, many of my students will be able to strategize prior to reading a text. I want them to construct a mental checklist and run through it identifying the structures that can guide them towards a text meaning or help them to build their own.
Quick Hits: Other Benefits of Hint Fiction
Time Constraints — every English teacher struggles to help their students develop the skills necessitated by the Common Core and to read the texts on their department’s designated curriculum.
The brevity of hint fiction’s design enables teachers to quickly practice active reading with their students. These types of texts can be particularly useful as formative assessments — you can pre-assess your students’ reading skills or continuously monitor their progress throughout the year.
Short Attention Spans — a knock (somewhat unfairly) against today’s students is the duration of their focus.
However, these stories are easily “digested.” Sharing them in class can be an effective way to help developing readers build stamina for longer texts such as short stories and then novels.
Emphasis on Close Reading — when studying a novel, it’s difficult to create learning situations where the students can perform a word by word analysis.
Hint fiction’s compact structure forces the reader to consider each word individually. Then, the students can thematically connect these briefer texts to the longer works they are currently studying in class.
Preparing Students for the Future
Recently, I was sitting in a workshop during a professional development day and the presenter emphatically reminded us of, the former Secretary of Education, Richard Riley’s prognostication that:
“We are currently preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist, using technologies that haven’t been invented, in order to solve problems we don’t even know are problems yet.”
Twelve years later, I’m less concerned with the accuracy of Riley’s claim than I am with its central concern: how well are educators preparing students to adapt to their future environments?
As a teacher of high school juniors, I have an eye constantly fixed to the horizon, watching my students consider the paths that will lead them to college, the workforce, or the military. My fear is that they will graduate not fully prepared to face the challenges awaiting them following high school. As a result, I have made more of a concerted effort to emphasize problem-solving skills when teaching writing.
What are the “outcomes”?
When teaching writing, it’s easy for a teacher to become fixated on the final products our students produce. We want them to write convincing arguments or compelling narratives. We push them to instill maximum effort into their pieces. We help them discover a sense of purpose and ownership over their compositions.
These are all worthy goals.
However, we must reflect on the point of these assignments. What exactly are these writing outcomes preparing them for? How will these performances aid them in the future?
Researching the writing process in graduate school led me to question the importance placed on students’ writing outcomes.
Debating the value of process vs. product is a hardly a new development. In 1980, Ann E. Berthoff convincingly argued for more of an emphasis on “incomes” in her brief, but incredibly enlightening article, “Learning the Uses of Chaos.” In the text, Berthoff warns about the dangers of treating the writing process like it’s a recipe. It’s tempting for teachers to instruct our students: “first, prewrite, then draft, and finally revise, and voila you’re done!”
After all, this approach makes writing lessons plans easier and sets clearer deadlines. However, educators must recognize the truth: not all students begin their compositions by prewriting.
Instead, “When we teach pre-writing as a phase of the composing process, what we should be teaching is not how to get a thesis statement but the generation and uses of chaos; when we teach revision as a phase of the composing process, we are teaching just that — re-seeing ways out of chaos” (648)
In other words, writing instruction should acknowledge the challenges of composing: the harsh sterility of the blank page, the hanging dread of writer’s block, the harrowing feeling of exposure.
Rather than giving students a one-size-fits-all approach to their assignments, let’s admit these difficulties and then provide our students with strategies to survive the challenges waiting around the bend.
In 2015, I wrote my master’s thesis about how implementing process theory can help students navigate composing unfamiliar tasks.
One of the most frustrating discoveries was that my classroom cannot adequately replicate the composing environments where my students will eventually study or work. I cannot promote my students for excellence or fire them for incompetence; I cannot recreate the pressures of passing a college course or holding down a steady job.
If the neither the classroom nor the performances can prepare students for the future, then what can teachers do? Faced with these daunting questions, I decided to shift my focus towards Berthoff’s “incomes” — the strategies that students brought when performing a writing assignment.
As I altered course, I came across Mary Jo Reiff and Anis Bawarshi’s “discursive resources.”
These researchers investigated how best to prepare college freshman for first-year composition courses. Their article, “Tracing Discursive Resources: How Students Use Prior Genre Knowledge to Negotiate New Writing Contexts in First-Year Composition,” offered mental approaches that students could employ when attempting to adapt to the demands of the college composition classroom.
These strategies, combined with concepts from Mary Ehrenworth & Vicki Vinton’s The Power of Grammar: Unconventional Approaches to the Conventions of Language, helped me to identify and share with my students five key approaches to writing: accessing prior knowledge, possessing genre awareness, crossing boundaries, problem solving, and identifying as novices.
Accessing Prior Knowledge
Before my students begin writing, I motivate them to recall assignments that have any similarities to their current work.
Google Drive makes this task much easier than in the past: students now can store all of their past work and refer back to these compositions...if they’re relatively organized (a difficult task for some of them, I know). If they are able to identify similar assignments, then they can start identifying successful strategies from the past.
I ask them questions like: “How did you begin composing the older assignment?” or “What about your performance’s use of style or structure was effective?”
With repetition, these connections can become habits and students can begin to develop internal strategies, particularly if offered the opportunities to reflect on their growth as composers.
Possessing Genre Awareness
Unless students are given a freewriting assignment, then their assignments will have some sort of structure. Therefore, their new writing performance must have a set of conventions or rules that the students must follow to effectively complete the assignment. By recognizing these expectations, students can begin to craft their writing to meet the demands of both the task and its audience.
Sometimes prior to composing arguments or narratives, I will give my students surveys via Google Forms. These questions allow me to assess my students’ knowledge of argumentative writing or narrative writing, and can inform my feedback during our conferences.
Genre awareness is also helpful for revising work because students can then reconsider whether or not they have successfully fulfilled the obligations set forth by their purpose and audience. The conventions of the composing assignment provide concrete parameters that can empower students to make informed choices when they reconsider their methods of writing.
The prescripts of a compositional task inform students of when they must adhere to the typical guidelines of an assessment — and when they can deviate from these dictates.
As the year progresses, I prompt students to reflect on their usages of syntax and diction. I let them know that the rules of writing are not set in stone: language is an evolving medium. As a result, students can explore when to bend or outright break the rules of grammar for stylistic purposes.
Promoting boundary crossing empowers the students to take risks and thereby avoid entrenchment in set methods of composing. This strategy works best after the students have referred to past performances and identified the conventions of their new assignment. However, risk-taking is only possible if the students are willing to perceive themselves as novices.
Identifying As Novices
For students to truly learn, they must embrace failure. As beginners, they can only develop if provided the opportunities to learn from their mistakes.
However, it is difficult for them to adopt this mindset with the pressures placed upon them to earn high grades. Over the past two years, I have been exploring standards based grading to place less emphasis on letter grades. I’ve redesigned my gradebook to evaluate my students’ abilities to read, write, & critical think rather than detailing the assignments they have submitted. Instead, I indicate whether or not they proficiently perform these specific skills. Students are allowed to resubmit assignments again and again until they achieve proficiency, or go above and beyond, and achieve mastery.
Obviously, this grading system is different from traditional English classrooms and, at first, is anxiety inducing for most of my students. Many of them feel frustrated or discouraged when they initially don’t achieve proficiency. In attempt to alleviate these negative feelings, I stress to my students that they are novices — they are expected to make mistakes.
When composing, we hold conferences and identify where the students are finding success and where they need to develop their skills. Resubmitting their writing over and over, forces the students to repeatedly use these discursive resources. If students identify as novices or “noobs,” then they can be more positive and patient with the writing process. As I continue to explore this form of evaluation, I hope to deemphasize the importance of letter grades and to promote how compositional assignments provide real learning opportunities.
I'm an English teacher at Pascack Valley High School looking to grow both as a person and a professional.