Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Keepin' It Real

Snow day #7.

This time, I have the house to myself. My boys had a two-hour delay this morning, so after scuttling them out the door, I parked myself in front of the fireplace to plan. And email. And follow-up. To make arrangements and get permission.

But this is not a bad thing. In fact, it is perfect timing. I laid out a challenge for myself at the beginning of this school year: each writing assignment I asked my students to complete needed to be for an authentic purpose, an authentic audience. This has been a passion of my since I began teaching and working with my regional Writing Project over a decade ago. But up until this year, I had been teaching in the Philadelphia area, rich with connections and resources. This year, I am teaching in a rural district in central Michigan. Would I be able to connect my rural readers and writers with similar authentic experiences? Sounded like a perfect challenge for me!

My students and I have been incredibly fortunate this year to connect with so many different experts in a variety of fields. We've had the local university newspaper editors in to speak with my journalism students, we've Skyped with the Salem Witch Museum while studying Arthur Miller's play The Crucible, and the last two weeks have been all about connections!

My tenth graders began our American Nightmares unit at the start of our new semester near the close of January. We've discussed what identifies a literary work as a piece of Dark Romantic or Gothic literature. We've read Poe's "The Raven" and "The Fall of the House of Usher," discussed T.S. Eliot's "The Hollow Men," reviewed "The Yellow Wallpaper" and "Young Goodman Brown," next week we'll read Stephen King, and all the while, we've been using these as mentor texts for writing our own Gothic-inspired short stories.  But the students are not simply writing a story for me to read, and they aren't putting together a simple class anthology. No. We are writing for publication.

Inspired by fellow Writing Project teacher Brian Kelly and his amazing group of eighth graders, my students and I are publishing our short stories in a collected book via Amazon's CreateSpace. I knew that when I began my year teaching American Literature that this is where we were headed. And it has taken all of the last 20 weeks to get here.

Each writing lesson has built to the past two weeks.  Early in our year together, students submitted work for publication in other venues. A number of my students were published a few months back after submitting creative work to spaces like Teen Ink and Figment, but now we are not simply submitting our work to an outside editor to approve or reject. I have asked my students to become the writers, the editors, the producers, and production managers as well.

In preparation, we needed to know a lot about writing Gothic and horror-inspired short stories. We needed expert help. So not only did we look to our texts as our mentors, but we opened up our classroom doors and invited the experts in. Last week we were so fortunate to have two fantastic Michigan horror writers, Peggy Christie and MontiLee Stormer, from the Great Lakes Association of Horror Writers (GLAHW) join our classes. Yup, multiple classes. These two women hit the road early to travel from the Detroit area to spend the entire day in rural, mid-Michigan and connect with my high school writers.  And we learned so much! They shared their inspiration for crafting stories, advice for building suspense, thoughts on current writers and movies (boo to "gore-porn"), and answered so many of our questions as we were drafting our own stories. Walking out the door at the end of the day, Ms. Stormer shared that the GLAHW also used Amazon's CreateSpace to publish their group's annual editions and offered to help with our process of using the space if we needed it. The whole experience invigorated our classroom of writers. Students have drafted and crafted in earnest. And the snow days helped. Over the course of last week's snow days, I had students return to class this past Monday with 9, 10, and 11 page short stories!

And then came Monday.  In an effort to better understand what makes something frightening, psychologist Dr. Robin Ward joined my tenth grade English classes to talk about the origins of fear, dread, and the uncanny.  Our stories are focused on psychological terror and dread, less on gore. We needed to better understand what triggered that sense of dread. Dr. Ward spoke about our innate flight or fight responses, what triggers those responses, and how the body physically responds to these sensations, all of which helped us add more concrete details to our stories. And no Gothic-inspired story would be complete with out a sense of the uncanny, so Dr. Ward shared a bit of Freud's essay on the uncanny, which he referred to as the unheimlich, or "un-homelike." And the students scribbled down notes in their writer's notebooks while he spoke. Were they listening? Heck yes! How do I know?

Today. I'm parked in front of my fireplace, laptop teetering on my knees as I enjoy my second snow day this week. My inbox is filling up by the minute with "So and So's Google Doc (Invitation to edit)." Story after story drops into my Google Drive folder. Students are spending their snow day writing, just like I am. What more could an English teacher ask for? Students have a "day off" and they are spending it as a "day on." They are writing and revising, using their mentor texts and advice from experts to craft clear narratives that employ the rhetorical strategies of Gothic literature. It has been an incredibly productive day off, if you ask me.

And me, well not only have I had time to write as well, but I already have my next connection planned. On Friday, my public speaking students and I will head over to our local assisted living center to interview elderly residents about their childhood for StoryCorps.  But that's for another blog post. Until then, we're keepin' it real.

Interested in my American Nightmares unit resources?  Find my unit materials HERE.
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