What makes a good story? In this project-based learning unit, students explore that question in a variety of modes, including reading and analyzing exemplary short fiction, learning narrative theory, and writing and peer-revising their own stories. This unit culminates in a panel presentation as well as a published magazine of student work.
What makes a good story? A simple question, yes, but also one that underpins not just the work we do in a high school English department, but really across disciplines, and in the relationships that we build with one another. It is also particularly relevant, of course, in a Jewish high school context, in which students are frequently being asked to reflect on how their individual stories connect to and diverge from our communal Jewish story. Last winter, 11th grade students at Gann Academy embarked on a month-long project-based learning unit that sought to answer that question. Their answers, which came in the forms of teaching exemplary short stories to one another, reading and discussing (developmentally-appropriate) literary theory, writing their own short fiction and memoir pieces, and presenting their learning to a panel of teachers and administrators, informed and deepened their work for the rest of the year.
To begin this PBL, I focused closely on what students should know and be able to do when the unit was complete. Those goals, listed below, defined the instructional plan:
Students will know:
- Basic and intermediate-level language for describing and analyzing narrative fiction (character, plot, image, language, etc.)
- Some frameworks for understanding and evaluating the craft of narratives and fiction (story theory)
- How to choose a single craft focus for thinking and writing about a piece of narrative fiction
- How to play with writing compelling stories
Students will do:
- Read, discuss, and compare a variety of literary short fiction
- Write a short response paper focusing on a single craft element in a short story
- Practice writing narrative fiction or non-fiction and experience, through a peer feedback and revision process, the process of writing a compelling story.
- Write a reflection on “what makes a good story?”
- Offer substantive feedback on classmates’ narrative writing
In order to achieve those objectives, we began the unit by asking students to think about their favorite books or stories and considering what they loved about those stories. Here are their responses:
We then watched this TED talk by Andrew Stanton, a Pixar executive, and began to think about the “clues to a great story.”
My students, excited, began to aggregate a list of qualities to look for in stories, some of which contradicted each other! Should stories surprise and fill the reader with awe, for example, or should they reflect familiar experience to which the reader can relate? Armed with these basic ideas, they chose short stories they’d like to read in greater depth, and in small groups began to analyze not just the meaning but also the narrative skeletons of those stories deeply enough to teach them to their peers. Here are the stories they read:
Though it was not the highest priority learning goal of the lesson, an added benefit of this group work challenge – preparing a lesson on a given story for their peers – was to demystify for students how teachers think about offering instruction to their students. To that end, they used graphic organizers to determine the most important elements of their designated texts as well as a lesson template to plan the modalities they wanted to use to teach their peers.
Here is the class, divided into small groups, planning and teaching their lessons:
And here are a few of the student lessons:
By the time students had studied, discussed, and taught their stories, they knew them well enough to choose a craft element and write a short essay analytical about how the use of that element contributed to the story being “good.” I have been teaching 11th grade English for many years, and was thrilled to find that this was among the strongest student writing I’d seen!
Throughout this unit, students began each day’s lesson with a creative writing prompt. By a few weeks into the unit, they had generated enough ideas, and built up enough understanding of what makes a good story that they were able to make good choices about which writing prompt had good potential to be turned into a longer, more polished piece. We spent a full day consolidating our knowledge, identifying the main categories that distinguish a good story, and collaboratively, they created a rubric for what makes a good story. Here is what they came up with:
|How to Engage the Reader|
|Complex Characters||Relationships that matter, characters change or develop over time, relatability|
|Problem to solve||interesting plot, hook, motive to keep reading, goal/purpose, building to climax|
|Narrative Elements||Style, point of view, use of language, description, and imagery, use of dialogue|
|Change or journey||Suspense, plot twists and reveals, journey and destination, “2+2 not 4,” full-circle|
|Emotional Theme||Feelings or ideas that matter|
Students then worked in small workshop groups to offer each other constructive peer feedback to revise and improve their work. Once those pieces were complete, they assigned themselves editing and publishing tasks and created a final magazine for the short stories and memoirs they’d written. (See the full magazine attached below!)
Perhaps the highlight of an exciting month of learning together was the faculty event that students convened to present their work. To prepare, students identified the teachers and administrators from across disciplines who they wanted to invite and decidedly jointly what role each of them would play during the presentation. They also came to consensus about what success would look like in the presentation, and how, accordingly, I should evaluate their work. Our presentation day was tremendous. Members of the English department as well as science, Jewish studies, and math teachers arrived alongside our Head of School and Director of Teaching and Learning. Students planned panel questions to ask one another, focusing on what they learned and how they learned it. They decided which pieces from their magazine would be read aloud, and who would MC the Q&A session with their teachers. For the entire 70 minutes of the period, I sat on the side of the room just observing the students owning their learning fully, deeply, collaboratively, and with great pride.
In the immediate aftermath of this project, students wrote reflection pieces and completed this survey. Their responses demonstrated not just deep engagement in the material, but also complex and nuanced understandings of how to answer the original question: what makes a good story? Importantly, the deep level of analysis, evaluation, and creation that the students engaged in during this project-based learning unit paid significant dividends throughout the remainder of the school year. Now that students had mature vocabulary and conceptual frameworks for how narrative works, they were able to apply that knowledge to The Great Gatsby, The Color Purple, A Streetcar Named Desire, and the other texts we read together. Moreover, that application was meta-cognitive – students could and did name the ways that they thought about the building blocks of good writing in their reflections throughout the year.
Lily Rabinoff-Goldman began her career as an educator in Teach for America in the New York City public schools. She joined Gann Academy in 2010 as a member of the English Department and assumed the role of Department Chair in 2012. Currently, Lily is also serving as Assistant Director of Teaching and Learning. In that role, she’s responsible for a school-wide curriculum mapping project and is part of the steering committee overseeing Gann’s focus on Mastery Learning. Lily built and continues to oversee the Gann Writing Center, and during the 2013-2015 school years managed the school’s reaccreditation process. Another important focus of her current work at Gann is collaborating with other faculty and staff members to deepen Gann’s commitment to inclusivity, access, and equity for all members of the school community. Lily is particularly proud of her creative writing students, whose work has been recognized for excellence through awards and publications.
Lily is a graduate of Brown University, Bank Street College of Education and the Master of Fine Arts Program in Fiction Writing at UMass Boston. She is married to fellow Gann faculty member, Rabbi Hillel Greene, and they have two children.