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Jim Harstad on Teaching the Classroom Serial Story

Posted by BAMBOO BUCKAROO
Tuesday, May 07, 2019 10:11 PM


TEACHING THE CLASSROOM SERIAL STORY by Jim Harstad

During my years as an English teacher at the University Laboratory
School, I often assigned the whole-class writing of a serial story.
Typically, it would happen over the span of a school year, the final
product comprising as many chapters as there were students in the
class. Plus one, but more about that later.

The group effort generated a vital esprit throughout the class, a
shared pride in collective achievement. Some students became so
invested that years later more than one came back, demanding to know
whether I’d published their book under my name without telling
anybody. I’m not kidding.

What had I done with their books? Did they even exist? Usually, the
answer was an ego-deflating no. To be honest, none of those “novels”
were more than loosely related collections of episodes. The overall
plot was definitely secondary, but the picaresque episodes themselves
were lively and compelling, especially to classmates, their primary
audience. Everybody contributed, and everybody came to appreciate the
power of shared written storytelling.

As a teacher, I valued not only the enhanced classroom esprit de
corps, but also its relatively easy implementation. Here’s how we went
about it.

To start, everyone was required to write a first chapter response to a
prompt, sometimes consisting of a provocative sentence or two from a
novel or short story. In one class, “It was a bright cold day in
April, and the clocks were striking thirteen,” inspired some
outstanding first chapters as well as interest in Orwell’s “1984”,
from which it was borrowed. Other classes wrote lively responses to
such suggestions as “A Time I Was Really Scared” or “The Best Time I
Ever Had”.

We still used pen and paper back then, and I had students handwrite
their entire draft in-class, due at the end of the period. That proved
to be an effective plagiarism preventer, as well as a good way to
encourage energetic, written-under-the-gun narrative prose.

Evaluating and suggesting improvements to each student’s draft was the
most important and labor-intensive part of the process for me. I did
the job as quickly as possible, gave generous grades for effort, and
got papers back into students’ hands within a few days, the words
still fresh.

When I passed back the papers, I always made sure to leave about
twenty minutes at the end of class for students to ponder and begin
work on polished revisions, due a week later. But first I’d read a few
well-written student lines or paragraphs aloud and make general
suggestions regarding dialogue writing, perhaps, or character
descriptions.

The followup draft was to be at least a page and a half of cleanly
typed revision that addressed issues mentioned in my commentary as
well as incorporating students’ own inspired second thoughts. Those
who only typed corrected (i.e., spelling and punctuation) second
drafts got a lower grade than on their first draft, which was stapled
to the typed second draft for my easy reference. My mantra was, “Don’t
just make corrections, revise by re-imagining.”

I set no upper limit to number of pages and once received a
meticulously typewritten 22-page second draft from an eighth-grader
who now holds a Washington University (St. Louis) MD degree. Not a
provable cause-and-effect, certainly, but the opportunity to make so
precocious a feel-good effort so early in her academic career might
well have helped her achieve those ambitious future aspirations.
English teachers do try to be helpful and are willing to take credit
when we can. You’re welcome.

Among the polished second drafts would be perhaps four or five
standouts. These I would read to class applause, then either choose or
have the class choose the one destined to be the serial novel’s first
chapter. That would be placed in an 8 X 10 manila envelope and handed
to a strong writer who was given one week to produce Chapter Two.

After receiving the second chapter, I would go right to work grading
and writing comments. The next day, I’d read the chapter to the class
and hand it to the student who produced it, again stapled to the
handwritten first draft, an absolute requirement. I’d have written
that student’s name clearly on the outside of the envelope, along with
the grade they’d earned, doubled to emphasize the importance of doing
good work on this major assignment. In other words, an “A” was
recorded as an “AA” in my grade book and written that way both on the
paper itself and on the outside of the manila envelope where everyone
could see. Incentives all around.

That student passed the envelope, with the first two chapters inside,
to the next writer, whose name I’d written on the outside. It was
important in maintaining quality to choose the strongest writers
early. They set the tone and provided a high standard to inspire less
academic students farther down the list to strut their stuff when
their turn came. It was sometimes surprising and always inspiring to
see how imaginative otherwise marginal students could be and to see
how much they enjoyed basking in their classmates’ applause.

In this manner the developing narrative would pass from student to
student one week at a time. Writers were encouraged to read all the
previous chapters before beginning their own, learning from and being
inspired by what they saw. They also saw my comments and presumably
learned from those as well.

After the first chapter, my job boiled down to an easy once-a-week
reading and evaluation. At that point, students essentially took
ownership of a nearly self-perpetuating and richly fulfilling group
enterprise that was less classroom drudgery than an opportunity for
lively personal expression.

The honor of writing the last chapter was bestowed upon the student
who started it all, the writer of the first chapter. Applause when I
read that ending was spontaneous, heartfelt, and beautiful to hear.
Students were applauding themselves and each other, their shared
humanity. And they understood first-hand what a good thing that could
be.

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