An integral part of ninth grade English at Lincoln Academy is the short story unit, in which students read and discuss famous short stories, including stories by Edgar Allen Poe, P.G. Wodehouse, and William Faulkner. After studying the form for several months, students take on as ambitious project: writing their own short story.
After writing their stories and sharing them with their peers, students in the honors English sections read their stories aloud at the Short Story Coffee House, held each March at LA. This year’s Coffee House was held on March 25, and several dozen ninth grade honors English students stood up in front of a microphone and read their own fiction to a large audience in the LA Dining Commons. For many students, this was a powerful experience.
“I was kind of scared,” said ninth grade honors English student Grace Wehrle. “My hands were shaking and I messed up some words.”
Despite the nerves, most students found the short story unit a powerful learning experience. “Most of our other assignments are lessons that are set out by someone else for us to learn,” says Sam Laemmle, a ninth grade honors English student. “Writing a short story allows us to craft our own experience, dig deep into our own creativity. It lets us make up our own stuff without being told what to do.”
Patti Sims has been teaching English at Lincoln Academy for more than 25 years. She explains the purpose of the short story unit this way: “the very foundation of literature are the Six Elements of Literature: plot, setting, character, point of view, theme, and tone. Taken as a whole the nuances of each of the elements can get jumbled and then the potency of each gets diffused. When each element is studied as a single focus, the students can concentrate on how the author efficaciously handled that element. The exercise of the short story unit, done through choice of good literature, becomes a model for students as they build one focus upon another. After all the elements are studied through stories and discussed in detail, the students have a better understanding of the confluence of these. They are ready to then apply these in writing of their own.”
Freshman honors English student Levi McAtee clearly understands this idea. “Short stories are compact. In a short story it is easier to see each section, and how the story fits together to give a strong message.”
From the time they begin planning and writing their own story, students know that they will read this story aloud in front of an audience of not only their peers, but their parents, their peers’ parents, and other teachers and community members who attend the Short Story Coffee House. This knowledge of the audience “made me want to write the best story I could,” says Grace Wehrle. “I put more effort into it knowing people would hear it.”
The short story unit has been refined over many years of teaching ninth grade English at Lincoln Academy. Ms. Simms uses the famous quote by Sir Francis Bacon as her guide: “Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man.” She says, “when students write their stories, they have to be done with precision, thoughtfulness, and skill to be as effective as the masters they have studied. The practice reinforces all that they have learned in a real application they now own.”
In addition to reading and analyzing well-known short stories, the unit also puts emphasis on peer editing. “I definitely learned more about how to give feedback and work with my peers,” says Grace Wehrle. Sam Laemmle agrees, “It’s one thing when a teacher points out mistakes. It’s another thing to have your peers give you advice. You definitely take more note of it. If another student gives you information or useful advice, you really listen.”
The combination of reading, analyzing, peer editing, and performing makes for effective learning. Grace Wehrle says, after the experience of writing her own story, “I can see more now how an author thinks, how they choose things in stories.”
Kendra Bellefleur, another honors English student, says, “when I started reading the stories, I didn’t see all the little things that add up to a story. Especially when I read the stories before we discussed them in class, it was hard to pick things up. But after writing my own story, I can see much more clearly what the authors are doing.”
And freshman Tommy Thelander puts it this way. “A lot of the stuff we learned seemed a little useless at first. But once I started writing, once we started using those things, that stuff became really useful!”
In the words of veteran teacher Patti Sims, “to share these stories is a validation that students have accomplished something great and worthy for others to hear. Hearing others’ writings also hones their own analytical skills. By creating a story, the student demonstrate that they understand the process of writing literature enough that they can analyze, synthesize, and transfer their learned skill to even greater reading/ writing tasks that they will face not only in the continued Advanced English classes, but also have a strong base for the rest of their academic and personal lives.”