A few years ago, our state standards added fiction (Why fiction?) under the narrative mode strands, and in my roles as ELA teacher and instructional coach, I began a hunt for lesson ideas, resources, and research to share with my ELA team.  After all, for most of my career, teaching students to write fiction was limited to creative writing classes. I felt out of my element.

And then I discovered the world of flash fiction.

At the time, I did not find much information from any of my go-to PD professionals, nor did I find much in the way of research.  But I did find an overwhelming number of sites that promoted and published flash fiction, including student flash fiction.  These sites also offered tips and reviews, and I knew that’s all I really needed.

I dedicated our first class of the unit to immersing students in flash fiction.  For some genre studies, I advocate for total discovery, allowing students to search online and in print, but because many of the flash fiction sites are targeted to adult readers, I pulled grade-appropriate examples for my students.

My students were already familiar with the protocols for “reading like a writer,” so I did not need to model the general strategy.  I piled several selections on the center of each group’s desks, and they started by simply reading the piece they chose.  Some students annotated; others chose not to annotate.

Since each person in a table group read a different selection, students regrouped all around the room with other students who read the same text.  I provided time for students to discuss and to ask questions, and then I directed students to “read like a writer with a focus ” while I listened in and guided groups as needed.

Read like a writer with a focus  takes on various purposes for me.  In this stage of the lesson, the focus was to notice elements of flash fiction.  In groups, students wrote notes of what they noticed in their sample flash fiction. Once students wrapped up capturing their thinking, they moved back to their table groups to share across several text examples, discussing similarities and differences.

I think this is an important step.  I know many teachers limit this part of a “notice and note” lesson, to borrow a term from Kylene Beers and Robert Probst, by asking all students to use one model text.  In this way, teachers ensure students focus on the elements they have predetermined as important.  But I think one key to keeping students engaged is to allow for true discovery.  If students know they are simply trying to “find” what the teacher wants them to find, the joy of the hunt disappears.  Other teachers feel their students would be completely lost without a demonstration first. If you determine your students need to see you model the strategy first, definitely work that into the plan.  See a model here.  In my experience, though, if students have done this with any mode of writing, they are able to apply the strategy without a demo.

Another benefit to allowing students to discover elements of a genre themselves is the lesson is automatically differentiated for the students in each classroom.  What students notice and articulate will reflect their current knowledge about the topic.  This can help determine mini-lessons or small group instruction that each class needs.

Which leads me to another benefit – time.

Almost every literacy teacher I know feels the pressure of time; there’s never enough to do all that the students need.  So why waste time presenting predetermined mini-lessons over basic information like elements of fiction or the structure of flash fiction?

Each table group then contributed to our class Elements of Flash Fiction chart.  While there are many methods of creating a chart, my favorites always include time for students to get up and write on the chart (or multiple charts) themselves or to negotiate what I should write on the chart by using a strategy.  One strategy I like is  Four Corners. For this lesson, a group will throw out a strategy, and then students can move to the corner of the room to indicate how strongly they agree or disagree that the element is important enough to go on the chart.  (The four corners are labeled strongly agree, agree, disagree, and strongly disagree).

The question in a secondary classroom is “How do I avoid ending up with 5-7 charts of the same information?”  Sometimes I use all of the charts, switching them each class period, but I didn’t always want to have to remember to switch charts.  One tactic I used with success is posting all of the charts the second day, and asking students to choose their top 4 per class period, and from these lists, I created one universal anchor chart.  This is a wonderful way to review the information and to ask students to critically evaluate each idea at the same time.

Depending on your school’s class periods, this is either one or two class periods. I was fortunate to finish the class chart, but that’s all the time we had.  If you have more time, you could ask students to reflect in their journals about what they discovered about flash fiction, what element they want to be sure to try when they write, or their main take-aways.  If you prefer, students could jot one thing they learned about flash fiction and one question they have on an exit ticket.  This would provide a quick check for understanding and provide a record of ideas for explicit mini-lessons.

What’s next?  Students apply their learning to new text.