So You Think You Can Write? By Anya Shaw and Veronique Ward
Once upon a time there was a teen class who hated writing; a teacher, Chris, and a page from English File Upper Intermediate. What followed was a tale of overcoming adversity, trial and error, competition and ultimately, inspiration. And so the IH Belgrano 50 Word Story writing competition was born. (50 words)
What are 50 Word Stories?
The 50 Word Story is, well, pretty self-explanatory really. It’s a story, and it has to be exactly 50 words long – no more, no less. Contractions count as two words. Considering that even short stories are a good few pages long at the very least, writing something in 50 words is no mean feat. Think about it: 50 words to convey passion, drama, emotion and humour; to write a beginning, a middle and an end; too engage the reader, and compose a clear narrative that will make a lasting impression on them.
50 Word Stories are really quite addictive. They’re short, they’re snappy and they tackle all sorts of subject matter. There’s even a website, fiftywordstories.com, started by founder Tim Sevenhuysen in 2009 as a personal challenge to himself and his creative juices. Soon after, he started including reader submissions as well and, six years down the line, is posting two stories per weekday.
What you plan to be a quick visit to the site will find you sitting in the same spot, hours later, still scrolling down the page as you read about love, murder, adventure… or just the daily grind. The stories are often dark, and funny, and usually come with an unexpected twist. They make you think about the world in a new light and draw attention to the unappreciated and the overlooked.
And so it begins…
It all starts with a page from English File Upper Intermediate (let’s face it – it often does). Page 28 to be precise. Chris Hylland sits at his desk planning his lesson. He’s enthused by the idea of the 50 Word Story but unsure of how to bring the activity to life for his teen class. He decides upon that old tried and tested classic of a little class competition: The students will write their stories and vote for their favourites. But Chris is one of those teachers that always takes it a step further. How can I get them really motivated? What about public display? But not just among the classmates. Chris decides to contact Tim Sevenhuysen, the guy who runs the website upon which the English File activity is based, asking him if he’d mind publishing the winning story. Tim replies, saying he’d be delighted. Two days later one of Chris’ students, Ariel D’Agostino, comes to the next class clutching his story:
Mirror Mirror on the Wall
I’m the only one that looks you in the eye.
I’m the only one with you when you are completely alone.
I’m the one who will never reveal your secrets.
I’m the one who sees the things you don’t want to show.
I’m your reflection but your shadow too.
I’m your mirror.
Ariel is 12 years old and remember, English is not his first language. The quality of the stories Chris gets from his students is outstanding, especially given that teens don’t normally get into writing very much. He send Ariel’s story to Tim and lo and behold, Ariel’s story is published for the world to see. Needless to say little Ariel is chuffed to bits. One day in the teachers’ room, Chris suggests extending the competition across the whole school.
So you think you can write?
Fast forward to the end of the competition: one of the winning entries came from Liza Murlender in Proficiency 2. In fact we’ve borrowed (with her kind permission) her title for this article.
So you think you can write?
Suddenly, it comes.
After days where the clock hands seemed glued in place and your pencil kept monotonously moving in circles on the side of the intimidating sheet of paper.
It is perfectly clear to you now.
But a race between your lazy hand and your awakened mind has started.
Aside from being an inspired story, Liza really captures the problem a lot of our students encounter when it comes to writing: so they think they can write, but do they really know how to go about it and what’s needed? So we as teachers think they can write, but are we providing them with all the necessary tools? Liza talks of this all too familiar torture of not knowing how to get started, the intimidating sheet of paper, lacking ideas, waiting for inspiration- and then hopefully that eureka moment when it all starts to flow. Chris Tribble wrote that “not surprisingly then, an ability to write something appropriately which evades many of us, even in our mother tongues. It is not a skill that is readily picked up by exposure” (Writing, OUP 1996). So if simply practising writing doesn’t in itself make our students better writers, what can we do to help?
Subskills and Microwritings
Writing is often a rather neglected skill. At IH Belgrano writing is of course part of the syllabus for each level but it’s typically not looked at until the end of each unit, and the danger here is that it’s the only writing students do. It’s also the skill that our students do worse in when it comes to exams. Microwritings, or writing little and often, and looking at what skills our students need to write well, is therefore something we wanted to focus on.
With this in mind and to coincide with the launch of the writing competition, we decided to hold one of our weekly input sessions for teachers not only on the 50 Word Story Competition, which by this time was really taking shape, but also on the importance of microwritings and writing subskills.
When we talk about writing subskills, we’re thinking about what it is that good writers have to think about, from range of lexis and grammar through text structure to proofreading. They are areas in which students often need help to become competent writers. In microwritings, you can really focus in on particular areas to help your students without necessarily having to produce an entire piece of writing such as the ones you find at the end of the units in your coursebook.
50 Word Stories also lend themselves very well to the process approach to writing: brainstorming, crafting, drafting, proofreading and editing all come into play. But the finished product, something they can be proud of, is of course vital too. A 50 Word Story is essentially an example of microwriting – a bite-sized writing activity with the added bonus that it gets your students’ creative juices flowing and offers endless options for class activities.
What’s great is that the activities can be tailored to what your particular group of students need in terms of writing subskills or what they are interested in. If they need work on punctuation, give them a story with no punctuation. If it’s range of language they lack, give them a story where they have to upgrade the adjectives or verbs. Get them to write stories on the topics of the units you’ve been studying or using language they’ve seen. It can be adapted to pretty much anything and can be a quick half hour in class or an on-going project.
To motivate the students we made their stories available to public vote, through posting them on our Facebook page. The teachers got involved too, writing their own stories to post on Facebook as an example and to get the students started and aim for something concrete. And not only did they aim high but more often than not they wrote far better stories than us! There were tear-jerkers, inspirational tales, a rather worrying number of grizzly murders, moral messages, word play, happy (and unhappy) endings and unexpected twists.
As a teacher, it’s a great activity for taking a step away from the book whilst still making it very relevant to the syllabus, and inviting students to take part in a little light-hearted competition. We held the competition right before mid-year exams too, so it fitted in nicely with our revision sessions and allowed teachers to set their own aims for the activity, based around the language we’d seen that term. This reinforced the relevance of the competition to their personal level and helped inspire them to write something using language they were familiar with and confident about.
In the end almost all of our teachers got involved and we had over 80 entries from a whole range of levels and ages. The key ingredients of writing practice, focusing on specific writing subskills, creativity, public display and competition makes it, we hope you’ll agree, a very worthwhile, valuable and in our case successful competition.
And inspired our students were, living happily ever after, safe in the knowledge that they had successfully consolidated their writing techniques.
Anya has worked for IH for 10 years, is currently the DoS at IH Belgrano, Buenos Aires and is also a Celta tutor. She originally intended to stay in Argentina for a few weeks but soon fell in love with the place and ended up making it her home.