Tag Archives: storytelling

The Top Secret YA StoryBox Project

This post is an Interview by NCTE member Kevin Cordi, founder of the StoryBox Project, with Randi Jo Flynn, Jackson Middle School, Ohio.

About a dozen schools in Ohio have been selected to finish unpublished stories by popular YA authors.  The stories arrive in a storybox and then are sent to the next school outside of Ohio.  They are sent around the nation and Canada.  I had the pleasure of viewing the Top Secret Storybox launch at Randi’s school and had to find out more.

What attracted you to be involved in the project? 

As an avid reader and writer outside of the classroom, I’m always looking for innovative literacy activities. When I learned of the opportunity from Dr. Kevin Cordi, who I met through the Columbus Area Writing Project, I knew I had to apply.

I’m elated at having been selected because I knew how exciting this would be for my students.

I know that initially the project was geared for high school students. Why do you believe middle school students would be attracted to this project?

I knew my middle school students would be attracted to the project because of the creativity this project allows. Middle school students want to be seen as adults so badly; however, there is still that part that loves to tell stories and be silly. I’ve also discovered that they are working diligently to produce the strongest pieces of writing possible. They are determined to not be labeled “the middle school writers.” Instead, they want to be seen as equal to the high school writers.

How have you prepared for the students to be ready or eager for the arrival of the stories?

After I told my students that we’d been chosen for the project, I created a bulletin board that said “Top Secret YA StoryBox Coming Soon”. After a few days, I announced the authors involved and created a display using dozens of their books, which added great excitement. Seeing the books made the project real.

Then, students were each assigned an author to “spy on”; in other words, they had to research the author and create a classified file. This file contained interesting information and the list of the author’s works.

I posted a countdown for the arrival of the storybox, and we anxiously awaited its arrival.

On the day of the JMS launch, the students were called to the cafeteria for a top secret celebration featuring Dr. Kevin Cordi, the creator of the project. My students were beyond thrilled to hear about the project and the many exciting places it will travel to after it leaves them.  Finally, I handed each class a Top Secret file that contained the stories. This was the first glimpse they’d had of the writings. But before they could open the file, they had to complete the Top Secret Mission that was written on a scroll. The scroll contained details about the project, and after the students read [it], they placed the scroll in water and watched the message and the paper disappear.

How did the students use the stories?

The students would enter my classroom and immediately check the daily agenda to see if I had the storybox project scheduled. If I did, they would quickly take their seats and get started reading. I never had to redirect them when the stories were being read, which was magical.

Once the students had access to the stories, they each kept a log where they recorded the stories they’d read and their opinions of each story. I gave them opportunities to discuss the stories with their peers, and it was interesting to listen to them. Their discussions almost seemed like debates where they would passionately explain why one story would be “cooler” to finish than another.  But what was interesting to hear was how polite their discussions were. Not once did the students say something negative about a story; they just would say, “It’s not for me to finish.” I loved that! This project allowed us to create a writing community where students learned to respect the writings of others.

I loved this year’s selections. We were fortunate to have a variety of authors who wrote across multiple genres. There was something for everyone.

Although all stories that I allowed my students to choose from were selected by at least one student, the most popular story was by Alan Gratz. Of course, New York Times bestseller Maggie Stiefvater and local author Mindy McGinnis were close behind.

How is this experience, if at all, different from a regular classroom assignment?  Please explain.

Although I’m still using the writing standards like I would for any other writing project, the storybox offers an authentic audience and an opportunity for creativity not usually found in the traditional essay. My students are excited that their peers and the authors could read their writings.

After the project leaves, is there anything that you have learned about working with the YA Top Secret StoryBox that you will take with you in future teaching?

This experience has been so positive that I’m saddened it has to end, but I know this means I must find another way to invigorate my students. I’ve learned to let go of the conventional assignment and to find ways to allow student choice and creativity because my students have been so engaged, and I feel they’ve learned more as a result. They’ve taken complete ownership and are proud of their creations.

Tell us anything else that you want to include.

It’s been a wonderful opportunity because my school has been talking about writing! Even teachers from other subject areas have stopped by my room to learn more about the project because they’ve heard the students discussing it.

Now, my students are looking forward to the (James) Thurber Center Ohio Launch because many of the cooperating authors will be attending.


You can find out more about the project and the over 30 YA contributors at https://sites.google.com/onu.edu/yaunfinishedstorybox/home?authuser=1.   Contact Kevin at www.kevincordi.com.

Kevin D. Cordi is the chair for the Storytelling SIG for NCTE and is according to the National Storytelling Network, “the first full time high school storytelling teacher in the country.”  He is the author of Playing with Stories: Story Crafting for Writers, Teachers, and Other Imaginative Thinkers and the coauthor with Judy Sima of Raising Voices: Creating Youth Storytelling Groups and Troupes. He is an assistant professor of narrative and literacy for the Education Department at Ohio Northern University. You can find out more at www.kevincordi.com.

Randi Flynn is an eighth grade language arts teacher at Jackson Middle School in Grove City, Ohio. She enjoys writing fiction and aspires to be a published novelist.


The Territory of Literature

books2016’s first issue of English Education offers the last article by the late George Hillocks Jr., “The Territory of Literature.” In it, Hillocks suggests improvements in how literature is taught.

Students, he says, are usually “taught that a plot is what happens in a story, that a setting is where a story takes place, and that there are certain points of view an author may take: first person, limited, omniscient, and so forth. . . . But all of these are normally treated by providing only simple definitions with no practice in interpreting any of them in any depth. Is it any wonder that kids cannot read thoughtfully?”

Too often, he says, English teachers move from one piece of literature to the next without leading students to compare and contrast the works. The result: reading one work contributes little to understanding or appreciating the next.

What solutions does Hillocks suggest?

One is to better teach how fiction can be categorized. “Such a typology should . . . provide insight into a wide variety of texts, and it should make it possible for students to recognize, in works new to them, what they have seen in works previously studied.”

Among the types he suggests teaching are the five outlined by Northrop Frye:

  • Mythic, in which the hero is “superior in kind both to other men and to the environment of other men” such as a story about Superman;
  • Romantic, in which the hero is more down to earth but still “superior in degree to other men and to his environment;”
  • High Mimetic, in which the hero is “superior to other men but not to his natural environment;”
  • Low Mimetic, in which the hero is “superior neither to other men nor to his environment, the hero is one of us;” and
  • Ironic, in which the hero is “inferior in power or intelligence to ourselves, so that we have the sense of looking down on a scene of bondage, frustration, or absurdity.”

Another way to improve literature lessons is to examine more closely the definition of plot. “The school idea of plot as the sequence of events in a story is totally inadequate in terms of gleaning any meaning from a work. We need to consider how events in conjunction with the characters involved give rise to emotional response from the reader.”

Because plot can be defined as the “synthesis of action, character, and thought,” any one of these three elements can be the focus of a plot, impacting the story’s structure.

“Plots of action result in material changes in the material circumstances of one or more main characters,” he writes. “Plots of character involve a series of events that result in changes in the values and moral character of the hero. [And] plots of thought focus on the thinking of the character and involve a thorough change in the character’s thinking through engagement with his or her surroundings.”

Another suggestion: lead students to examine the author’s moral outlook, emphasizing “the ability to infer the assumptions and values of the author and those of the narrator, which may not coincide. The narrators of Poe’s ‘The Cask of Amontillado’ and ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ are quite different . . . Both are obsessive, perhaps, but about different things, one about revenge, the other about guilt and fear. Teachers can tell students the difference, but to become expert readers, students need practice in making such discriminations for themselves.”

He adds:

More important is the necessity to help students determine the extent to which a narrator is reliable or unreliable. In my experience, students have a strong tendency to accept whatever a narrator says without questioning the degree to which he or she represents the author’s thinking. But there are always clues to a narrator’s unreliability. Many characters make statements that are unreliable, with their unreliability evident in their misstatements, distortions of fact, and exaggerations. These cues . . . call upon the reader to reconstruct the text’s surface meaning.


Read all of George Hillocks Jr.’s suggestions in depth in “The Territory of Literature.”


The Importance of Narrative: Stories That Stay With Us

 The following post by Shana Karnes is reprinted with permission from the Three Teachers Talk blog. 

I was reading a weekly one-pager yesterday and came upon this little note from a student:


This student, Aleigha, had taken an elective writing class with me as a sophomore. Now, as a senior, she wanted to revisit the story she’d begun two years ago, and give it a different ending. I was surprised that Aleigha had remembered that story, and that its ending had nagged her for two years. I was even more surprised, as I started to read her one-pager, that I remembered her story, too–a fictional narrative in which two soulmates are torn asunder by circumstance. She’d ended the story unhappily, leaving the two protagonists separate. In this year’s one-pagers, though, she’s slowly bringing them back together.

Aleigha’s narrative was powerful to her, and personal, despite its fictional genre. Her peers’ feedback indicated that her characters’ situations were relateable—–that everyone wants people in love to end up together, because it’s something we all strive for as humans. Narratives give us something to root for.

blog-Importance-of-Narrative-NCTEblog-clipartDuring a Google Hangout this summer, Jackie talked about her students’ writing of narratives, and how “the transformative power of common stories” brought out their best and most vulnerable writing. “Every child has a story to tell,” agrees Don Graves. Because of this truth, narratives are my favorite genre to teach.

We all have a story to tell—a story that stays with us, that we can’t get out of our minds, no matter how long it’s been since the idea was seeded.

As my students write their narratives, I’m shocked by how naturally the words are flowing out of their pens. When the topic is powerful, I feel like I have little to do in the way of writing instruction—I simply have to get out of the way and let them write.

I have mini-lessons planned on pacing, setting, sensory details, and characterization. But I’m finding beautiful writing already extant in their drafts:

“Every time I step onto the ice, it takes me to my childhood,” Mitchell’s story begins.

Kaylee stuns me with: “The musky smell of burning wood rose into the air as the sound of water crackling split the silence.”

“Realizing you’re gay, and accepting you’re gay, are two very different things,” another story leads with.

The brilliant Tom Newkirk explains why students are able to effortlessly write this way in Minds Made for Stories:

“The hero of the story is a narrative itself. . . . Narrative is there to help us ‘compose’ ourselves when we meet difficulty or loss. It is there to ground abstract ideas, to help us see the pattern in a set of numerical data, to illuminate the human consequences of political action. It is home base.”

We make sense of the world by weaving its happenings into a story—by the time our students come to their notebooks with an idea, they’ve already rehearsed this story many times. They are just bursting to tell it. It is home base.

While narrative may not be considered the most “rigorous” of genres, I believe it is the most important one. It is the writing that demands to be done–the genre that is the most personally fulfilling, the most emotionally wrenching to write, but the most necessary to exorcise from our minds.

Let your students write their stories—–write your own beside them–and watch your community of writers bloom.

Shana Karnes currently teaches twelfth-grade English in Morgantown, West Virginia. Visit Shana’s blog at threeteacherstalk.com, find her on Twitter at @litreader, or talk books on GoodReads at www.goodreads.com/mrskarnes.


Storytelling as Advocacy in Higher Education

Jim Webber discusses storytelling as advocacy in higher edThe following piece was submitted by Jim Webber, an assistant professor of English at the University of Nevada, Reno. He studies public discourse about literacy education and teaches academic, public, and professional writing. He is also one of NCTE’s Higher Ed Policy Analysts. 

In November 2013, I posted here about how the Nevada System of Higher Education (NSHE) has embraced Complete College America’s (CCA) call to eliminate “remediation,” which has meant removing basic writing from  the University of Nevada, Reno, and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. CCA argues that basic writing takes a lot of time and money but doesn’t offer an acceptable return on investment.

I’d like to share a small example of my advocacy on this issue. While reading about the CCA in 2013, I brought their 2012 report (Remediation: Higher Education’s Bridge to Nowhere) to a capstone class for writing majors. We discussed the report’s economic framing of a public issue because students were preparing to write for local and state public audiences about issues they were studying. I was thinking of the CCA report as a genre exercise for my students.

During class, though, one student shifted this discussion. He said, “Well, I kind of disagree with them, because I took English 098 (UNR’s basic writing course), and now I’m a writing major, and I’m preparing for professional work involving writing.” The moment resonated because it sounded like it could “chang[e] stories about writing and writers” (Linda Adler-Kassner, The Activist WPA). That student’s experience is the kind that NCTE highlights: it “tell[s] people how legislative policies trickle down to the communities where they live and where they send their children to school.”

After this class, I began asking students to describe their experiences with basic writing, and I found more examples of a similar pathway through 098 to a major in writing.

These conversations suggested a new focus for me, which is to listen to my students’ experiences so that I can tell stories to policy actors. These stories make an old argument—that basic writing is not waste and futility—but in a specific context that illustrates the public value of literacy educators’ professional judgment.

My next step is to craft these stories to share them with the audiences who’ve adopted the CCA’s policies: the NSHE Chancellor’s Office and the Nevada Governor’s Office. These offices are not seeking my input on CCA, but as the process of implementation begins, I anticipate new discussions will arise. My aim is to reopen discussion to consider local and specific effects of these policies.

A Common Language for Responding to Writing

connectedness (2)The following is a response to the Assessment Story Project we got from Matt, a college educator. He’s addressing the question: What assessments–other than standardized tests–might we design to ensure that all students across all districts are succeeding and that schools have the data they need to improve?

[We need] A common language for responding to writing, beyond a set of copyeditor’s symbols. Any way of coding — and quantifying — certain moves in writing or other performances that was somewhat standard across all practitioners in one domain would put greater emphasis on teacher assessment of student performance without requiring teachers to all use the same assessment.

I might be biased, but I do think teachers are better equipped than a test with standard questions to measure performance.

A standardized response system need not be the only thing a teacher provides as assessment, but it would at least allow for some comparison between individual grades or courses. (E.g., “Danny’s written responses to narrative in his English class are using many more analysis statements than they did last year. His History teacher would really like to see him do more Analysis than Summary, so we should figure out what’s prompting the change in English.”)

“Literacy” is just such a huge word! There’s so much in it! Students can be fully literate, competent writers, but a lack of technological literacy could set them back on digital standardized tests. Students can be fully literate, competent writers, but a lack of test-taking literacy (e.g., not devoting too much time on a specific problem, understanding what answer the test wants versus what can be rationalized, knowing where to accept lost points in order to devote energy elsewhere) can get them a failing COMPASS score. Students can be fully literate, competent writers, but fail an “objective” writing test (e.g., “In 5 paragraphs, explain why you should get some concert tickets”) because they don’t have an audience to write to or any real purpose in making the argument the prompt asks for.

The best literacy assessments take the student’s and the assignment’s contexts into account.