student reading on a couch

As an English/Language Arts teacher, I had been on the lookout for a PBL unit I could do with my novel study that might also tap into my students’ interests.

After an informal survey of my 8th graders, I soon found the unit I would be designing for last fall: a project focused on writing fan fiction.

But before I designed anything, I needed to hear what my students had to say. I found that over 80% of my students knew what fan fiction was, and over 12% actively wrote some kind of fan fiction of their own, whether the stories be about books, movies, or perhaps their favorite K-pop star. 

My students also told me that the many websites where fans shared their stories and commented on each other’s had two huge problems: 

  1. The stories weren’t quality-controlled. They were full of grammatical errors and those errors, as one of my students said, could distract from an otherwise good story. 

  2. There was no kid-friendly filter. That is, the stories that my students were reading online ranged from G-rated to X-rated. It was the wild west out there.

I now had my driving question: “How do we, as web designers and editors, create a student-friendly and age appropriate fan fiction website for our fellow students?”

From there, a lot fell into place. The unit had two parts: 

  • Part I focused on studying fan fiction and going through the writing process to write a narrative based on our classroom novel, Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. I imagined that students would write from Justine’s POV or end the story with The Creature slaying his creator. Who knew? It was their choice.

  • Part II focused on developing a school-wide website, an archive of student-submitted fan fiction. My students would develop a rubric to assess submissions by, be assigned to “clients” (6th graders in my colleague's classroom) to give feedback to, and post the stories once the narratives were revised. In other words, Part II focused on Literary Analysis. 

It’s been an exciting journey to see where my students would take this unit.

But not everything was wine and roses. As with any new unit, there were ups and downs. So in the spirit of my own reflection, I thought I’d share the pitfalls and unexpected turns that happened as we journeyed along this learning road together.

  1. It was too darn long. This unit felt like it went on forever. It required 2-3 “entry events” just to keep the enthusiasm from waning. Writing fan fiction might have been enough. Creating the website might have been enough. But publicizing it and continuing to accept submissions through the whole school year, submissions that we committed to critiquing as editors, is going to take a lot of time. 

  2. Students made choices I hadn’t anticipated. While I had a dream that we’d all write fan fiction narratives based on Frankenstein, I couldn’t deny the students who wanted to return to their favorite Edgar Allen Poe story from 7th grade. I couldn’t deny my English Language Learners who wanted to focus on simpler stories from earlier in their school careers like Holes. I couldn’t deny my inclusion students who wanted to use the short story we’d read as a class to learn about the elements of science fiction, Ray Bradbury’s “The Sound of Thunder.” I realized that permitting students to choose their source material was a form of differentiation I hadn’t originally planned for. It took the unit in a different direction, but it was still rich with writing.

  3. Some 8th graders are better editors than others. To solve this problem, I allowed some pairings to occur so that a “client” received feedback from multiple editors, a stronger one and one that was still learning.

  4. They became better literary analysts than narrative authors. This, I found fascinating. Their ability to analyze literature went through the roof very early on in the school year. In contrast, however, my students’ narratives were kind of “meh.” I have to rethink the narrative part of this unit.

  5. I had to be more transparent than I ever thought I’d need to be. One of the things that always happen in a PBL unit focused on writing is that some of my high-flyers, many of whom are perfectly fine with writing the 5-paragraph essay, didn’t recognize a formative assessment when they were doing it. One student, who scored high marks in her past informational essays that synthesized articles in Scholastic, couldn’t seem to transfer the skill to the text of the webpage she was designing. She didn’t see that a webpage is, indeed, a more authentic kind of informational writing. I need to make sure students understand the correlation between the blended assignments we are doing and the segregated writing styles they were used to accomplishing.

  6. Not everything required choice. While I ended up giving choice in partners, choice in web pages to design, and ultimately even choice in source material, it was silly to have students review web platforms and give feedback on which platform to use. That was a decision I could have just made and moved on from. The fact is that Weebly costs money and I couldn’t get Wix unblocked by our district. So that left Google Sites. Period. No choice. 

In the end, not only did we create something they could be proud of, but we’d engaged in a PBL unit that didn’t require a massive event or huge public unveiling.

We’d found a real-world problem and used our learning to make an impact on our school community. And by the time we were done, we were more efficient than the way 8th grade writing is usually taught. That is, we blended and went deeply into multiple writing genres at once instead of one at a time. 

At the end of the first semester, the scores from our 8th grade common writing assessment came in and I couldn’t have been more excited to note the following:

  1. I had no students who turned in blank pages. 

  2. I had no students who scored only a 1, indicating “too brief to score” or written mistakenly on another genre.

  3. My English Language learners showed growth from earlier benchmarks and some of their writing was unrecognizable to their previous year’s teacher. It wasn’t that they didn’t struggle to communicate perfectly; it was that they had a lot to say and were working hard to say it.

  4. All of my classes, as diverse as they were, still averaged Proficient and above. This reflected a higher percentage of proficient writers than the overall school scores.  

I attribute this all to high student engagement, authenticity, and PBL. And despite not fully knowing where it was going at any one time, I am a fan of this project!

Heather Wolpert-Gawron, National Faculty – West
Heather Wolpert-Gawron is an award-winning middle school teacher and district PBL/21st Century Instructional coach.