LEARNING TO READ, LEARNING TO WRITE: AN EXPERIENCE IN USING MICRO FICTION WITH SPANISH EFL TEACHER TRAINEES 1 Alfonso López CES Don Bosco – Universidad Complutense (SPAIN) E-mail: email@example.com AbstractMicro fiction, while increasingly popular among writers and bloggers, is still largely ignored by higherlearning courses outside the field of creative writing. And yet, as very short fiction (how short it shouldbe depends on who defines it, but most definitions agree on 1000 words as the upper limit) offersteachers and learners a number of advantages that make it ideal for classroom application in anumber of fields, including literary criticism, critical thinking development and language teaching.This presentation describes a real teaching experience where micro fiction (defined for class purposesas fiction under 500 words in length) was used as a tool to help EFL teacher training students in Spainto develop basic skills in literary criticism, as well as an opportunity to practice their written English. Itwas found that focusing on this literary genre enhanced the learning process significantly. On the onehand, the fictional pieces chosen lent themselves particularly well to collaborative learning in-classactivities such as text discussion and correction. On the other, students were able to publish some oftheir creative work on a weblog, where discussion and literary criticism took place following guidelinesand criteria that were established collaboratively in class. Hence it can be safely said that micro fictionis a literary genre particularly well suited to blended learning scenarios in language teaching andacross the humanities.Keywords: Micro fiction, Nanofiction, Flash Fiction, Blended-Learning, ICT, Weblogs, EFL.1 INTRODUCTIONThe appearance and proliferation of micro fiction in paper publication and (especially) the Internet is 2perhaps one of the most exciting things that have happened to literature in the last 20 years. Referredto with different names (nano, micro, sudden, flash, postcard, etc.), these very short short stories arehelping us read and write in new ways. They are also largely written by new or different writers for newand non-traditional readers, with the invaluable assistance of web-based applications such as weblogsor social networks.3Surprisingly, outside creative writing courses, micro pieces are seldom studied in language andliterature courses in secondary school or university, which generally tend to focus on canonical writersand longer works of fiction. And yet one would think that micro literature is especially well suited forintensive reading activities in class, whether for purposes of language awareness and practice or fortraining in literary criticism, especially in contexts where student motivation toward reading may be anissue.1 th This paper was read in the 4 International Conference of Education, Research and Innovations (Madrid, November 2011) andpublished in ICERI 2011 Proceedings.2 Throughout this essay, I will be using the term micro fiction in its non-technical use, that is, as very short fiction, never longerthan 100 words and normally under 500 words.3 For a discussion of the connection between micro literature and the Internet, see Frías (2010)
This paper presents a pilot experience where micro fiction as a literary genre was used to helpSpanish EFL teacher trainees develop the foundations of literary criticism through close reading andcriticism of micro stories as well as creative writing from the students. In what follows, I hope to showhow this genre has everything it takes to enhance motivation in non-specialist students and engagethem in exercises of creative writing and literary criticism of their peers’ work. Furthermore, as we shallsee, working with micro fiction lends itself perfectly both to collaborative in-class work and blended-learning supported by weblogs or social networks. It is therefore an extremely versatile tool that canbe successfully employed in a variety of secondary and tertiary level courses, both with literary andlinguistic purposes.1.1 BackgroundThis experience took place at CES Don Bosco, and independent teacher training college affiliated toUniversidad Complutense de Madrid. English Literature is an elective course that is taken by studentsin their third and final year of their Teacher Training degree, specialization in EFL.While courses like this are often taught with a strong historical bias –hence becoming more a historyof literature than literature itself- my belief is that emphasis should be given to helping studentsdevelop a literary appreciation of, and the language to criticize, the most important literary genres, withas a close a contact with the original texts as possible. Furthermore, considering that most of thestudents are still struggling to develop solid language skills in English, the course aims at providingabundant practice of speaking and writing skills, and language input and feedback sessions are heldoccasionally.Finally, it is worth noting that many of the students are not especially inclined toward reading fiction,much less writing it. This may come as a surprise, given that creativity and an appreciation of fictionare important qualities in would-be teachers. Therefore, this kind of instruction must insist ondeveloping student motivation, hoping to instill in them a lasting appreciation of the challenge ofcreative writing.1.2 What is micro fictionThere is no widely accepted definition of the length of this literary genre, or even on how exactly itshould be called as defined by word-count. For instance, some authors will consider flash fictionanything under 1000 words; others will argue for the need of defining finer categories: micro fictiongenerally set at 500 words and less, and nanofiction even shorter, although how short will vary from300 and less to 55 words to twitter length.4For the purposes of my class, micro fiction was defined non-technically and non-dogmatically as 500words or less, and was used to refer to all the pieces read and written.1.3 Why micro fiction – preliminary thoughtsUpon planning the course, it seemed to me that reading and writing micro literature offered a numberof significant advantages as compared to reading, say, a novel, or writing short stories. As one wouldperhaps expect, most of these advantages have to do with the obvious fact that micro stories are,above all, short.As to reading, micro fiction is good at exposing students to a significant literary variety. And variety isan important factor when studying literature, as different works of fiction (and authors, generally) willbe effective or disappointing because of different reasons, and it is the instructor’s responsibility to tryto develop students’ critical vocabulary in the light of as many examples as possible.This point becomes crucial when students are using a foreign language, as in cases of CLIL orbilingual instruction in secondary school or university, or with part-time or mature students who mayhave limited time to do extensive reading. In both cases, micro fiction allows instructors to tailor the4 For an idea of the dazzling variety of word-count restrictions applied to these fictional categories, it is a good idea to browsethe main e-journals. See, for instance, nanofiction.org, flashfictiononline.com, or staccatofiction.com.
amount of required reading to students’ possibilities, while retaining the rewarding idea that the settexts are “meaningful wholes”, not just fragments from longer works.In the same way, micro pieces lend themselves to intensive reading and writing work during class-time. For instance, students may be asked to read one or several stories and discuss them, or even 5write a micro on a set topic during class time. This is an especially strong point when doing languagework, were peer correction processes can be very valuable.Additionally, as has been pointed out before, micro fiction feels especially at home on the Internet andis mostly read through web-based applications. This means that work with micro literature can fitnicely in blended learning programs, where much (if not most) of coursework must take place outsidethe classroom, requiring heavy use of ICT, e.g. by asking students to read from e-journals, or publish 6their stories in weblogs.Of course, these are all a-priori arguments that I took into account upon planning the course. In a laterstage of this paper I will provide a fuller assessment of these and other points, and incorporatestudent feedback about what was done in class into a final assessment of the experience.2 THE PROJECT2.1 Initial aims and formal learning outcomesThe initial aims of this part of the course were the following.During this module,- Students will be able to recognize some of the strategies and devices that help make micro fiction successful.- The class will create collaboratively a critical checklist that will help us to comment on the pieces we read in the future.- Students will have experienced the challenge of writing a piece of micro fiction, and use some of the devices and strategies identified above.- Students will be able to utilize a variety of critical concepts and categories to discuss their peers’ work and give suggestions of improvement.2.2 ProcedureBeing a pilot experience, it was decided to dedicate only a small percentage of total class time, whichwould be supplemented by blended learning activities. Hence only six hours of lecture time were usedout of a total of around thirty. Of these six, two were devoted to a feedback session following theonline section of the module. Of course, this work could be expanded to cover an entire semester, andsuggestions about how to do it will be offered later but, nevertheless, it is interesting to see how qualitywork on this literary genre can be undertaken in relatively little time, thus making it easy to integrateinto a variety of courses which may have very different aims and scope.2.2.1 Reading and discussing micro fictionPhase one was devoted to reading a number of pieces in English from both Spanish and internationalauthors, all of them published online. The pieces differed in length (roughly, 100-500 words), style and5 See Duff and Maley (2007) for a useful selection of intensive language work involving literary pieces.6 For useful suggestions of how to integrate web-logs and other ICT in language teaching, see Sharma & Barrett (2007).
qualities, but the common question that students had to grapple with was, what makes this storywork? 7This question was used as a springboard for discussion in groups, and, eventually, students wereasked to systematize their responses and construct a critical checklist for assessing subsequent texts.The checklist was constructed collaboratively by class members, with some assistance from theinstructor, with the purpose of being as comprehensive as possible. Micro fiction can be good for verydifferent reasons, and the checklist is an effort at including as many of those reasons as possible. Thedocument is available here: http://microfiction1011.blogspot.com/2011/09/micro-fiction-assessment-checklist.htmlIt must be noted that the checklist was labeled as “tentative” in the sense of being continuously opento revision. In this way, reading new pieces could make us incorporate new critical categories, ordemand a revision of existing ones.In any case, the checklist provided a systematic framework to help students discuss micro fiction and,as we shall shortly see, offered them some clues for constructing and assessing their own pieces.2.2.2 Writing micro fictionPhase two of the project put the focus of the class on the students’ own work. Initially, students wereasked to come to class with a micro story written or printed on paper, such that they could share it withtheir peers during group-work. Students were recommended to write 250 words or less, but anabsolute upper limit of 500 words was given. Random groups were made, and students were asked toshare their stories, critique them with the aid of the critical checklist, and select one per group to beshared with the whole class.In the same session, instructions were given for the online stage of the module, which would coincidewith students’ leave on account of their teaching placements. Interaction from then on would mainlytake place through a simple weblog, entitled under 500, where students’ stories would be publishedand students would comment on their peers’ work.Fig. 1. Class blog, Under 500. (http://microfiction1011.blogspot.com/)7 Readings included selections from literary journals staccatofiction.com, nanofiction.org and writers blogs such as tomandofolgos (eonaviego.blogspot.com)
Online work ensued in two steps. Firstly, students were asked to email their contribution to theinstructor. Contributions were read for content and language and in most cases published after someminor language corrections. Whenever the stories failed to work as stories, or the language was hardto read, students were asked to rewrite their pieces. In some cases, students were encouraged tochange specific parts of their stories, usually endings.Once most of the stories were posted, students were given two weeks to read all the stories andcomment on at least two of them. Again, they were encouraged to utilize the critical checklist, but evenmore so to respond genuinely to texts they had particularly liked or those that had intrigued themmost. A good example of the kind stories published and related comments can be found here,http://microfiction1011.blogspot.com/2011/03/family-triangle.html.2.2.3 FeedbackThe module ended with a plenary seminar that was held with three aims i) Conduct some language feedback activities based on common or interesting language errors made by students in their initial drafts. ii) Provide another opportunity for text discussion and analysis based on the critical categories agreed on. iii) Receive student feedback on the micro fiction module.3 RESULTS AND CONCLUSIONS3.1 Evaluation of the experienceFrom my point of view, the experiment proved to be extremely valuable, especially considering howlittle class time was devoted to it. As regards course aims, perhaps the most significant achievementwas how successfully students managed to acquire and fluently use a variety of literary terms andcategories. Most likely, this was related to the fact that, by the end of the module, such categories hadbecome extremely familiar to them. Not only they had arrived at most of them inductively (that is, byproducing the assessment grid after reading a collection of stories), but they had considered them inthe process of producing their own micro fiction. In turn, this fluency helped in subsequent sections ofthe course, where students were able to apply some of the main critical concepts (imagery, irony,character implication, etc.) to pieces of different literary genres.A further benefit from the teacher’s point of view was the opportunity of developing the students’foreign language skills indirectly, in the framework of content-based instruction and task basedlearning. In this way, students were actively using and reflecting on the target language even whilefocusing on the content (not language) aims of the course, namely, reading, critiquing and writingstories.On the other hand, the students’ response to the module, as stated in anonymous feedback forms,was very positive. Many admitted to never having written fiction before, even if they considered it avery useful skill for their teaching careers. Many also valued the collaborative approach of the class,and suggested that the awareness that their writing would be read by their peers made them tryharder. Overall, the module was described as highly motivating its approach as more engaging thanother kinds of instruction.
3.2 Possible extensions and suggestions for improvementIf the module were to be extension into a half-semester module, or even a full semester course, themost obvious suggestions would be a) Focus on the process as well as the product of writing. This would entail doing intensive class work on the different stages writers go through before completing their pieces: brainstorming, focusing, drafting, editing, etc. b) Have students create their own blogs and publish their stories there, as a portfolio. As in many versions of portfolio-based instruction, students could be interviewed on their portfolio as part of the course’s final assessment. c) Insist on collaborative learning. This was one of the students’ most popular suggestions: more group work, especially in the brainstorming and drafting stages. Indeed, groups could be used to brainstorm endings, write micro pieces from specific cues (pictures, text starts), etc. Here, group work not only enhances student motivation, but serves to scaffold learning, as typically students will need more support when writing their first pieces than later on in the process.3.3 ConclusionAs I hope to have shown, micro literature can be very fertile ground for teaching literature andlanguage. As very short literature, it allows for very flexible teaching, ranging from intensive readingand writing during class-time to blended learning supported by web applications, especially blogs. Itcan also serve as the perfect springboard for developing language skills, and for first steps in creativefiction on the part of students at secondary school or university. For all these reasons, it will come asno surprise if micro literature, under its different guises, becomes increasingly popular in language andliterature courses.REFERENCES Duff, A. & Maley, A. (2007). Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Frías Conde, X. (2010). “A relación entre a literature e a internet nos inicios do século XXI nas literatures ibéricas: o caso da microficción.” Revista de lenguas y literaturas catalana, gallega y vasca, 2010, vol.15, p. 77-87. Available here: http://e- spacio.uned.es/fez/view.php?pid=bibliuned:Llcgv-2010-vol.15-05 Sharma, P. & Barrett, B. (2007). Blended Learning. Using technology in and beyond the language classroom. Oxford: Macmillan.