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Fan Fiction in the Classroom

Last August, while I was at the Scratch Conference at MIT, I got to hear Henry Jenkins (blog) discussing participatory culture as an integral aspect of what makes Scratch so great. He gave a brief history of fan fiction and its transition from “fanzines” to online publishing, and discussed several notable examples. While listening to all this, I realized that people who write fan fiction enjoy writing, and their writing is scaffolded by what is already there: the setting, the existing characters, the known events.

I realized fan fiction could be used in the classroom to help students practice their writing skills. Some people can pull a story from thin air easily. Others, like me, are intimidated by a blank page. Fan fiction fills up some of that page, but still allows writers to exercise the imagination and hone their skills.

To bring this idea to Goochland County, I held an after-school session for teachers yesterday afternoon. We got together and broke up into three teams. Each team wrote a new scene for the Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs story, a non-existent scene portraying a dinner party. In less than an hour, each team had a hilarious, complicated story taking full advantage of the known characteristics and shared experiences of the dwarfs and Snow White.

After sharing our stories, we discussed the benefits of utilizing elements of fan fiction in the Language Arts classroom. We agreed that publishing student writing to give kids an authentic audience to critique their work raises the level of performance in the classroom. We also spent a lot of time looking at examples of fan fiction at various websites.

Of course, the issue of copyright versus fair use came up. I showed them where some authors like JK Rowling have expressed their delight that people care enough to write fan fiction. We read about LucasFilm, their tolerance of fan fiction, and their request that any Star Wars fan fiction be clean and family friendly. And, I showed them where some authors are appalled that readers appropriate what is not theirs and do everything in their power to stamp it out. In conclusion, when in doubt, ask before publishing online, but feel free to let students write for in-class enjoyment.

It was one of my most enjoyable after-school sessions so far this year. The teachers were engrossed in writing their shared Google Docs, wrote fantastic stories, and generated lots of very good ideas for using what they learned in their classrooms.

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