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William J.


Not Reading:
The 800-Pound
Mockingbird in
the Classroom

More students than we

want to admit do not
complete assigned reading,
choosing instead to employ
what Broz calls the
strategy of not reading.
He offers several dos and
don tsfor encouraging
students to accept teachers
invitations to read.

Ut reading. even for many good stu

dents, has become a mode of opera
tion with respect to book-length
texts assigned in school. Many stu
dents enter our secondary and postsecondary litera
ture classes intending to not read the books we assign.
If you think that most of your secondary literature
students are reading the canonical texts you assign,
you might have to think again. I say this because
my undergraduate students in general education
literature courses and English education courses (at
three different universities) have been telling me
this and demonstrating it to me for twelve years.
Many students have admitted to me and to their
classmates that in high school they did not read any
of the assigned books.
Again this semester, I will assign To Kill a
Mockingbird (TKM) to the college seniors (mostly
English majors) in my secondary literature methods
course. I will do this because TKM is one of the
most frequently assigned books in high school En
glish classrooms and, thus, one of the most often not
read. These points will be verified when I ask the
class how many students were assigned to read that
book in high school. The hands of most students in
the room will go up. And when I then ask. Truth
fully, how many of you who were assigned to read
TKIiI actually read it cover to cover? nearly all of
those hands will stay on the desks. Even though I
already know some of the answers, I will say dra
matically, You are English majors who intend to
become secondary English teachers! How could it
be that you did not read the books assigned in

English classes in high school? The main answer

will be, You didnt have to. You could still get
good grades. Then I will assert to them what I am
asserting to EJ readers now: If students do not read the
assigned texts, nothing important is happening in your
literature classroomnothing very important to de
velop your students reading and interpretive abili
ties is happening, no matter how many lectures you
deliver, vocabulary words students learn, ele
ments of fiction students define, quizzes students
take, essay test answers students write, or films you
show. Nothing important is happening because
student development of reading and interpretive
abilities requires engaged reading. Overcoming the
phenomenon of not reading then becomes a primary
focus of my methods course for the rest of the
Yet, despite this stated course focus, 20% of
the students in the methods class will still attempt
another not reading of To Kill a Mockingbird. Isot
reading is such a strong mode of operation that at
least two students will attempt to write reading
response journals, student-generated discussion
items, and short literary essays based on reading
SparkNotes and other Internet chapter summaries
they find among the 2.5 million Google hits on To
Kill a .ilnckzngbird. with such site titles as Grade
Saver: Th Kill a Zlockingbird; The Th Kill a Mock
ingbird Student Survival Guide; and Th Kill a
Mocknibiid Summary, Study Guide With Notes.
Essays, Quotes, and Pictures. Sadly, every semes
ter, one or two students are dismissed from the class
for plagiarism. Another two or three students will

English Journal 100.5 (2011): 1520


Not Reading: The 800-Pound Mockingbird in the Classroom

not believe me when I say that not reading will lead

to failure in the course. Instead of reading they will
wait for me to give them a way to avoid reading
until it is too late and they have no journals, discus
sion items, or essays to turn in.
These experiences are the basis for my belief
that my primary teaching goal in literature classes,
whether secondary or postsecondary, is to convince
students to accept the invitation to read the books.
Not reading the books is the 800-pound mocking
bird in any discussion of literature pedagogy.
In thinking about this teaching problem for
the last few years, I planned to urge teachers to
avoid assigning canonical texts such as Th Kill a
Mockingbird, for which the volume of Internet
source material aimed at supporting student not
reading is enough to choke the
My primary teaching goal
interpretive voice out of any
in literature classes,
reader. The Great Gatsbj yields
2.5 million Google hits; The
whether secondary or
Letter, more than 1.2
postsecondary, is to

convince students to
accept the invitation to
read the books.

million; The Old Man and the

Sea, a puny 589,000 hits. But

not assigning these books is a
copout because it is what we
do as classroom teachers as we
set up the invitation to read that suggests to stu
dents and later confirms for them that not reading
will be a successful strategy. If we use study guides,
comprehension quizzes, pseudo whole-class dis
cussions that serve mainly to summarize and inter
pret the reading, and similar enabling strategies,
we send the message to students that no engaged
reading or individual interpretation of the text is
necessary and that not reading the text is just fine.
In his foundational article about engaged
learning, The Liminal Servant and the Ritual
Roots of Critical Pedagogy, written before such
terms as engaged and authentic were part of our pro
fessional discussion of language arts pedagogy,
Peter L. McLaren reveals a common circumstance in
many smoothly operating classrooms: teachers pre
tending to teach and students pretending to learn. In such
classrooms everyone agrees to go through the mo
tions while little learning is taking place. I assert
that engaged reading and the social discourse that
arises from sharing ones reading with others repre
sent a transformative ritual of the kind McLaren
urges teachers to sponsor in classrooms.


May 2011

To avoid creating pretend classrooms in which

students do not read, we may use teaching and
learning strategies that make reading necessary and
then reward those students who have engaged in
the authentic ritual of reading with the opportu
nity for social construction of knowledge based on
those readings. That social construction of knowl
edge will occur during peer-to-peer book discus
sions and peer-to-peer sharing of textual
interpretations through informal and formal writ
ing and other performances. Simultaneously, we
must have the integrity to admit that some small
number of students who can read will not read, no
matter what we do. If we plan our courses appropri
ately, not reading should mean that those students
fail the course because they have no assignments to
turn in. Students who can read and do not, have
done nothing important enough to deserve passing
grades in our classes, even if they have been present
for every class period. When those few students fail,
counselors or school psychologists can figure out
why. We need to expect that our students will read
the books we assign, and we need to teach and
grade in ways that promote reading.

A List of Dos for Discouraging

Not Reading
Recognize that knowing what happens in any particular
book, even canonical books such as To Kill a Mocking
bird, is of little importance compared to deieloping stu
dents abilities to read and make meaning from text. It is
the transformative ritual of actually reading TKM
that makes the book important, not knowing who
killed Bob Ewell. TKM still engages me, enlight
ens me, instructs me, and transforms me during
every subsequent reading, though I have known
what happens in the book for four decades. As with
our writing pedagogy that focuses on teaching
composing processes, in teaching literature we are
teaching reading and interpretive processes, not
right answers about a particular book.
Some students actually say to me, I did read
several books in high school, but I am already a se
nior in college and no professor in college has asked
me about those books, What was the point of read
ing theml Teachers who try to sell books with the
line You have to know this stuff for college are
part of the problem. Secondary students who will

William J. Broz

be most successful in college literature courses are

those who know how to read and interpret litera
ture and have read a lot, thereby developing and

maintaining strong reading and interpretive abilities.

not students who remember the name of Jems and
Scouts snooty aunt.
Ask students to capture their reader responses to
texts in journals or other informal writing that you cc
v/eu and grade and that students use to develop and rLjine
their interpretations (Broz, Reasons 94; Young
blood). If you sponsor and value these kinds of read
ing and interpretive activities, students will also
come to value their own readings. This student
valuing will occur for several reasons. First, I give
credit for informal journal writing and discussions
that grow out of it. Second, small-group discus
sions based on student-generated reading responses
and interpretations immediately demonstrate to
student participants that what they and their class
mates think about the book is interesting and im
portant. Also, instructor and peer response to the
drafts of short interpretive literary essays students
write based on their own readings and interpreta
tions will validate the whole process. Finally, most
students will quickly realize that the easiest way to
produce these written performances is in accompa
niment to reading the book. Reading response jour
nals will clearly tell you which students have read
the hook and how engaged their readings have
been. Reading response journals and items for dis
cussion (see explanation below) are not only strate
gies for student engagement and assessment tools.
They also provide opportunities for teaching and
learning, allowing teachers to nudge individual
students into higher levels of reasoning and deeper
interpretations. As assessments of reading engage
ment, journals and discussion items are of much
higher quality and more accurate than quizzes and
tests that can be copied, guessed at, or passed based
on not reading strategies.
I require that reading response journals and
discussion items include frequent page-numbered
references covering the whole book. Journal entries
made up of general comments, or retelling the story,
that do not contain questions, quotes, and comments
accompanied by page-numbered passage references
and which do not cover the whole book, do not meet
the assignment guidelines and are assumed to have
been created based on not reading strategies.

Invite studnt.c to read bok,c that they can read

and that they might want to read. Common readings
should be accessible to all students, But common
readings should make up only some of the reading
invitations. Along with common readings, students
should be invited to choose titles from units com
prised of multiple copies of multiple titles orga
nized by author, genre, or theme allowing all
students to find their interest and reading abiliti
while developing their reading and interpretive
processes. Even in the ninth and tenth grades, the
matic units can be anchored by a young adult title
accessible to most students. The rest of the books in
a thematic unit can include titles representing a
range of reading abilities, most of which fall within
the high school range, but some of which are acces
sible to struggling and advanced readers. Teaching
strategies such as pairing the reading of a classic
text with a young adult text as promoted by Joan F.
Kaywell and others also insert accessible books into
the curriculum that may help break the not readini
cycle. Bonnie Ericson suggests using Mildred Tay
brs Let the Circle Be Unbroken and other titles to
support student reading and interpretation of
TKAI. I am not saying dont teach canonical texts. I
ani saying that when you invite students to read
canonical texts, make sure you have positioned
those students to accept the invitation to read.
Suppert students in developing their reading and in
terpretive abilities h inviting them to read any highquality text, including popular texts, young adult texts,
regional and culturally relevant texts, and texts in non
traditional formats such as graphic novels. Including
some of these kinds of text can help break the cycle
of not reading. Units containing multiple copies of
multiple titles around a theme or author can contain
some titles from all these categories, including ca
nonical titles. Most importantly, offering accessible
titles such as YA titles or popular titles as the first
hooks you assign in a semester invites back into the
game students who formerly enjoyed reading but
who have stopped.
Young adult and popular titles are often de
void of easily accessible materials that support hot
reading. Beginning the semester with a common
reading of a culturally relevant hook by a local au
thor catches students offguard, makes them con
sider giving up the stratcgv of not reex/mc. and may
be an irresistible invitation to read. By beginning

English Journal


Not Reading: The 800-Pound Mockingbird in the Classroom

the semester with successful reading and interpre

tive experiences, supported by good grades (1 grade
easier at the beginning while 1 am teaching stu
dents the class processes), I can make students be
lie ers in the proposition that I do value their
interpretive responses. Beginning the semester
with lively smallgroup discussion in which they
have taken authoritative stances, students are usu
ally motisated to be prepared for the next peer dis
cussion. Being left out is no fun.
Some teachers use strategies that support I/of
non//Hg because they feel the need to compensate for
the low reading abilities of some stLldents. But esen
for poor readers, not reading is a useless and counter
productive strategy. Listening to the teacher sum
marize the story will not help struggling readers
develop; only reading will. Differentiating texts
and assignments is a better way of addressing dif
ferences in students abilities.
Imagine an eleventh-grade American Litera
ture class in which students were invited to read
and respond to three stories by the same author in
a particular week. The best readers would be ex
pected to read and respond in reading journals to
all of the stories. Grades of A required that. But a
reading response journal that demonstrated en
gaged reading and developing interpretations of
one story could earn a C. A selection of Steinbeck
novels would work especially well. Struggling
readers could read, respond to, and discuss one or
two of the shorter novels, while the best readers
could challenge themselves with East yf Eden. In
this contextwhere number of books and number
of pages coLinted less than the dictate that every
stLident read and compose journals for the whole
timemany good readers would rise to the level of
Eait of Edn. When the time for reading ended,
every student could use his or her reading response
journal to find a topic and formulate a thesis about
something of interest in Steinbeck and of interest
to them. Ideall students wnuld experience en
gaged reading and have significant opportunity to
des elop their interpretive abilities. Struggling
readers would also has e these opportunities. hut
they oLild read fewer, more accessible, or shorter
texts. Accommodating struggling readers would
not mean advanced readers went unchallenged.
This dourse was how I tCcLight my own des enth
grade English class, and I can attest that the


May 2011

students engagement with the text tar outstripped

what I witnessed ss hen I used more traditional ap
proaches that inadvertently fostered not rtadzn.
Encoiii u,e student r ichug hj Jad/itating small
group book c/f (.11.0 1(11/ a 1/11 0/b r s/nc/c nt-nmtei s ci actii i
I/p/met rcading. Sponsor these actis ides
tics ti.iit
during the reading of the hooks instead of after the
books are supposed to have been read. The activities
should be based on student readings and interpreta
tions. In these efforts, avoid rightanswer activities
such as quizzes and study guides.
Though much has been written about Read
ing Circles (Daniels) and other similar hook-group
strategies, I use a simple approach to managing
peer-to-peer book-group discussions using studentgenerated discussion items. Discussion Items, or
Dis, as I call them, help students begin to refine
their interpretations as well as prepare for small
group discussion.
First, students produce reading response jour
nals while reading any book-length text. Periodi
cally, sometimes daily, while reading is in progress,
students are invited to mine their journals for Dis
(i.e., questions, comments, or quotes) they want to
discuss in small groups. As artifacts of student
reading and interpretation, the DIs, which I check
but do not grade before small-group discussion,
show me that students have read the text and that
they are prepared for discussion. Students with no
DIs are obviously not prepared and need more read
ing time. Students with no DIs are not granted en
tre to a book group. They read while the prepared
students discuss. Not rading is no longer an option.
DLiring these discussions students take turns round
robin fashion, bringing up each of their three to five
Dis. After a point is adequately discussed, the stu
dent records a summary of the responses he or she
received to the discussion item right on the Dl
sheet. Grading the Dis later, I can easily encourage
deeper interpretations of the text. The response
summaries also tell me something about each stu
dents engagement in small-group discussion and
alloss me to value, with credit, these social con
struction of knowledge activities.

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William i. Broz

other performances such as graphic response to literature

(Broz, The Green Knight). Generally, we should
be asking students to do what good adult readers
doread books they like, often for the social pur
pose of sharing their readings and interpretations
with family members, reading partners, or book
groupsall audiences of their peers who really want
to know what each individual reader thought about
the book. It is true that good adult readers do not
write essays about the hooks they read outside of the
school setting; however, they could. And coming to
a book club meeting prepared to discuss themes,
characters, passages, and other personal and cultural
interpretations is similar to having drafted a short
literary essay.

A Few Donts for Discouraging

Not Reading
Dont spend class time recapping or summarizing assigned
reading chapters to compensate Jr students not reading.
This summarizing often comes in the guise of largegroup class discussions. In The Language of Inter
pretation: Patterns of Discourse in Discussions of
Literature, James D. Marshall, Peter Smagorinsky,
and Michael W. Smith found a consistent pattern
that shows these interactions to be little more than
oral fill-in-the-blank exercises. While the teach
ers in this study envisioned student-centered dis
cussions, the reality was that teachers controlled the
talk in which only a few students participated while
the rest passively withdrew. The teachers turns at
speaking were two to five times longer than stu
dents turns, and questions posed in the discussions
were nearly always the teachers. Teachers turns
generally followed a pattern of inform/question!
respond, informing students about the text, ques
tioning students about the text, then responding to
students brief answers by repeating or elaborating
on them and using the students answers as transi
tions in weaving a discourse that the teacher con

structed (545 5). A teacher summarizing and

interpreting the text makes student reading unnecessary.
Choose good books that students can read and
should like and then behave in class as if you expect
them to be reading the hooks. For those who cannot
read, your school should provide special remedial
reading classes and other special student accommo
dations. Let fail those who can read but refuse to

read, only because we know that if they have not

read the text, nothing important for them has hap
pened in the classby not reading they are not be
coming better readers and interpreters of texts.
McLaren notes that teachers who engage stu
dents in authentic rituals (such as reading) can ex
pect that those rituals will exert both centripetal
and centrifugal pulls (164). When most students
actually begin reading and discussing the book, the
centripetal force of those rituals will bind the class
into a community of readers. However, the centrif
ugal force of not reading when most people are will
(metaphorically) hurl those who can read but dont
out of the community. Teachers can keep the com
munity of readers from forming by making excuses
for, ignoring, and ultimately validating students
who chose not reading. While some students who do
not read some portions of some books can survive in
my classes, they cannot thrivethey cannot receive
an A or B in the course. By taking steps to address
not reading, many teachers can considerably reduce
the portion of students not reading in their classes
and ensure that those who dont read have their per
formance honestly, accurately, and properly evalu
ated, and noted by a poor grade.
Dont use film versions of books as crutches or re
wards. If students know you are going to show the movie.
especially if your class is focused on right answers about
what happens in the story. then it makes sense to not
read. Watching a film, with the right instruction,
might make students more filmic or visually liter
ate, but it will not, by itself, make them better
readers or more likely to read. Further, the film
makers have already made highly professional in
terpretations of the text, interpretations that stifle
students interpretations based on their readings.
What student reader can conclude that Atticus
Finch is a cold and distant father after viewing di
rector Robert Mulligan and screenwriter I1orton
Footes interpretation of To Kill a Mockingbira7

Dont make literature a right-ansuer game by as

signing comprehension quizzes and tests or lecturing and
testing oi er eceiz ed interpretations. which students
must parrot back to receive credit. Study guides are also
right-answer instruments that tell students that
they should be noticing what the teacher or writers
of prepared educational materials who made the
study guide think they should be noticing. Study
guides devalue students readings and tell them

English Journal


Not Reading: The 800-Pound Mockingbird in the Classroom

that what is really important is filling in all of the

blanks on the study guide and memorizing that in
formation for the test. Once students learn that it
does not matter what they think, then copying the
answers to the study guide or filling in the blanks
based on Internet chapter summaries is a reasonable
strategy. If we do the reading and interpretation for stu

students. I will do all I can to ensure they accept

this invitation to read (or reread) and proceed on
their journey toward becoming lifelong readers and
literature teachers whose students actually read the
books. (j

dents, we have no right to expect them to read the books.

1. To request journal and discussion item guide

lines, please email the author.
2. 1 learned about student-generated questions and
comments for discussion from Virginia Broz. who devel
oped and refined this technique teaching eighth-grade

The same goes for making the structure of the

novel or definitions of the elements of fiction the
basis of a right-answer game. There is nothing
wrong wth presenting students with these terms
and their meanings, because these are terms that
help people articulate their responses to books. But
do not overdo it or let testing on climax or fore
shadowing become an end in itself. Mature readers
read to experience the book, not primarily to analyze
narrative style or dissect inventive authorial moves.

Encouraging Lifelong Readers

Many good students who have been successful in
school have thrived using the strategy of not read
ing. Therefore it must be that many of the teach
ing strategies we have used in literature classes
have allowed or even caused not reading to be the
strategy of choice for these students. I know that
some teachers reading this article will say, 1 use
study guides and lectures summarizing the as
signed reading, but my students still read the
books. Are you sure the students actually read
the books? You might be surprised if you knew
how many do not.
I will keep inviting my literature methods
students to read To Kill a Mockingbird because it is
the perfect vehicle for convincing future literature
teachers that they must overcome the phenomenon
of not reading, in themselves and in their future


Works Cited
Broz, William, The Green Knight Should Be Green:
Graphic Response to Literature. English Journal
99.3 (2010): 5763. Print.
Reasons for Writing/Reasons for Grading: Con
ceptual Approaches for Processing Student Papers in
English Classes. doie iUi to Handle the Paper Load.
Ed. Jeff Golub. Urbana: NCTE. 2005. 90101.
Daniels, Harvey. Literature Circlej: Voice and Choice in Book
Clubs and Reading Groups. Portland: Stenhouse, 2002.
Ericson, Bonnie. Introducing To Kill a Mockingbird wins a
Collaborative Group Reading of Related Young
Adult Novels. Adolescent Literatmv as Complement to
the Classics. Ed. Joan F. Kavwell. Norwood: Christo
pher-Gordon. 2000. 112. Print.
Kaywell, Joan F. Adoleicent Literature ai Complement to the
Classics. Norwood: Christopher-Gordon, 2000. Print.
Marshall, James D., Peter Smagorinsky, and Michael W.

Smith. The Language of Interpretation: Patterns of Dis

course in Discussions of Literature. Urbana: NCTE,
1995. Print.
McLaren, Peter L. The Liminal Servant and the Ritual
Roots of Critical Pedagogy. Language Arts 65.2
(1988): 16479. Print.
Taylor, Mildred. Let the Circle Be Unbroken. New York: Puf
fin, 1991. Print.
Youngblood. Ed. Reading, Thinking, and Writing: Using
the Reading Journal English Journal 4. 5 (1985):
4648, Print.

William J. Broz taught high school English in Iowa for 25 years and has been a professor of English education since 1997. He
is assistant professor in the English department at the University of TexasPan American. His publications address composition
pedagogy, literature pedagogy, censorship, and young adult literature. He may be reached at brozwj@utpa.edu.


lisa Storm ffrik, RWT

Facilitating Student-Led Seminar Discussions with The Piano Lesson uses August Wilsons play The Piano Lesson
to invite students to ask a number of questionsbig and smallabout the characters, setting, conflict, and symbols
in the work. After reading the first act, students learn how to create effective discussion questions and then put
them to use in student-led seminar discussions before the second act and again at the end of the play. http://www


May 2011

Ryan M. Rish and Joshua Caton

Inspired by thefanfiction

Building Fantasy
Worlds Together with
Collaborative Writing:
Creative, Social, and
Pedagogic Challenges

genre, a teacher helps

students create a world of
interlinking stories and
develop more detailed,
sophisticated writing
through in-depth

Countless new planets, new worlds, and new lands have been created by science fiction and
fantasy authors. Theyve given us heroic pasts and dystopian futures. Theyve taken us to
distant galaxies and across magical landscapes. And in learning about those worlds, we may
gain a little insight into our own. To help us better understand how authors in these genres
craft their worlds, students in Swords & Spaceships are building their own.
hese words along with a digital
movie teaser appear on Joshs class
wiki (Caton) as an invitation for
students to enroll in his elective
English course, Swords & Spaceships. In the class,
students read fantasy and science fiction, as well as
participate in Building Worlds, a writing project in
which students create a fantasy world to learn about
the choices fantasy authors make when telling a
story. For example, the students read excerpts from
J.R.R. Tolkiens Si/marl//ion and The Lord of the
Rings to consider how to build a fantasy world from
the top down (macro-micro), creating languages,
races, and setting before writing the stories of the
world; the students also read Ursula K. Le Gums
A \Vizart/ oJ Earthsra and the foreword to Ta/es from
Earthsea to consider bottom-up (micro-macro)
world building, discovering a world along with
your characters through the telling of tales.
The second time Josh taught Swords &
Spaceships, he decided to change Building Worlds
from an individual project to a collaboration using
Wikispaces (http:/ www.wikispaces.com), a free
wiki provider that caters to educators. By the end
of the course, twelve students, grades 912, and
Josh created their first collahorati\e fantasy world,
Erstellen. Their world was composed of maps and
drawings; historical narratives: descriptions of

characters, creatures, and deities; and a system of

magic. Josh introduced his students to the organiz
ing principle of continuity, or having no in-world
contradictions, in an attempt to redefine text as the
result of a negotiated process among collaborators
rather than the product of an individual. The proj
ect shared characteristics with online fanfiction
communities (Black); e.g., students authored indi
vidual works coordinated with the work of others,
read and commented on each others work, and co
authored shared works with fellow students. The
project also shared characteristics with role-play
ing communities (Hammer), e.g., narration, im
provisation, and collaboration.

The Pilot Study

Ryan learned about Swords & Spaceships through a
local newspaper article and worked with Josh to set
up a pilot study of the last month of the class in
May 2009. Ryan was interested in learning how
students, who shared an interest in fantasy and sci
ence fiction, described their experiences with col
laboration during the Building Worlds project.
Ryan visited the class nine times over four weeks
and interviewed nine of the twelve students about
their participation in the project and their collabo
ration with other students in the class. During the

English Journal 100.5 (2011): 2128


Building Fantasy Worlds Together with Collaborative Writing Creative, Social, and Pedagogic Challenges

semester course, Josh reflected on his experience as

a collaborator of the project and the teacher of
Swords & Spaceships in an online blog (Caton).
Over the summer, we discussed the students retro
spective accounts in preparation for a full study of
the elective class, which we conducted the follow
ing school year.
Here, we present forms of collaboration that
the students described during the pilot study and
how Josh took these up in his teaching. Rather than
conceptualizing collaborative
writing as a skill students pos
In the beginning of the
sessed to a greater or lesser de
project, relationships
gree irrespective of context,
between students
we considered how the social
regions of the world were
and writing practices that the
mediated by a map
students associated with col
laboration were embedded in
graphic Austin created
the social context of the elec
and posted on the wiki.
tive class.
After the map was
We found Katherine
posted, students claimed
Schultzs study of collaborative
areas of the world; named
writing to be helpful in our
and described their
discussions of the complex, so
cially situated forms collabora
regions; populated their
tion can take. In Schultzs
regions with creatures
study of an urban ele
and characters; and began
mentary school, she learned
to write histories, stories,
that collaborative writing re
poetry, and lore.
quired a range of practices that
involved negotiations of mean
ing and friendship. Students wrote alone and shared
work with others; they wrote in pairs or small consis
tent groups termed networks; and they worked to
gether to author a single text (Schultz and Fecho
57). The students forms of collaborative writing
were specific to the particular culture of the class
room, in which collaboration was explicitly taught,
expected, accepted, and supported (Schultz 283).
We used this complex, sociocultural view of
collaborative writing to consider the different forms
of collaboration the students described in retro
spect. Individually, we looked across the students
interview transcripts for forms of collaboration de
scribed by multiple students. Together, we dis
cussed these forms and reached a consensus about
the three most salient forms of collaboration stu
dents described, which we present and discuss
below. After each form of collaboration we discuss,


May 2011

josh shares how he incorporated them into his


Collaboration as Maintaining
Continuity across Story Lines
Most of the students provided examples of collabo
ration that involved negotiation and compromise in
the interest of maintaining continuity across story
elements of their fantasy world. Erstellen is made
up of multiple single-authored texts that relate to
one another in complex ways. Working toward re
solving in-world contradictions was a primary goal
of the project.
In the beginning of the project, relationships
between students regions of the world were medi
ated by a map graphic Austin created and posted on
the wiki. (See a full-color version of Austins map
on the cover of this issue.) After the map was
posted, students claimed areas of the world; named
and described their regions; populated their regions
with creatures and characters; and began to write
histories, stories, poetry, and lore.
Some of these storylines were related in com
plex patterns; in the interest of maintaining conti
nuity, some students negotiated revisions to each
others stories. Roger described one of these com
plex patterns as the Alliance Web, a series of story
line relationships forged by feuds and peace treaties
among the characters and regions.
As members of this Alliance Web, Amelia
and Austin created underwater elves who, despite
their common origin, do not get along. Amelia ex
plained her attempts to coordinate the writing of a
shared history with Austin. For Amelia, continuity
across the storylines was a priority and involved

Amelia: Because [Austin] has underwater

elves in a separate part of Erstellen. And so
we had to collaborate a little while ago when
we had to create a story about how we were
That story
cursed and how we separated.
took a lot of collaboration. We still collabo
rate, I tried to collaborate with him today, he
did not want to. [laughs] But, um, yeah, we
have to decide cause our stories have to
match, accordingly. Or otherwise wed have
two different things going on at the same
time that wouldnt make sense with everyone
elses story.

Ryan M. Rish and Joshua Caton

The next interview excerpt demonstrates that

coordination also involved negotiation and compro
mise. Roger and Clark were among the most pro
lific writers of the class; when Ryan asked Roger
about ownership of ideas, Roger related an experi
ence wherein Clark asked him to revise his story to
represent the split personality of his king.
Roger: Its like you didnt want, you wrote a
story and youre proud of it and you dont
want to change it because it messes with
someone elses story.
Ryan: Did you feel that yourself?
Roger: Yeah, but I kind of just dealt with it
I guess. Or Id come up with things that I
liked better.
Ryan: Oh, OK.
Roger: Like I wrote a story about Clarks
region, and he kind of said I misportrayed
his king. Like I had a really tense moment
between his king and one of my characters
where he is yelling at them, because his king
is insane. And I put that his king was kind of
like a tyrant in his insanity, and he said no he
has split personalities, so I just kind of made
the king talking to him one minute, like in
shock, and then going absolutely insane
screaming at him, and it worked out better.
For Roger in this example, maintaining con
tinuity involved negotiation and compromise.
Roger and Clark were both active in the mainte
nance of continuity in Erstellen, and Roger was
willing to rewrite the dialogue of his story to accu
rately portray the king as Clark had intended.

My students made it clear, however, that they

were not satisfied with wiki discussion board post
alone: they consistenth asked for time in the corn
ptater lab, where they could
write and clisduss at the
Conversations about
same time. These in-class
continuity provided the
creative sessions were not
starting point for many
what some might see as an
collaborative ventures,
ideal writing enironment:
Many students who
they were loud and lively,
initially contacted
with students shouting
questions to one another
another student to have a
across the room in between
continuity conversation
bursts of typing. Following
ended up exchanging
one of these sessions, I
noted on my blog how the
creator of the Oras Plutitor
region rethought his original plan after a prolonged
in-class discussion; I am not sure how the class
would have reached this consensus on the wiki.
Conversations about continuity provided the
starting point for many collaboratise ventures.
Many students who initially contacted another stu
dent to have a continuity conversation ended up ex
changing ideas. Early in the project, I often used
the wikis discussion hoard to point out potential
conflicts and broker possible collaborative writing
opportunities. As the project progressed and the
world of Erstellen began to develop, students in
creasingly acted as contintuty editors, clearing up
conflicts not only in what was actually written on
the wiki but also in what they intended with their
writing or ideas (as the above example of Clark and
Roger demonstrates).

Joshs Thoughts on Continuity Maintenance

One of my fears of a single-world, multiple-author
approach to Building Worlds was that our creation
would be disjointed and that authors would write in
their own domains without making connections be
tween the regions, characters, or stories other stu
dents invented. In an effort to encourage intertextual
relationships, I required students to make discussion
board posts on the wiki in response to each others
work. The goal was to encourage students to read
their classmates work and, in doing so. find com
mon ground for their ideas, identif places to over
lap their stories, and work out continuits conflicts.

Roger used the free program Terragen to create this represen

tat on of Mt Laivan, a solitary mountain-island off the coast of
Rebennen within the world Erstellen.

English Journal


Pedagogic Challenges
Building Fantasy Worlds Together with Collaborative Writing: Creative, Social, and

The idea of continuity maintenance has

helped me think about how I can position students
as readers and co-authors of shared writing in my
more traditional English classes. For example, I
have thought about how students could maintain
continuity in collaboratively written persuasive and
argumentative writing by identifying inconsisten
cies and contradictions in their shared writing.

Collaboration as the Borrowing of Ideas

Many students described collaboration that in
volved discussing ideas; some of these ideas ended
up in students stories and many did not. Students
reported often not knowing where an idea came
from that made it in their stories. Students also re
ported borrowing ideas from each other as a form of
However, many of these ideas were based in
popular culture texts such as movies, video games,
fantasy and science fiction, etc. Students would
comment on the stories of others that borrowed too
heavily from an obvious popular-culture source to
persuade them to make changes to the character or
plot line so that it would be original.
Below, Rowan explained that for him collabo
ration involved borrowing ideas in many ways, e.g.,
discussing words and ideas with Clark, sharing an
alliance with Roger, and sharing geography with
Rowan: Um, then like I connected with
Clark with vocabulary, definitely. Definitely,
he had really good vocabulary, and hes an
underclassmen, so thats pretty good for him.
And he collaborated with me with, actually,
when we first started Erstellen and tried to
make some species, the first things that came
out of our mouths were werewolves and
hawks. So, then me and Roger definitely col
laborated a lot, definitely, because me and
him are actually, urn, allies, and so me and
Amelia are too, because the ocean between
Peradaban, the big, central continent and the
islands is Vttenstad, which is her peoples,
and Alas Sea which I created.
Some of the students practices of borrowing
ideas involved writing a story that included some
one elses geographical region. When asked about
Joshs role as a collaborator in the project, Roger


May 2011

Erika used pencil and water color for her depiction of Levone
and her horse, Vendeval, of the Verflutchen region within the
world Arterramar.

explained that many students used the region Josh

created, Three Falls, in their stories.
Roger: [Mr. Catoni made Three Falls, now
that I think about it, too. And that was a
central part of the story that we all kind of
took over, Three Falls after he made it. He
kind of made its history and all that, and
then we just kind of used it. Thats connected
with most of the peoples stories. I think
everybody has written a story that in some
way involves Three Falls or Segilan, which is
its counterpart.
By offering his own ideas and borrowing stu
dents ideas, Josh established himself as acollabora
tot in the project.

Joshs Thoughts on the Borrowing of Ideas

A number of tensions arose when students were
borrowing each others ideas in their own writing.
While some ideas floating around the world were

Ryan M. Rish and Joshua Caton

free for anyone to use, some students developed a

sense of territorialism with ideas they felt were
their own. Roger described this sense of ownership
as not wanting your stuff messed with. This raises
an interesting question about who owned an idea
that had been cultivated among several students
only to take root in a few students stories. This was
a tension that I wanted them to wrestle with in
consideration of the shared ideas and storylines
among the authors of fantasy and science fiction
they were reading.
In our traditional thinking of writing as an
individual, solitary practice, two students sharing
ideas might be labeled cheating. If a student does
not cite the source of an idea used in a paper, we
might consider it a form of plagiarism. When grad
ing group projects in my other English classes, I
typically craft rubrics that communicate expecta
tions for individual achievement within the group
precisely because I want to assess each students
personal learning and contributions to the group.
The implicit message is that individual efforts are
more important than what the grotip accomplishes
Therefore, when considering the emphasis on
collaboration and sharing of ideas as something to
be valued and encouraged in the Building Worlds
project, I am uncertain about an appropriate way to
assess student writing. I did not assign group
grades for the writing of Erstellen. Regardless of
how many student voices may have been involved
in what was eventually written on the wiki, stu
dents received grades based on the thoroughness of
their writing. Though my primary goal was to help
students write with more specific detail and vivid
description, I had no mechanism in place to assess
how the sharing, borrowing, or recasting of ideas
contributed to their writing.
As an English teacher, I find that though I am
comfortable supporting and evaluating a single au
thor writing a single text, I have less experience
with evaluating collaborative writing. The wiki al
lows users to review the history of any of the wiki
pages as a timeline of the authors contributions
and deletions. However, these archived drafts do
not reveal the social aspects of collaboration that
contributed to the writing. How can we support
and evaluate students in ways that validate com
mon efforts and collaborative products?

Collaboration in Consideration
of Social Roles
Not all students in the Building Worlds project par
ticipated in the same ways. Some students sLich as
Roger and Clark wrote lengthy descriptions and
elaborate stories. Other students contributed ideas
through class discussions but wrote little on the
wiki. Some students wrote in complex collaborative
relationships. e.g., the Alliance Veb, and other stu
dents wrote individually with little involvement in
other students storylines. When Clark was asked
about who he would have been willing to collaborate
with, he explained that what a student has contrib
uted to the project is an important consideration.
Clark explained that he would have been more will
ing to work with other prolific writers such as Roger.
Ryan: OK. But do you think that it would
matter if, say Roger, approached you versus
someone who had less to do with the project
ould that matter?

Clark: Yeah,



Ryan: How so?

Clark: Urn, Roger, his ideas spanned a lot

more than other people did, and I think if
someone were to approach me who had less
to do on the project, then tim, their idea
would matter less, because Roger has a lot
more influence because of the things he has
done and contributed to the class.
Roger: But for me, [continuity] was a big
problem, because I wrote like the whole page
about the gods, and then people would use, I
basically made the characters for them, and
people would use those characters in ways
that kind of contradicted their personalities.
And that kind of messed with me. I didnt
like that. There wasnt much to do about it,
because it was like their ideas from the
Ryan: So, how did you resolve some of those
Roger: I kind of made compromises I guess.
Ryan: Oh, OK.
Roger: Like with Jasmines region. she
wanted the main god to lift her people on to
a flying island. And like the whole reason for
that really conflicted with the main gods

English Journal


Building Fantasy Worlds Together with Collaborative Writing: Creative, Social, and Pedagogic Challenges

personality, because he wanted to leave

things as) open to free will as possible. And
kind of leave the world to its own devices.
So, we just kind of came up vith different
reasons for them to rise into the sky than
what she had originally planned.
For Roger, making a compromise meant mak
ing sure Jasmine was using his god, Sv, as he had
intended. However, Jasmine valued Rogers opinion
and related that she had regu
Collaboration was not
larly sought Rogers advice as a
reader of her writing about
always about
exchange of ideas. Some
Collaboration was not
students such as Roger
always about the mutual ex
had earned social capital
change of ideas. Some students
among the students
such as Roger had earned so
writing the Building
cial capital among the stu
dents writing the Building
Worlds project.
Worlds project. Based on what
students contributed and how
active they were in reading and responding to each
others work, some students ideas and advice were
valued more than others.

Joshs Thoughts on Social Roles

From the beginning of the creation of Erstellen.
Roger was one of the engines of the project, post
ing the first regional profile. I was hesitant to use
Rogers contributions as an exemplar for the rest of
the students, as I did not want students to be in
timidated or devalue their own contributions in
comparison with Rogers.
I decided to go ahead and show Rogers re
gional profile to the rest of class in hope that his
enthusiasm for the project would he contagious. A
few days later Austin posted his map of Erstellen
and students began claiming sections of the world
and writing their own regional profiles. Rogers so
cial role as project leader never diminished as he
maintained his volume of writing and became ac
tive on the wiki discussion boards, serving as one of
the chief continuity editors. Rogers opinion about
the world in general and other students writing
specifically was salued by the other students.
As Rogers social role in the project developed
into an unofficial leadership position, I began to re
consider my own role as a teacher in the Swords &


May 2011

Spaceships classroom. I attempted to alter my social

role as teacher to a collaborator rather than an au
thority figure. I wrote along with the students;
however, contrary to my previous experiences in
which I would compose writing with students to
use as an exemplar for them, my writing for the
Building Worlds project was merely another part of
the atmosphere of Erste lien, Some students took up
my ideas, others did not. Likewise, I worked with
some of their ideas and not others.
The students seemed to pick up on my shift
in social role. I conducted a survey mid-semester
that included a question asking if students saw me
as a teacher, co-creator, guide, or project leader. The
majority of students reported seeing me as either a
co-creator or a guide. Through coordinated author
ship, I took the opportunity to affirm and validate
students ideas and writing in a completely new
way. For some students in the class, writing fantasy
fiction that other students would read was a social
risk. Rather than simply saving, Hey, I really like
that idea, I took it one step further, saying, Hey, I
like your idea so much Id like to use it in my own
writing. In this way, students writing (and my
own) was considered not only an individual product
but also a contribution to a larger, shared project.
This coordinated authorship also helped me
assist students in one of the primary goals of the as
signment: writing fantasy fiction with detail,

The world of Erstellen by Austin


Ryan M. Rish and Joshua Caton

depth, and relatedness to the shared world. Collab

orating with the students through my contribu
tions to Erstellen gave me an opportunity to spur
them on to new ideas for their own creations. My
position as a teacher was nuanced as I was not just
telling them how to go about the assignment; I was
also completing it along with them.
The shift in my role as teacher from authority
to collaborator and the students reaction to it led
me to wonder if I had been a more effective writing
teacher because I was modeling and participating
in the collaborative writing. I am a proponent of
participating in the activities I assign in my classes,
but I think that in this case my participation in the
Building Worlds project was particularly impor
tant as we were experiencing and discussing collab
orative writing for the first time. Typically, when I
model writing for students, they see the finished
piece, but not the process that I went through to
create it (publicly available on the wiki). As a co
author, students could not only see my final, writ
ten product but also follow my process of generating
ideas, negotiating continuity issues, and revising
the work multiple times. This shift from my typi
cal role as writing teacher contributed to a collab
orative environment wherein the quality of the
contribution to the world we were building was the
primary concern. Some of my contributions were
taken up not solely because I was the teacher, but
because some of the students found them engaging
or compelling and useful to enhancing their own
visions for their work in Erstellen,

Our Thoughts about

Collaborative Writing
Though this elective English class and the Building
Worlds project is a special case, we found that it
brought to the fore significant questions for En
glish teachers to consider in regard to collaborative

In uhat u ays can ac positioll students as readers

and co-authors of shared u riting? Josh found
that his students, who were accustomed to
writing their own texts for a narrow audi
ence, e.g., the teacher, needed suggestions,
encouragement, and models for how to work
together. To address these needs, Josh became
a broker of collaborative writing opportuni

ties, as well as a fellow collaborator, encour

aging students to read each others writing
and consider how they might work together.
The students found that this involved coordi
nation, negotiation, and compromiseprac
tices that came more easily to some students
than others and often depended on the social
relationships among the students.
Hon can u e support and eta/nate students in ways
that validate common ef/orts and collaborative
products? Josh found that the approach he was
accustomed to using when supporting and
evaluating student writing as an individual
process and achievement was not appropriate
for the highly collab
orative Building
Collaborating with the
Worlds project. Even
students through my
though the individual
contributions to Erstellen
pages on the wiki
gave me an opportunity
typically had one
author, the writing
to spur them on to new
on those pages was
ideas for their own
often the product of
creations. My position as
exchanges between
a teacher was nuanced as
students, blurring the
I was not just telling
lines that typically
them how to go about
separate my writing
the assignment; I was
from your writing.
The origin of some of
also completing it along
the ideas that the stu
with them.
dents were using
across their stories
was unknown, while other ideas were consid
ered proprietary and required negotiation,
consent, and oversight for their use. Josh
found that the individual grades he was
assigning failed to account for the complex
social aspects involved with the collaborative
authoring of the stories of Erstellen.

In nba! uajs should we reconsider our socm/ roles

when writing collaboratively? Josh found that
as students began to support each others
writing, his role shifted from an expert on
fantasy and science fiction to that of a guide
and a fellow collaborator. This role enabled
him to approach a student as a writer who
was looking for an opportunity to write with
him or her, rather than an expert who v.as
assessing the quality of a students writing.
Roger shifted into the role of project leader.
according to many of the students, and was

English Journal


Building Fantasy Worlds Together with Collaborative Writing: Creative, Social, and Pedagogic Challenges

primarily concerned with maintaining conti

nuity across the stories. These role shifts help
Josh learn alongside his students (Kajder) as
they were all participating in collaborative
writing for the first time.
One argument for the use of collaborative
writing in our classrooms is that collaboration is an
important skill to learn in preparation for working
with others in schools and the workplace (Beach et
al. 71). Another argument is because students are
becoming increasingly familiar with digital tools
and collaborative practices, or new literacies, in outof-school contexts (Wilber) we need to reconsider
the literacy practices (Street) we sponsor in schools.
We argue that collaborative writing in the Building
Worlds project helped to establish a social network
(Kist) of student authors who shared an interest in
fantasy fiction and came to support each others
writing in productive, yet complex, ways.
Works Cited
Beach, Richard, Chris Anson, Lee-Ann Kastrnan Breuch,
riting Using B logs. Wikis.
and Thorn Swiss. Teaching W

and Other Digital fools. Norwood: Christopher-Gor

don, 2009. Print.
Black. Rebecca W A,l/ucent awl Online Fan Entun. Ncw
York: Peter Lang. 2008. Print.
Caton,Joshua. Building 1!2orlds. 15 Sept. 2009. Web. 1 Nov.
2010. <hrtp building-worlds.blogspot.com>.
Building Woilis Spring 2008. Mr. Catons
C!asses.15 Sept. 2009 Web. 1 Nov. 2010. <http:
m rcaton .wikispaces.com Building Worlds>.
Hammer, Jessica. Agency and Authority in Role-Playing
Texts. A Neu. Literaciei Samplei: Ed. Michelle Kno
be! and Cohn Lankshear. New York: Peter Lang,
200. 694. Print.
Kajder, Sara. Adolescents and Digital Litera irs: Learning
Alongiide Our Studentj. Urbana: NCTE, 2010. Print.
3 Netuorkd Classroom: Teaching
Kist, William R. The Sociall
in the New Media Age. Thousand Oaks: Corwin, 2010.
anr to Be in My Story?:
Schultz, Katherine. Do You 7
Collaborati.c riting in an Urban Elementary
Classroom. Journal 4 Literacj Rsearh 29.2 (1 99):
25387. Print.
Schultz, Katherine, and Bob Fccho. Societys Child: Social
Context and Writing Development. Educational
Psichlogist 55.1 (2000): 5162. Print.
Street. Brian V. The Implications of the New Lireracy
Studies for Literacy Education. English in Education
31.3 (1997): 4559. Print,
Wilber, Dana J. iWrite: Using Blogs, Wikis, and Digital Sto
ries in the Englich C/aoroom. Portsmouth: Heinemann,
2010. Print,

Ryan M. Rish is a PhD candidate at Ohio State Universitys School of Teaching and Learning; his research interests include
collaborative writing mediated by digital tools. Email him at rish.7osu.edu. Joshua Caton teaches English and drama at Lick
ing Valley High School in Newark, Ohio. Email him at catonj@lickingvalley.kl 2.oh.us,


Lisa Storm Fink, RWT

Fantastic Characters: Analyzing and Creating Superheroes and Villains asks students to analyze and discuss
familiar superheroes and super-villains to expand their understanding of character types and conventions, Students
consider social issues they confront and incorporate those issues into the creation of their own superheroes or
super-villains. http:l/www.readwritethink.org/classroom-resources/lesson-planslfantastic-characters-analyzing


May 2011