[I've been a fan (yes, how apropos) of Chris Shamburg's work for several years now, so it's a real honor to post some of his thoughts on fandom and curriculum here. And for those of you attending the Fall Conference of NJASL, you should know that he'll be speaking there one week from today, on November 30. -Peter]
Starting around 2001, friends began to tell me about their children’s fascination with fanfiction—writing, reading, and critiquing it. By the time the fourth person told me how much fanfiction had helped her daughter grow as a confident writer I had already started exploring its role in student writing.
Over the last eight years I have used fanfiction in my work as a teacher educator. It is a formal part of a graduate course on “Technology in the English Language Arts” that I teach, and it has worked its way into other work I do as well.
In that graduate class, I share my research and encourage teachers to consider using fanfiction in their own teaching. Though the specifics of the project changes, there are a few general stages that we work through.
My first tact is to legitimize the practice of creative appropriation by having the class explore it in literary history—from Shakespeare, who hardly has an original plot, to Chaucer’s use of Homer, to Milton’s ‘missing scenes’ from the Bible, to more contemporary works such as John Gardner’s Grendel and the Geraldine Brooks’ March, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2006.
Teachers begin to see that fan appropriation can be a lens to view canonical literature. This legitimizes the act of appropriation and complicates the concept of originality.
There is little dissent among teachers at this point—agreed, great authors have borrowed and built on other great authors. We then look at popular fanfiction genres, and I use these short descriptions…
Missing Scenes—scenes that are not in the original story, but would make sense in it. The missing scene would fill in some information that the original text left out. For example, what do the villains do in comic books when the story is focused on the super heroes?
Alternate Perspective—the story is told from the point of view of another character. For example, what would the Cinderella story be like if the stepmother told it?
Alternate Universe—a major character or event in a story is changed, and a “What If…” scenario ensues. For example, what if Peter Parker were bitten by a radioactive ant?
Alternate Realities—characters from one story enter the world of another story. For example, what would happen if characters from one video game went to a different video game?
Sequels—the story that happens after the original story. For example, what does George do after the events in Of Mice and Men?
Prequels—the story before the original story. For example, what was Juliet doing before the events of the play?
Self Insert—the story is rewritten with an avatar (representation of the author). For example, what would a Harry Potter adventure be like if you were in the story?
(Shamburg, 2008, 2009)
The next step is the most critical and controversial part of the endeavor: getting teachers to keep the fan in fanfiction. I ask teachers to allow students to bring in their out-of-school interests as the subjects for their writing—the stories from the books, movies, comics, and games that they love. While many see the benefit of using fanfiction genres on school books they already teach—books that require extra motivation for students to read—challenging the canon is a tough one for many teachers. However, unless fanfiction and fans are treated in respectful ways, these techniques and genres do not have a substantive impact, especially for students who are reluctant writers. The power of fanfiction lies in validating and building on students’ interests. While I believe there is a place for Shakespeare, Homer, Lee, and Hawthorne in students’ education, my experience as a teacher, parent, and teacher educator shows me room and opportunities for the stories, games, comics, and movies that consume students outside of school. Teachers don’t have to teach Harry Potter, Captain America, or World of Warcraft, but they can allow students to build their writing on these stories.
Along with working with fanfiction in a formal graduate class, I’ve had some other notable experiences with fanfiction in education. I recently supervised a graduate student’s research project on the use of fanfiction in an elementary writing program. In this year-long project, the student developed a scope and sequence that moved her student’s longer pieces of writing and more ambitious appropriations of popular work (Brooten, 2009). I also assisted a school librarian as she developed a third-grade project on 3D Storytelling, where students chose and appropriated images to create fan-based stories (Latimer, 2011). What was fascinating about the 3D Storytelling project was its origin. The school principal asked her to develop some counterbalance to the Battle of the Books, a unit that seemed to simply reward students who were traditionally successful in school and ignore others. The 3D Storytelling project allowed all students to creatively synthesize existing stories into new material.
I’ve gotten the most enjoyment from using fanfiction activities when I periodically teach ninth-grade students at NJeSchool, a public online secondary program in New Jersey. I teach the English course “Student Podcasting and 21st Century Literacy.” This course was developed to teach contemporary skills and as well as to capitalize on the online environment. In the fanfiction project students have to remix audio clips from existing shows into a new story. For example, one student created a story where Rocky Balboa gets a pep talk from Yoda (Shamburg, 2008b).
Fanfiction allows kids to be creative with familiar raw material. It validates where they are developmentally, but it demands that they take different perspectives on familiar situations and stories. Teachers would do themselves and their students a favor if they would consider using it in authentic ways.
Brooten, D. (2009). New literacies: Practical applications in an elementary classroom. Unpublished Thesis, New Jersey City University.
Latimer, J. (2011).Digital storytelling. Retrieved September 15, 2012 from The Anywhere Librarian http://www.anywherelibrarian.com/?page_id=387
Shamburg, C. (2008). National Educational Technology Standards: Units for the English Language Arts grades 9-12. Eugene OR: International Society for Technology in Education.
Shamburg, C (2008b). Fanfiction. retrieved September 15, 2012 from Podcourse http://podcourse.blogspot.com/2008/11/fanfiction.html
Shamburg, C. (2009). Student-Powered Podcasting: Teaching for 21st Century Literacy. Eugene, OR: International Society for Technology in Education.
Christopher Shamburg is a Professor of Educational Technology at New Jersey City University and the author of several books. Before teaching college he was a high school English teacher for 10 years. He has won several awards for teaching, including the New Jersey Distinguished Teacher Educator in 2012. He can be reached at email@example.com or http://web.njcu.edu/faculty/cshamburg/