Scary stories written by PDS students, and dating back to 2000, are on display in the MSLC this month.
We start getting ready for Halloween rather early in middle school. Since the end of the twentieth century, the Poughkeepsie Journal’s scary story contest has provided the inspiration for the first big sixth (and this year) seventh grade writing assignment.
As Shirley Rinaldi, sixth grade Humanities teacher and a veteran of this assignment explained, “When you need to write a scary story, the last thing you want to do is sit down and just write the whole thing.” Students in both Shirley’s Humanities and Malorie Seeley-Sherwood’s English classes started by reading the scary stories from the past years. They analyzed what made the story “scary.” They came up with a list of elements that stories had, and built categories. The first homework assignment? Write just the first sentence of the story.
Coming up with the qualities of a scary story and writing just a sentence to start, prevents several problems that young writers often face with school writing assignments. First, it helps avoid that horrible “blank screen,” writers block. Having to write just a sentence gives everyone success, early.
Second, it sets prolific writers on the path to meet the word length. Writers of all ages usually hate deleting their words! When writing for a required length– whether that is in school or later on, for a grant or job, having to edit can be the hardest part. A catchy first sentence can set the stage for pithy prose as the piece develops.
As the work develops, the classes eventually turned their attention to the endings of scary stories. Again, they analyzed the work of previous authors and came up with a list of qualities that good endings have. Before ending their own stories, they had an educated view of what makes a scary story have an appropriately scary ending.
Clearly, the students are functioning as more than just writers in this process. They are engaged in literary analysis– an academic skill that will continue to be developed in middle school and called upon again and again in high school and college. For their first foray of the year, they read the works of writers who were their age, and have the highly motivating goal of writing for an authentic audience (the judges) and potentially a very wide one (winners and honorable mention stories are published by the newspaper.)
The final part of the process is also just like what a real-life writer would experience. The work is edited by a classmate, and also by the teacher. Peer editing is good for the author and for the reader (who is also a writer!) It completes the process with the same analysis that began the assignment– Why is this story scary and what makes it good? What could make it better?
While we wish the authors luck in the contest, no matter the result, the process was a great way to begin a year of writing.