Flash in the Classroom: Winesburg to Las Perditas

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In the SmokeLong Flash in the Classroom series, we ask teachers to share how they use flash fiction in their classrooms. If you are a teacher and have a story about how you use flash to get your students excited about writing, please submit your work here. Today, James Claffey, a writer and teacher in California, shares a grand idea.

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by James Claffey

In 2008 I took a “Forms of Fiction” class taught by Jeanne Leiby, the editor of the Southern Review. Flash fiction was unknown to me, and the first exercise we did in that class was based off Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, his linked stories about the assorted citizens of that town. The twelve students in the class (mostly in their twenties, and me several decades further down the road) created a fictional town, “Beersville,” and populated it with a variety of businesses, shopfronts, and assorted characters. Mine was the undertaker, based no doubt on my family’s long-defunct business in an Irish midland’s town, “Claffey’s pub, grocers, and undertakers.” Our brief was simple: to create a piece of fiction about our chosen character and to limit it to 250 words, no more, no less. On this, Jeanne was unwavering. The other stipulation was that we had to “write after” someone else’s story and mention their character in some way, shape, or form in our narrative (except for the first set of writers). The process of writing about the denizens of the town proved enjoyable, and it was my introduction to the art of flash fiction.

Flash forward to 2018 and my freshman classroom at Santa Barbara High School. Jeanne is almost eight years dead now, and I’ve been back in California for seven years, one child, two books, a major fire, and a disastrous mudslide. This year I’m reinventing my curriculum to generate greater buy-in from students, and to engage them more both in what they are reading and what they are writing about. This means trying on new strategies and reading more diverse authors, hopefully providing my students with a variety of mirrors in which to see their own experiences reflected back at them.

Every year I begin with great hopes of incorporating more fiction writing into the classroom, and each year I end up disappointed due to the curriculum maps to be followed, the Common Formative Assessments to be administered, the reading tests to be given, the core texts to be rushed through, and on and on and on. This year, with a supportive administration willing to let some of us experiment with a “different approach” to engaging our students I am actually able to incorporate Jeanne’s “Winesburg, Ohio” exercise into my teaching.

So far, my 9th grade honors students have chosen a town name–“Las Perditas,” West Virginia–and created character sketches for their fictional citizens of the town. The first five students have written their stories to varying degrees of success, and to varying degrees of adherence to word count. I can’t use names, but one student wrote about a transgender teen boy, another about a newly arrived junior high boy, Jimmy, who takes over the school’s Racketeering enterprise, and another wrote about a boy named July. There’s dialog, setting, color and humor in the writing, and while the stories may be “school appropriate” for language and content, they are running with the project and bringing the town of “Las Perditas” to life, and in a way, keeping Jeanne’s spirit alive, too.

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James Claffey hails from County Westmeath, Ireland and lives on an avocado ranch in Carpinteria, CA. His work appears in the W.W. Norton Anthology Flash Fiction International, and in Queen’s Ferry Press’s anthology The Best Small Fictions of 2015. He was also a finalist in The Best Small Fictions of 2016, and a semi-finalist in 2017. He is the author of the story collection Blood a Cold Blue, published by Press 53, and the novel The Heart Crossways, published by Thrice Publishing.