Using Fan Fiction to Teach Critical Reading and Writing

Using Fan Fiction to Teach Critical Reading and Writing Skills. By: Kell, Tracey, Teacher Librarian,
14811782, Oct2009, Vol. 37, Issue 1
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Using Fan Fiction to Teach Critical Reading and
Writing Skills
"I'm working on my next unit with my pre-service teacher and we are thinking of doing creative
writing with a twist. Do you have any suggestions?" asked Michele Hood a seventh grade language
arts teacher, as we discussed the progression of the current research unit we were implementing. As
the teacher-librarian, I immediately got excited!
I work closely with the teachers at my middle school, collaborating on many levels, and I enjoy adding
popular culture to the curriculum where appropriate. I add music, movies, and reading material my
students enjoy outside the school environment. For example when talking about Internet safety, I
discuss Facebook and MySpace because students are familiar with these sites. When examining
literary devices, I use the text of their favorite songs or books. Students are motivated by and connect
with lessons that involve media they appreciate.
The teacher's inquiry excited me and I looked forward to the opportunity to introduce a new concept
from popular culture--fan fiction and participatory culture--to my colleagues and our students using a
reading and writing unit.
Jenkins (2008) defines fan fiction as "original stories and novels which are set in the fictional universe
of favorite television series, films, comics, games or other media properties" (para.1). Fan fiction
generally involves writing stories with a combination of established characters and established
"worlds" or settings with established histories of how the character normally interacts in its usual
world or setting (Granick, n.d). Fan fiction authors generally take one or a combination of these
elements and write a story line that is different from what the original author produced. The fan fiction
writer then posts his or her work on the Internet in specialized forums such as
Individuals who write fan fiction often change characters, introduce their favorite characters to
characters from other works, or place their characters into new settings (Jenkins, 2008). Fan fiction
writers' creations can be isolated stories or on-going bodies of work in which they post entire chapters
at a time. Other people in the forum often give writers feedback, sometimes praise, and at other times
constructive criticism. If the feedback is a critique, it is generally tempered with enthusiasm; hostile
responses are discouraged (Black, 2005). Authors post notes orienting their work and usually give it a
rating (K- general, K+ some innuendos, T-teen, or M- mature).
Through the online world of fan fiction, entire social communities are formed. This social community
bridges age, race, gender, and educational status as the writers and fans work through a participatory
culture to socially connect through their writing (Gee, 2004; Jenkins, Clinton, Purushotma, Robinson, &
Weigel, 2006b).
I initially discovered fan fiction from reading Chandler-Olcott and Mahar's (2003) article "Adolescents'
Anime-inspired 'Fanfictions': An Exploration of Multiliteracies." They followed two teenagers who wrote
fan fiction outside of school. The teenagers in the study viewed fan fiction writing as a way to have
fun, avoid boredom, and develop online friendships.
Fan fiction provides a participatory culture that fosters an excellent learning environment. Many
writers develop a "following" of individuals who give constant feedback and look forward to future
installments. Jenkins et al. (2006b) described a participatory culture as:
A culture with relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement, strong support for
creating and sharing one's creations, and some type of information mentorship whereby what is
known by the most experienced is passed along to novices. A participatory culture is also one in which
members believe their contributions matter, and feel some degree of social connection with one
another (at least they care what other people think about what they have created. (p.5)
James Paul Gee (2004) called these informal learning cultures "affinity spaces." Gee suggested that
affinity spaces are powerful because people can participate based on their interest and skills. In her
research, Rebecca Black (2007) found that acted as an affinity space where members
used digital literacy skills to work collaboratively to solve reading and writing-related problems while
creating a social network of fans. Fan fiction forums allow individuals to share their areas of expertise
and learn from their peers in areas of weaknesses.
During exploration of, I found a community of people passionate about their writing and
creativity, evidence of mentoring and peer-to-peer learning, and a forum committed to supporting its
writers with up-to-date technology.
Having decided we would work together, Michele Hood, Ava Smith (a pre-service teacher working with
Ms. Hood), and I sat down to create our fan fiction lessons. We established three main goals for the
project. We hoped students would write creatively using supportive dialogue, strong vocabulary, and a
cohesive story line. We also wanted students to evaluate their peers' writing in terms of style and
voice. Finally, we expected students to give constructive feedback to their peers and back up their
comments with evidence from the writing.
The 2008 Pew Internet and American Life Project report "Writing, Technology, and Teens" examined
students' perception of their writing. In the report, Lenhart, Arafeh, Smith, and Macgill found that
students reported it was motivating when they were able to select topics that interested them, when
they were able to write creatively, and when they were writing for an audience. Our lesson was
designed to meet these criteria. The students were given choice regarding which genre (book, movie,
TV show, or video game) and within each genre they selected which specific book, movie, TV show, or
video game they wanted to use for their story. The students were given the opportunity to participate
in examining fan fiction posted online at as well as their peers' writing.
After coming up with a game plan, we knew the key to this activity was finding a place to post our fan
fiction. The motivational hook we were looking for was the technological aspect of displaying the
students' work and having electronic peer feedback. Ms. Hood and I wanted a secure area, not on the
Internet, for our class assignment. Our eventual goal was that some if not all students find a wider
audience for their work. We were aware that while the Fan fiction site was not blocked, most areas
within (such as the gaming forum) were, and we did not want to limit our students'
selection because of Internet filters.
After sharing our unit with the principal, I started a dialogue with the central office, specifically the
Executive Director of Technology and Information who controls our Internet access. At that time
almost all blogs and wikis, including password-protected sites, were blocked. While our technology
director was very supportive, the infrastructure was not immediately available. I found a few class
blogging sites including that the students could pull up and read, but posting to
them was a problem since it required an email account in order to create a user name and Internet
email is blocked for students at our school. Many of our students do not have Internet at home, so
having the students post and respond at home was not an option.
I decided to forge ahead however and we placed our work on a shared area of the school's server. We
used Word documents and server folders for our electronic forum. The students were able to go
through the motions of reading each other's work and responding, even though the process was not
as fluid or fulfilling as it would have been on an official blogging site.
The lesson followed the standards-based format that our school follows and began by asking students
to answer and share their responses to the journal questions, "What is a fan? What are examples of
something you are a fan of?" From the discussion I introduced the concept of fan fiction and shared
the web site with the class.
Next, I separated the students into groups based on the four types of fan fiction they chose: (movie,
videogame, book, and TV show). Each group read a piece of fan fiction with the accompanying
reviews that I printed from During this work period the students were to 1) summarize
the piece, 2) decide if it was a good example of fiction writing-after a quick reminder of items to look
for in good fiction: strong dialogue, descriptive vocabulary, and cohesive story line, 3) make one
suggestion for improvement, and 4) decide if the reviews were beneficial or not and report their
results to the class. This activity allowed the students to critique a piece of writing they had selected.
Then it was time to create our own fan fiction groups. Each student joined a group based on the
genre they had chosen. Some groups were small (maintaining a two-person minimum) while others
had six to eight students. In the end, after moving students around if their "group" did not meet the
two-person minimum, everyone had a group and an assignment.
The students were to write a piece of fan fiction and have it ready to post in two weeks, with the
rough draft due to Ms. Hood and Ms. Smith two days before post. They were also to explain what they
thought about fan fiction, make a suggestion, or provide a critique. Several of the students suggested
I add a music category, however, I had chosen the categories because of the established characters I
felt students could draw upon in their writing.
The classroom teachers reviewed the students' hand written rough drafts and offered feedback
through quick student conferences. The next day the students typed their stories, and on the last day
the students posted and responded to their peers.
The computer lab became quite animated during the posting and responding phase. Students were
eager to read their peers' feedback and response; they were very honest in their review, offering
constructive criticism as well as giving specifics on what they thought the author did exceptionally well
or needed to improve. While the students were used to giving peer-feedback, Ms. Hood noted they
were much more honest when they were giving criticism electronically rather than face-to-face. She
felt the distance the electronic format provided as well as forcing the students to put their thoughts
into written words resulted in deeper reflection on their peers' work.
Most researchers who have studied fan fiction (Black, 2007; Chandler-Olcott & Mahar, 2003) bring up
the argument that popular culture in general, and fan fiction in particular, should not be introduced
into the classroom. The argument is that students protect what they enjoy "outside of school" and do
not want it to be institutionalized. Aware of this viewpoint, I was curious if I would come across the
same feelings among my students. Ms. Hood, Ms. Smith, and I asked for feedback after our
introductory lesson and after the project ended. None of our students were previously aware of the
term fan fiction, so it was not an issue for us. However, teachers and media specialists need to be
aware that serious writers of fan fiction may not be receptive to having it become a required
assignment. As Alvermann, Huddleston, and Hagood (2004) put it, "teachers need to respect and
learn from the pleasures young people experience as fans of popular culture while simultaneously
engaging students and being engaged themselves in a deeper understanding (through various
reading, writing, listening, speaking, and viewing activities" (p. 539). We tried to uphold this
As a media specialist I struggled with the idea of fan fiction given copyright and intellectual ownership
laws. Is fan fiction infringing on copyright or does it fall under the "fair use" statute? Nunziato (n.d.)
states, "The fair use doctrine says that otherwise copyrighted works may be used for purposes such as
criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, or research (parody falls under fair use). To
decide whether a use is "fair use" or not, courts consider:
• the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for
nonprofit educational purposes;
• the nature of the copyrighted work;
• the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole;
• the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.
Jenkins (2006a) addresses copyright issues with fan fiction in his book Convergence Culture as well as
on his blog (2006c) in an article entitled "Fan Fiction as Critical Commentary." He points out that fair
use law does not have a category for dealing with "amateur creative expression." Additionally Jenkins
sees "all fan fiction or at least most fan fiction to involve some form of criticism of the original texts
upon which it is based" (Fan Fiction and Fair Use, para. 4). Both Jenkins (2006a) and Granick (n.d.)
view fan fiction to be original text. However Granick (n.d.) warns copyright law is complicated and that
most authors become protective of their work when their character's general image is changed.
I addressed this issue with the students. We discussed the concept of intellectual property and "giving
credit where credit is due." I had them document the original piece of work that they used as the
basis of their writing. Even though fan fiction web sites do not require it, I had our students write a
simple statement of acknowledgement of the original authorship.
The students' feedback during and after the lesson was very positive. They enjoyed writing about their
favorite video game, movie, book, or television show. In the post reflection piece, when asked if they
would rather write a generic fiction piece or fan fiction, the overwhelming response was "fan fiction."
The most enthusiastic were the Twilight (Meyers, 2005) fans and the video garners, probably because
they were the truest "fans" among the students; but many students commented they enjoyed writing
based on their favorite characters. The teachers and I discovered the students were eager to read the
peer comments on their stories, and were anxious to make corrections and repost. The students
created a participatory culture where they shared their creativity, socially interacted in an electronic
environment, and learned from each other.
Fan fiction allowed us to use technology to support meaningful uses of language and literacy (Black,
2005). While we took a creative writing approach with this unit, we are thinking of doing it again as a
response to the classics (Jenkins, 2008). Ms. Hood and I look forward to writing more fan fiction, but
we definitely want a more "electronic" environment.
Each community, each school, and each classroom is different. Ms. Hood, Ms. Smith, and I found fan
fiction was a great way to integrate popular culture into the curriculum as we strove to create more
skilled writers and critical readers in a participatory culture. The students' enthusiasm was refreshing
as they engaged in creative writing and responding to literature. They are asking to write more and
we are now more than willing to accommodate.
Alvermann, D., Huddleston, A., & Hagood, M. (2004). What could professional wrestling and school
literacy practices possibly have in common? Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 47, 532-540.
American Association of School Librarians & Association of Educational Communications and
Technology. (1998). Information power: Building partnerships for learning. Chicago: American Library
Black, R.W. (2005). Access and affiliation: The literacy and composition practices of English-language
learners in an online fanfiction community. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy. 49, 118-128.
Black, R.W. (2007). Digital design: English language learners and reader reviews in online fiction. In
Knoble, M., & Lankshear, C. (Eds.) A new literacies sampler (pp. 49-65). New York: Peter Lang
Publishing. Retrieved September 27, 2008, from
Chandler-Olcott, K., & Mahar, D. (2003). Adolescents' anime-inspired "fanfictions": An exploration of
multiliteracies. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 46, 556-566.
Gee, J.P. (2004). Situated language and learning: A critique of traditional schooling. New York:
Granick, J. (n.d.). Fan fiction. Retrieved October 31, 2008 from
Jenkins, H. (2006a). Convergence culture: Where old and new media collide. New York: New York
Jenkins, H., Clinton, K., Purushotma, R., Robison, A., & Weigel, M. (2006). Confronting the challenges
of participatory culture: Media education for the 21st century. Retrieved October 29, 2008 from
Jenkins, H. (2006). Fan fiction as critical commentary. Retrieved October 31, 2008 from fan_fiction_as_critical_commen.html.
Jenkins, H. (2008). How fan fiction can teach us a new way to read Moby Dick (part one). Retrieved
August 30, 2008 from
Lenhart, A., Arafeh, S., Smith, A., & Macgill, A. R. (2008) Writing, technology and teens. Retrieved
October 30, 2008 from
Meyer, S. (2005). Twilight. New York: Little, Brown, and Company.
Nunziato, D. (n.d.). Copyright and fair use. Retrieved October 31, 2008. from
By Tracey Kell
Tracey Kell works as a teacher-librarian at Chestatee Middle School in Hall County, Georgia. Ms. Kell is
currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Language and Literacy at the University of Georgia, with her research
interests in reading motivation and adolescent literacy. She can be reached at