Professional Development in Action: Lori Cohen’s Feature Stories

Recently, humanities teacher Lori Cohen presented at the California Association of Teachers of English (CATE) Conference in Santa Clara. Her session, called “Creative Nonfiction and the Common Core,” focused on “how to meet the Common Core State Standards through asking students to write feature stories.” During this presentation, participants learned “strategies and approaches that allow students to analyze nonfiction texts and produce meaningful works of creative nonfiction.”

As you might imagine, Lori’s students here at The Bay School benefit from thoughtful assignments in keeping with the creative spirit of her presentation topic. Indeed, Lori’s feature-writing presentation was not without Bay student basis; this trimester, after choosing topics ranging from maritime superstitions to what motivates 17 year-old Rookie Magazine editor Tavi Gevinson, Lori’s students set about researching and constructing factual yet engaging stories.

“I went through the process of watching a documentary, taking notes, writing, doing some research, writing and writing until I felt like everything was on the page,” one student commented. “At first, it was a mess. I had rough transitions and no logical organization, but allowing myself to partake in the process allowed me to get everything on the page and craft it thoughtfully from there.”

Another student, whose impressive final piece is available here, said of the process: “there was this story about Beijing’s high levels of air pollution, unprecedented in the city’s history. This issue pulled me in, and I had to know more.”

So, if the research process broadened students’ horizons, crafting the final product shed light on the nature of storytelling in general. At the end of the unit, one student expressed surprise at the narrative potential in nonfiction: “I learned that stories aren’t necessarily the kind you make up,” the student said. Another student found new respect for the human interest component of stories, saying, “Without human interest, you might as well be writing a lab report. Stories and quotes and experiences from real people are what make your audience want to continue.”

But at the heart of every writing assignment – and front and center within Lori’s feature-writing assignments – is the hope to produce something meaningful. One student concluded that after all the research, incorporation of facts and attention to audience, “I began to find my voice – the way I tell stories.”

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