Inspired Guide to Writing the Short Story: Christina Soares Heffner

Hey everybody, you are listening to Author Hour, the show where we talk to authors about their new books. I’m Charlie Hoehn and today, I speak with Christina Soares Heffner. She’s the author of Inspired Guide to Writing the Short Story. Christina believes that every student has a story to tell and that short story writing is the perfect avenue for students to develop their voices and let their creativity shine.

But the problem is that instructors run into challenges. First off, very few resources exist to help. Most instructors get overwhelmed, creating their own curriculum and they also spend a lot of time searching for short stories that match their lessons.

That’s why Christina wrote this book. It’s the guide that she wishes she’d had 15 years ago. Christina’s a Montessori trained teacher who, for more than a decade, has been teaching writing and supporting students as they discover their voice. In this episode, you’ll hear some of Christina’s favorite memories and stories of helping students through the power of writing short stories.

You’ll also learn what makes this resource particularly unique for instructors and why it’s so valuable to have in the classroom. Now, here’s our conversation with Christina Heffner.

Christina Soares Heffner: The one student that stands out in my mind, while I was writing this resource, he said he hated writing. His parents said he had hated writing his entire life and I just knew he had so much to say and share. He had really strong opinions about things and just a really unique way of looking at the world. I think he carried a little bit of, “Well, no one’s going to really listen to me so I’m not going to share,” in him. It was tough, the beginning lessons that I would work with him on from this resource that I created.  Some of them I created just for him.

He really just wouldn’t give it up right away, but I was persistent and showed up and there were many times where I just sat with him in silence for a little bit, just saying, like, “I know it’s going to be hard but I’m here and I know there’s a story in there.”

He didn’t really turn in any of the drafts at the time, but I knew he was working. The day that the full first draft was due, he came in with it, I will never forget, like white knuckles. He was just clenching this story and shaking, trembling as he handed it over to me. It was incredible.

He opened up after that, he started speaking up more for himself within the classroom, he didn’t have that same angst when he would say his opinion or how he felt about things. He was so much lighter and like, “I can just be me.” He did at the end of it. He did end up killing off his main character, which one of the things we had talked about is sometimes that happens and sometimes it’s a cop-out for writers when they don’t really know how to end.

It actually worked really well in his story, but what I loved is he took that ownership. We did this event at the local library where the students all came and read their stories to an audience and, after that event, he was sitting on the bus and I went over and sat down next to him, and asked, “How was that?” He had rarely ever spoken in front of people before and he said, “You know? I think I took the easy way out by killing him off. But I can write another story.”

The joy that filled inside my body was just really special because he had a hard time connecting to people and this really opened him up to do that. I just hold on to him and hold on to his story as just this real way to say everybody’s story matters. I just want everyone to know that, and I want them to just sit with that tough kid and put trust in that tough kid to know that they do. They have it in there and they want to tell it, they just need somebody that’s willing to listen.

A Valuable Resource

Charlie Hoehn: I love that. We were talking about before this episode that this is a big book, this was a lot of work for you to put all these together. I’d imagine that students like him are the reason you stuck through putting this much effort and work. Because you can see that transformation when they’ve told their story.

Christina Soares Heffner: Exactly. For me, this was maybe six years after I created this whole resource that I had been using for myself. Had I not had that resource for myself, I wouldn’t have had the time to sit with him. Really, once I met with him and realized, why was I able to give him so much time? Why was I able to just be calm? And it hit me because I had all the stories that I wanted to teach.

I had all the resources ready and available. I had the order of the lessons that I wanted to give, then I thought, other people need this. It took me years to put it together and it took a lot of time away from other things I could have been doing and working directly with my students. I was like, I can’t just keep this to myself anymore, I really want to share it.

Charlie Hoehn: Talk to me a bit about the typical day in the life of an educator, who is trying to teach around this but they don’t have the structure you laid out. Can you paint that picture of the pain that they’re going through?

Christina Soares Heffner: Absolutely. Just endless hours, searching, going to the library, taking out short story books, trying to find appropriate ones that match the content that you want to take, or going online and trying to search through so many stories. Then also just, for me, the Socratic seminar is the gem of writing, if that makes sense. Because, really, being able to have students discuss other stories together, really allows them to see that there are so many different types of stories out there and they can be interpreted in so many different ways.

Because one thing, especially for adolescents, is that they really want to feel connected and they want to feel heard. To be able to talk to one another and share their opinions about somebody else’s writing gives them the sense of, “I can do this too.”

Charlie Hoehn: What is the Socratic seminar, and why does that matter so much? I know that adolescents want to be heard, understood, but how does it facilitate that?

Christina Soares Heffner: I’ve laid this out in the resource as well, as kind of a slow-release process so I’ll just talk about it now, and in the ideal setting once all the rules for the seminar have been established. The students all read a shared story together and then they, without the teacher, lead a guided discussion about it.

They really learn how to weave their conversation together. Nobody raises hands, they each come up with two interpretive questions that they would like the group to explore, and they have to refer back to the text and really, just deepen their understanding of what they read and how the story can be interpreted by different viewpoints. They also get to hear from their peers about how they interpreted the story as well.

My decision to make this an all-in-one resource and not a teacher’s manual, but instead a student workbook, because I find that it’s kind of a waste of time to not have the exact resource that your students have. So, everybody is on the same page, literally, and can see what everybody else sees, so really, it becomes this collaborative workspace but also, everything’s included in this resource, so that the students have what they need to be able to just work on it at their own pace. They can support each other with this resource too because everybody has the same resource.

Charlie Hoehn: Totally. Makes perfect sense. Tell me what a classroom might look like after a semester or a year of using your workbook?

Christina Soares Heffner: The communication among members of that community is clear, and thoughtful, and inclusive. It also has a deep understanding of each other. This is a lot of work. It’s hard work for the students to go through this, so they have this sense of accomplishment, of this thing that they created together.

It’s really collaborative in that way too. Within the resource, there are also opportunities to have many author critiques with small groups within the community or even in a large group setting. They really get this chance to support one another and also be supported by one another.

Really, they all do care, and they all do want to hear each other stories. This gives them a chance to be able to do that. I would say the strength of the community as a whole is completely different on the other side of this.

Charlie Hoehn: You talk about this in unit one, lesson one. You say, building a writer’s community, this is the place to start. Talk to me a bit more about building a writer’s community. Why does this matter?

Christina Soares Heffner: It’s really important, I think, especially for adolescents. They’re often scared to share themselves with the world because they have part of that awkwardness happening. You know, it’s really interesting because they’re going through a lot of the same changes that infants go through except with the amount that they’re growing, with the amount that they’re learning, their emotions, and their hormones, but the difference is, they’re conscious of it.

They have to live in this world where they’re changing so much, and they don’t’ even know what’s happening or where their body is in space. It’s often unsettling for them, so it’s really important that they know that the guides, the teachers in their life, really are on their side, and kind of cheering them on, and able to catch them when they fall.

Building that community is really what makes this a successful unit of study, when they know that the teacher really, truly does care about their story and is going to hold them accountable to do the parts that they need to do to make it a really great story.

Also, catch them when they fall.

Charlie Hoehn: There’s just something about this that seems so primal or ancestral, rooted in human origins. We’ve been telling stories since the dawn of humanity, as tribes, using this as a way to build a tribe within your school, seems like such an obvious, no-brainer thing, but I’d imagine that’s not often the case.

Christina Soares Heffner: Yeah, I think sometimes teachers have a hard time knowing either how to do it or, they feel some pressure to teach the curriculum and the content. Really, my passion is about developing community, so I saw this as a real way to attach it to a really highly valued skill that the students need to learn while building that community alongside their writing work.

Everyone Has a Story

Charlie Hoehn: What kind of changes in the students do you see when they’ve started to develop this skillset? I know you talked about the personality changes and how they communicate with other students, does this skillset of being able to tell a story to translate into any other areas of their lives?

Christina Soares Heffner: So many. Within the study, they have to do research on where their story takes place. So, there is writing and composing emails to, for instance, if their story takes place in a garden, then they are writing and composing emails to the head of a local gardening center to ask about terminology. Or they might even ask to come in and spend a couple of hours with the people that work there, finding out about their lives, and different things that happen on a typical day in a garden store.

They get a sense of independence and responsibility for going out and making connections with people. They have this real sense that words matter. I have seen a huge change in how the kids, not only communicate with one another but how they also communicate with the adults in their world. I highly recommend having a culminating event at the end, when the students publish their work and having a celebration.

This sense of accomplishment that they get from starting something really hard, that has multiple little steps along the way, and when they stick to it seeing this end result.

Charlie Hoehn: And you know the thing that I was thinking about that it probably helps too is empathy, building that muscle of empathy. I can’t imagine a better time in recent history to have a practice of building empathy.

Christina Soares Heffner: Absolutely. I’ve seen countless students who didn’t really get along or were kind of short with one another, sit in an author’s critique and give positive reinforcement, and supporting each other. You know, we as individuals are often harder on ourselves than anyone else will be, which is definitely true for adolescents.

It’s so magical to watch them in some of those moments be really hard on themselves and watching their classmates not just say, “Oh no, it’s fine. It’s all good. Oh no, I like that sentence.” Instead of giving real feedback, such as, “This might not have been your strongest sentence but look at the way that you used that verb–that one really got me to see what you were saying. What support do you need to make you feel like it’s better?” Seeing these kids who didn’t know how to offer each other feedback in that way before is just really–magical is the word that keeps coming up.

Charlie Hoehn: Do you have any stories of magical moments you’ve witnessed, of these kids interacting with each other, or growing into a more actualized version of themselves?

Christina Soares Heffner: Absolutely. I had one student who really was having a hard time fitting in and identifying with anybody else in the community. He played around with different stories that he wanted to tell, and he wasn’t really sure what topic he wanted to do, and this other kid, who also didn’t really have strong friendship relationships within the community yet. He was new to our school that year and he was just watching from the outside.

This one day, he just really saw him struggling and he just came and sat at his table and was just doing his work. Then the next day he offered him a snack, and then the next day he said, “Oh did you decide on your story yet? Because I heard you shared the other day at the community meeting that you were really thinking about whether or not you were ever going to find your birth father, and that just seems like a really important moment in your life. I just wonder if there is a story there?” He just said it and then walked away.

The other student ended up writing this really beautiful story that explored some of those topics.

Charlie Hoehn: Yeah, everyone’s story matters and so often it is easy for us to trivialize them, or dismiss them, or say they don’t. You’re creating these opportunities for their peers to reinforce, “Hey your story does matter. I want to hear it, tell it.” It’s great.

Christina Soares Heffner: Absolutely, and I think it is so great now too with different resources. I have one student–well many–but this one in particular that I am thinking of, who really struggled with spelling, and punctuation, and just regular grammar in general too, and created some of the most beautiful stories you will ever read.

I think that’s another thing that sometimes writing teachers get hung up on and feel stressed about because of meeting certain standards and really just having the opportunity for dictation. Or, in this girl’s case, she actually had a friend that would help her type down her thoughts and go back through it with her and fix the mistakes. She couldn’t catch some of them. She knew they were wrong, but she didn’t quite know how to fix it.

Then I have this other girl in class who was all about spelling and so she would say, “Oh come on I’ll help you!” So that was another benefit too, is that it really allowed the students to understand what their strengths were and then be able to offer their strengths to other people within the study.

Because this other girl didn’t really have strong story ideas. She was able to help her with that while she helped her edit her work.

A Comprehensive Guide

Charlie Hoehn: That’s great. Let’s play a hypothetical game. We have an educator who is listening to this podcast and they’re thinking, “This might be a good book to have but, you know, I think I know how to lead students in writing short stories. I think I know how to do this pretty well.” What are some other things in the book that you think could get this person off the fence and say, “You know what? I need to invest, I need to get this book and read the whole thing.”

Christina Soares Heffner: Absolutely, everything is in the book already–all of the workbook pages. So literally, you hand the book to the student and they have what they need to go and run with the story. So each lesson coincides with follow up work that they can either do in class or at home, and all of the space for the follow-up work is all within that resource because another thing we know that adolescents do at this time is they lose papers and they lose their folders.

I played around with binders for a little bit but kids that have some fine motor challenges, they had a really hard time not ripping the pages out of the three-ringed binder. I’ve also tried a whole bunch of different ways to do it. This workbook is all one resource, together, ready to go.

Charlie Hoehn: You have units on developing characters, and I will just read some of the lesson titles. Developing characters, naming characters, you have a unit on story structure, plot analysis, engaging readers through drama, the making of a protagonist, creating conflict, finding a resolution. The essential elements, I am reading two units of seven, you have all the story elements, drafting, publication, and what the culminating event ought to look like. So, as you said, it’s a comprehensive workbook that has everything that both the teacher and the students need in order to do this successfully.

Christina Soares Heffner: Absolutely. Personally, I have a handful of friends who homeschool or have other communities that they are a part of that homeschool. So, it is also a great resource for that community, especially if they don’t have teachers that have strong writing backgrounds because there’s so much included in the resource, that they really can have the opportunity to learn alongside the students as they’re working.

Also, I did not know this of course at the time while I was writing the resource, but because everything is in the resource, it can also be done at a distance. So, it really could work for distance learning and students can share their work back and forth electronically and they will have what they need to keep working.

Charlie Hoehn: Excellent. So, in a post-COVID-19 world where everybody is on Zoom, this still works perfectly. I wanted to start to wrap up with any stories you might have of educators who’ve used your template, your plan, and what their results have been. What have they told you?

Christina Soares Heffner: Yes, so, while I was writing and I handed it off to three of my friends who are writing teachers and they have been using it with their students, and they absolutely loved it. They loved having access to me too so that I could walk them through any challenges that they come up with, which was great for me because that was feedback that I could then add to the resource before final publication. I was really thankful to them for that.

They were just blown away by the types of stories, and the depth within the stories that the students wrote. They had previously not used the resource and had students write short stories that were just okay. They were blown away by the depth that the students were able to write about in their stories after having used my resource.

Charlie Hoehn: That’s awesome and, this is likely going to be a book that I get myself. I studied storytelling and I’ve got two little girls, and I think this is something that, whether we homeschool or not, is going to be something we’ll want to do as a family to bring us closer together. I know that is not necessarily the context for it, but I think it is a wonderful thing. My entire career has revolved around how much story matters.

So, I love that you did this Christina. How can our listeners potentially follow your work, or get in touch with you? Let’s say they get your workbook and they want to reach out and share their experience with you, what’s the best way for them to do that?

Christina Soares Heffner: They can email me directly at [email protected] and also via the website, I have a few students who have already submitted some stories that they would like published on there, but my goal for the website is to have other people publish their short stories so that people can read them, and get inspiration from them, and for educators to be able to connect in that way too.

Charlie Hoehn: I love it. So the book is The Inspired Guide to Writing the Short Story. These are lessons and a workbook for students and educators. You can get it on Amazon. Christina, thank you so much for being on Author Hour.

Christina Soares Heffner: Thank you so much. This was so much fun.