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Empathy and Elaboration: Using 21st Century Tools to Enhance Creative Writing

Written by Rebecca Itow
September 08, 2011

So often in my teaching career – and as a student, actually – I have seen and heard teachers forbid the use of the powerful computers inside students’ pockets, scold a student for having consulted Wikipedia, restricted Internet use to sites they approved, and regard the online writing and social networking the students conduct as a “waste of time.” I have also faced opposition from these same teachers when I use wikis, social media, and encourage the use of laptops and cell phones as tools for the classroom. What I try to explain is that the students carry with them and engage in valuable tools and activities every day that can enhance classroom discussion and overall learning. Not only can we enhance our lessons, but we teach students how to use the technology in their hands effectively, and take away the taboo of these devices.

Originally titled “Tweeting in Character,” this module was developed by a collaborative team of teachers and Indiana University researcher Dan Hickey and graduate students in an effort to teach writing and character empathy through the use of Twitter and FanFiction. This was implemented at Eastern Greene Schools with Gail Finn, in conjunction with the Monroe Eastern Greene Network (MEGN) project. The project was organized by Terry Daugherty and Lori Richmond, then Director of Learning for Eastern Greene Schools and now Superintendent of Greenecastle.

Collaboration between teachers continues today.

Empathy and Elaboration: Using 21st Century Tools to Enhance Creative Writing focuses on appropriation and remixing – drawing tools and ideas from a text and “remixing” the stories in a new way. In this case, students explore and take on the personality traits of a character in Homer’s The Odyssey and, after developing sufficient understanding of and empathy for that character, extend their story in the medium of a fanfiction piece. In addition to students practicing skills related to character analysis, plot development, and creative writing, they also learn to use social networking sites productively and safely, as well as to publish their story to a closed site on the web.

Define Fanfiction: The encyclopedic ambitions of transmedia texts often results in what might be seen as gaps or excesses in the unfolding of the story: that is, they introduce potential plots which can not be fully told or extra details which hint at more than can be revealed. Readers, thus, have a strong incentive to continue to elaborate on these story elements, working them over through their speculations, until they take on a life of their own. Fan fiction can be seen as an unauthorized expansion of these media franchises into new directions which reflect the reader’s desire to “fill in the gaps” they have discovered in the commercially produced material (Henry Jenkins).

Creating the Module

Empathy and Elaboration: Using 21st Century Tools to Enhance Creative Writing has been through several implementations and revisions – each time, we look at what works, what does not, and how we can better enhance active engagement and learning with the tools available. This is a collaborative process, heavily involving teacher input and feedback.

Key to this and every module we create are the opening and closing activity reflections. These reflections help the teacher gauge where the students are, as well as help the students clarify and demonstrate their understanding of abstract and difficult concepts. The opening reflections are to be informal and non-threatening, and the closing reflections only slightly more formal – their answers can be written down here for documentation of improvement. However, even the closing reflections should be approachable. These are not exams in the formal sense, but they do allow the teacher to grade a student’s performance. If the student can articulate the answers to these questions such as why x was a good context for learning y, they have a deep understanding of the concept.

The Activities:

Activity 1: Microblogging (Tweeting) in character:
Students use Twitter to post real-time updates as characters in a source text

Activity 2: Drafting a Collaborative Poem Using the Class Twitter Feed: Students appropriate content from the class Twitter feed produced in the previous activity and from the primary text (Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried) to build a collaborative poem on the theme of war

Activity 3: Drafting Fan Fiction: Students develop speculative fiction that draws on and transforms elements of a primary text

Activity 4: Networked Peer Review: Students collaborate on reviewing and providing feedback to each other on their fan fiction artifacts

Activity 5: Formal essay: Students submit a formal essay that offers an analysis of how their own or a classmate’s fan fiction work interacts with the source text

End-of-Activity tasks:Students will reflect on their learning by considering how they understand and practiced Common Core Standards


In studying achievement, it became clear quickly that in order to tackle something as abstract as character empathy, the students would need to have some way to practice empathizing with a character in an engaging way, preferably using some medium that intrigued and sparked interest. Twitter has become wildly popular, and we found it particularly interesting because in order to tweet effectively, a person must clearly and concisely convey meaning in a small number of characters.

The implications for education became clear, and Twitter took its place in the module. Students take on the personality of a character in a novel – in the early implementations, teachers used The Things They Carried– and begin to converse in short tweets with other characters in the story. This encourages students to dig into their character and speak for them, thereby allowing the students to gain a better understanding of and to empathize with that character. As Atticus states, “you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them” (Lee, chapter 31). This activity allows students to walk in the character’s shoes, and speak from the character’s perspective. Additionally, students are encouraged to discuss the tweets themselves, and the representations of each character. They are asked to reflect upon their own work and the activity itself.

Fan Fiction

When the students embark on the activity of extending a character or storyline, they must first understand the characters and storylines intimately to write effectively. Tweeting has helped the students empathize with the characters, and therefore has assisted in preparing them to write an extension of the story.

In this activity, students now elaborate on the types of messages they were sending in tweets, but now they must articulate in fluid sentences the full meaning of their character’s feelings or the emotion of the story. By extending the story rather than analyzing the characters, students are encouraged to continue exploring empathy, and the role the reader plays in interpreting a text. As the Fan Fiction is written, students demonstrate their ability to empathize with a character and understand their point of view, which in turn helps them learn to analyze a character deeply.


Students are asked throughout the module to reflect on the contexts, the concepts, and the practices. The reflections begin at the surface and gradually ask students to think deeper not only about the context in which they are studying the concepts, but about the concepts themselves, and how they might use these concepts in other aspects of their lives.


In one of the original implementations, this module was implemented The Things They Carried and involved microblogging in character through Twitter, writing a Fan Fiction Piece, writing a character analysis essay, and completing a veteran’s history project. While this was effective, it seemed to grow bigger than we would have liked. We are now scaling this back to be more manageable and more effective.

We are now developing ways to use Edmodo and Facebook to conduct the microblogging activity, as these sites allow for easier set up and management.

Even with the stress of setting up the Twitter accounts, the students were able to dig deep into the characters and begin to empathize with them. This came through in the students’ Fan Fiction pieces, which became extensions of the characters and plot lines. In the future, the goal is to continue to develop the empathy with the character, as well as encourage using more sensory details and descriptive writing techniques to convey a message.

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