Writing an Epistolary Novel in a Heritage Speaker Class

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Victoria Somoff, Slavic Languages and Literatures

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2004

Problem. In the fall of 2003, I taught an introductory Russian language course designed for heritage speakers of Russian (Slavic 6). This was the first time that the Department of Slavic Languages and Literature offered a course for heritage speakers on an introductory level.

The students in my class differed from the students in my regular Russian language classes in one particular aspect: there existed a sharp imbalance between their abilities to speak and understand Russian and their ability to read and write it. These students had virtually no difficulty in understanding each other or me; they were also able to express themselves with a fair degree of accuracy. At the same time, they were reading with great difficulty or not at all and most of them had not written a single word in Russian in their lives. This discrepancy resulted in a somewhat absurd situation: on the one hand, these students had come to the class in order to acquire the reading and writing skills they lacked; on the other hand, however, they experienced a certain unwillingness to master these same skills, especially writing.

Writing is a difficult skill to master for any student. Nonetheless, I think that for heritage speakers this difficulty is especially pronounced because they tend to compare the results of their writing not to their ability to write in English as non-heritage speakers usually do but rather to their ability to express themselves in Russian, which is already quite good. They acutely sensed the distance “within” themselves between their ability to speak and to write. To use a metaphor, their unexpressed pathos was this: if we already understand each other so well (when speaking), why bother to hobble about on crutches (when writing)? We can run or, at least, walk much faster if we throw them away!

I felt they should become really interested in the process of writing in order to overcome this inner reluctance that had already resulted in some very dry, done-for-the-grade essays that they had written at the beginning of class on the regular set of topics I had assigned: your autobiography, your family, memories from childhood, journal writings, etc. This traditional approach to writing was not working for an audience comprised of heritage speakers. It was crucial for these students to write as much as possible but their lack of enthusiasm was quite obvious to me.

Strategy. I decided to set up a task that would be challenging enough even for a native speaker to undertake. In this way they would not feel that they had to master elementary things they might consider an insult to their already existing ability to express themselves in conversational Russian as heritage speakers.

My idea consisted in writing an epistolary novel. I divided the class into two groups and called them “families.” I came up with a list of dramatis personae among which there were family members, friends, neighbors, and some other plot-developing characters such as a detective, a psychotherapist, and an American student who had come to Moscow through an exchange program. Each character was described in two to three sentences in regards to his/her appearance, occupation, and personality traits. I set up the initial situation: the action takes place in Moscow in 2003, and the plot should follow the “Romeo and Juliet” basic conflict: love between teenagers that attempts to overcome the parents’ prejudices. I assigned the roles myself so that the students didn’t know until the very end who was who.

After that, the project took on a life of its own. It resulted in an epistolary novella comprised from about eighty letters that featured a coherent plot, a variety of characters and situations, and the desired ending–the young lovers are reunited despite all the resistance they have encountered.

Assessment. I was amazed at how my students’ writing skills improved during this project. The first letters they wrote for the project were already remarkably different from their personal experience essays and routine journal entries. The letters they wrote at the very end of the semester showed a real improvement on all levels of language proficiency. Also, the amount of writing that the students did after the project began increased dramatically. Instead of me (a teacher) assigning a number of pages and them trying to stretch out their lines in order to meet the requirements, we were engaged in a mutual task of writing each character’s letter and advancing the plot. More than once the students actually asked permission to write an extra letter in order to bring about a conclusion to their particular character’s story arc.

The result of this project was an actual novella of 130 pages that we published in a reader format at the end of the semester with each student in the class receiving a copy. The copies were given out at the last class when the students revealed their “characters.” Both the “unmasking” of the characters and their receiving a copy of the novella greatly increased their feelings of accomplishment and provided tangible proof of the progress in their writing skills throughout the semester. I received very positive reviews of this project from both my students and even from their grateful Russian parents.