Lesson Plan for Family Gatherings Contest–Or any Creative Non-Fiction Unit

Dear Teachers,

Eiffel Tower

Photo courtesy of Jason Marshall. An illustration from Susan's Young's "An Evening In Paris." (See the plan.)

The prompt for the Figment-YARN Family Gatherings Essay Contest is “Write a nonfiction essay in 2000 words or fewer about a memorable family gathering. It could be a holiday, a wedding, a party, but it MUST include a teen or young adult.”  The contest is a reprise of YARN’s very first essay contest, held as our journal was just starting out in the winter of 2010.  We are so excited to be working with Figment to bring it to a larger audience.

This lesson plan, like others in YARN’s Teach section, is designed to help your students critically read recent, short-form YA from YARN, and to help them compose their own creative writing that they can submit to YARN for possible publication.

But with this lesson, the stakes are higher, because your students can enter their writing in the Contest!

And, we hope you’ll take advantage of the Educator tools at Figment.  It’s simple: First sign up for an educator account at Figment.com/educators.  From there, follow the instructions to set up a free virtual writing group for your classroom.  Here, you and your students can workshop their essays before entering them into this exciting contest.

Our contest with Figment will allow your students to post their work to an audience of more than 80,000 users. How exciting for young writers to be read by so many!  Although posting to Figment is voluntary, we hope you’ll encourage your students to do so, as that is the only way for them to enter the official Contest, which could also earn them: 1) a reading of their work by Susan Beth Pfeffer; 2) publication in YARN; and 3) the very cool Writer’s Bundle!

We think this lesson and contest is ideal for high school juniors and seniors, and college undergraduate writing courses focused on crafting essays. Teachers of high school freshmen and sophomores are also welcome to tailor the lesson to their needs and encourage students to enter the contest.

For a PDF of this lesson, click here.

Thanks for visiting us,
–YARN’s Editor-Teachers


The Plan:

What you’ll need for class:

  • A computer with Internet that can be viewed on an overhead screen.
  • A Figment account for educators.

Preparation & Homework:

  • For homework, assign the following two essays from YARN; they are the winners of the first YARN Creative Non-Fiction contest about family gatherings:

Susan Young’s “Evening in Paris”

Helen Hasbun’s “What is Unspoken”

(Please note that in the 2010 contest, YARN chose one adult and one teen winner.  For the new contest, only one winner will be chosen regardless of age.)

  • Also for homework, ask students to peruse the “Learn About YARN” pages and Figment.  If not all your students own computers on which to read at home, you might schedule some library or computer lab time for in-class reading. NB: In order to submit a story on Figment, students have to create their own accounts, so you might want to carve out some time to demonstrate this as well.
  • Alert students to the “family gatherings” theme you’ll be discussing in class. You might also preview the contest.
  • Encourage students to take notes and jot down questions on paper as they read, especially jotting down specific lines that move them and relate to the theme.

In Class:

  1. After setting up the computer and screen, go to YARN.  Ask students what they learned about YARN.  Do the same for Figment.
  2. If you have not already, preview the contest and explain that this lesson is meant to help them enter the contest.
  3. Then go to “Evening in Paris.”
  4. Warm students up by asking what they thought about this essay. What did they like about it?  What was it about?  Follow up with “why” questions, and ask students to support their answers with specific words and phrases from the story.  Perhaps write their thoughts on the chalkboard.
  5. If it hasn’t come up already, ask them what makes this essay “creative non-fiction.”  You might break down each word, starting with “non-fiction”–what does that mean?  Then, how does the modifier “creative” change the noun “non-fiction”?  Ask them to compare and contrast “creative non-fiction” with “essay” or even “memoir,” “creative writing,” or “fiction.”  The goal of this brief discussion is to help students see the essay form as creative and exciting like fiction and poetry, not as a stagnant “report” or “essay” assignment.
  6. Segue into discussing “family gatherings.”  How does Susan Young treat this topic?  How does her title, “Evening in Paris,” set up reader expectations, and how does she fulfill and subvert those expectations? Ask students to support their ideas with quotes from the essay.  It would be worthwhile to put students’ answers on the board, especially as you move into the next step.
  7. Compare and contrast “Evening in Paris” to “What is Unspoken”:  What is similar about the two treatments of “family gatherings”?  (Both are about teens, both are in first person, both have a retrospective feel, etc).  What is different?  Students will have many answers to this open-ended question, so try to keep them focused on the way each writer treats the “family gatherings” theme, by asking, for instance, how each writer represents the teenage resentment that comes with being at each family gathering.  Other possible questions: Do Young and Hasbun discuss “family gatherings” directly or indirectly, and what is the effect of that choice on the essay?
  8. If you have time, you might also look at the prose.  Do the writers use metaphors, and to what effect?  Point of view? Tone?
  9. NB: As they discuss, probe and trouble their pre-conceived notions.  Use “Evening” and “Unspoken” to get students thinking in more complex ways about “family gatherings” and “creative non-fiction.”  Students need not come to a consensus about any issues discussed. In fact, a lingering ambiguity might inspire more interesting writing.

Assignment, gearing up for the Contest:

Write a short (1000-2000 words) creative essay about your most memorable family gathering.

If you’re using Figment’s “group” function with your students, ask them to save their pieces as drafts and share them with your class group. Once shared, you and your students can offer feedback on each other’s pieces in groups, as pairs, or as a whole class. They can continue to edit and revise.

This writing portion of the lesson could be made into a take-home assignment, due several days after the in-class lesson (for classes of more advanced writers), OR it could be broken down into a longer writing lesson involving in-class and at-home brainstorming, and/or journaling, drafting, and revising (for an example of how this might break down, see the Assignments portion of A Lesson on Inference.)  The Figment group can easily be implemented into your workshop process, and would make student reading and peer editing quite easy!  With the commenting function, students can give and incorporate peer feedback either at school or at home.

After your students have received some comments on their drafts by you and/or their peers, and then revised their essays, encourage them to enter the contest!  (If they’ve already written their drafts on Figment, they can simply tag their stories as YARNEssayContest and press “Publish.” Otherwise they can copy and paste their stories from Word into Figment’s online writing tool and then tag and publish.)

We are looking forward to reading your students’ work, and hope that you will comment on this and other YARN lesson plans.



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It's a brilliant thing to have a place where you can read fresh original short stories by both seasoned YA authors and aspiring teens. YARN is a great tool box for growing up writing. - Cecil Castellucci

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YARN is an award-winning literary journal that publishes outstanding original short fiction, poetry, and essays for Young Adult readers, written by the writers you know and love, as well as fresh new voices...including teens.

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