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Pros: Terrific concept invites students to read critically and write for an authentic audience.
Cons: Some users might balk at openly licensing their creations on the site, and some stories might not be classroom-appropriate.
Bottom Line: A cool, competitive approach to online storytelling with a lot of learning potential -- just be aware of the iffy content and licensing risks.
If you're using the site for free, spend some time finding a few stories that are classroom appropriate, and encourage your students to read and maybe contribute chapters to those stories. While there are some community guidelines for keeping writing on the site friendly, there's no prohibition on swearing or sexual themes, so proceed with some caution. To scaffold students' contributions, focus on analyzing the existing story. Look at the story's point-of-view, characters, plot, and tone/voice. Challenge students to both match what's been written and take the story in new, exciting directions. You might also have students work in small groups to prep and get feedback on their chapters before submitting them to the Story Wars site.
Keep in mind that all stories written on Story Wars are licensed with Creative Commons licensing that allows work produced on the site to be attributed to its author and shared freely. If you or your students don't want to share writing in this way, then another tool might be a good fit. Or, if you have the budget ($15/month), spring for Story Wars Classroom and create your own space for collaborative storytelling. Encourage students to think about how writing might differ from genre to genre. What sorts of language, details, or diction might make historical fiction different from sci-fi? What kinds of narrative choices, like dialogue and other literary devices, might work across genres?
Editor's Note: Story Wars is no longer available.
Story Wars is a collaborative storytelling website. Students create an account and can then either start a new story or contribute a chapter to an existing story. Once two people have contributed drafts, a timer starts and other writers have a limited time to contribute other potential chapters to the story. Then, all Story Wars users can vote on these contributions. The winning contribution becomes the next chapter of the story. Students can choose to write, vote, or simply browse stories from a wide range of genres, from historical fiction to fan fiction to fantasy and humor.
There's also a paid subscription version of the site for teachers called Story Wars Classroom. Teachers can sign up ($15 a month for up to 35 students) and have their own private Story Wars community, where students can create and collaborate on stories and where teachers can track stats on the stories, like readability and how students contribute.
This choose-your-own-adventure approach to storytelling has enormous potential for creative writing and critical reading. If you've ever played Exquisite Corpse and added your own line-by-line submissions to a folded sheet of paper, you'll instantly recognize the fun of adding to someone else's story piece by piece. Even if students only vote on other people's submissions, it's an exciting reading task to think critically about several possible pathways for a story's narrative to take. Plus, writing the next chapter of an existing story is a fun way to get creative and imagine how existing characters might progress. Contributing one chapter at a time is also great. It's a manageable chunk for a writer to approach successfully, and it's enough space for a writer to add his or her own voice to a developing story. Writing with voters in mind is about as authentic as you can get, in terms of audience consideration. The point is to write the very best chapter you can. Plus, contributing successful chapters means understanding and using tone, voice, and point-of-view effectively.
The main downside for classroom use of the free version is some of the site's content. There are lots of teens on Story Wars, so there's the potential for swearing or references to sexuality, drinking, drugs, or violence. It's unclear how Story Wars handles content that violates its rather thin community rules. However, if you can use the site's Classroom version, you can create a private group for your classroom -- although your students will miss out on the thrill of interacting with the broader community. These issues aside, Story Wars could be a unique, engaging way to help your students develop their creative writing and hone their own narrative voices.