Current Issue: Vol. 41, No. 3, Fall 2011:Conversations
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Cara Tuzzolino-Werben
Idiom Editor

Elisabeth Gareis
Column Editor,
Culture Notes

Nanette Dougherty
Column Editor,
Book Review

Ann Wintergerst
Column Editor,
Promising Practices


Featured Article

The Zine Project: Reluctant Writers No More
Elizabeth Oldendorp

How could I engage my middle school and high school students in a writing project that would transform them from reluctant writers into enthusiastic authors? How could English language learners acquire the skill of writing effectively and purposefully in a variety of genres? The solution was the Zine Project, a writing initiative I had recently undertaken in a literacy course at Hofstra University with Dr. Barbara Cohen.

What are zines? Zines are multi-genre magazines focused on a single topic. A zine would eventually include a title page, a table of contents, a Dear Reader letter, poetry, a fiction story, a non-fiction piece, and an About the Author biography. My intermediate ELL students, initially reluctant writers because of the challenges they faced with the English language, became actively engaged and very enthusiastic when given the freedom to explore, through zines, topics they enjoyed. By reflecting their personal interests and cultures, the zines also became vehicles of empowerment for them.

The zines were begun in October and were completed in late May. Some of my students did not have access to computers or the Internet in their homes, so all of their research and typing was done during classroom time. This was not a full-time project but an “anchor activity”—an activity begun only when the other necessary ESL work was completed, such as Global Studies data-based questions and essays, math tests, English exams, book reports, science homework, and lab reports. The challenge for me was to find the time to introduce each genre to the students and give them enough examples so they would understand what to do.

First, I initiated a discussion of outside interests and hobbies. I asked the students to write down three things they enjoyed doing or learning about in their spare time. I then explained the Zine Project and asked the students to choose a subject by the end of the week. Some of the topics my students explored were: The Taj Mahal, My Hobby Gardening, The Saber-Tooth Tiger, Egypt, Cricket, and Sri Lankan Culture in Clothing. Since most people enjoy writing about themselves, I began with the About the Author page. I showed them samples from short stories as well as from book jackets. These models showed them how to present their personal information. I took pictures of each student with a digital camera and helped insert the photo into their Author page.

Next was the Dear Reader letter. I explained to the students that they should write an informal letter to the reader, inviting him or her to read the zine. They needed to include some information about its contents and explain why they had chosen that topic. The letter should reflect their personality. There must be a salutation and closing, and the authors should sign their names after the closing. A Dear Reader letter from a current magazine can be used to demonstrate what it should look like.

After the letter, I decided to introduce poetry. I modeled several different types: acrostic, diamante, concrete, haiku, rhyming, cinquains, free verse, limerick, and narrative. You may decide to limit the forms you want to model. After writing their poems, the students also illustrated them with pictures from clip art or the Internet.

Once the poetry was well underway, I presented a variety of fiction pieces: folk tales, humor, mystery, and surprise endings. Various frameworks were discussed, such as a fictional movie review, “Postcards from (place of choice),” a narrative, a narrative poem, or even a “Fortunately/Unfortunately” format. The only requirement was that the characters and/or events had to be fictitious.

Perhaps the most difficult genre for my students was the non-fiction piece, which had to include researched information. The students were required to write about something real, using an interesting and creative format, for example, The ABC’s of (topic), a timeline with explanations, Fact or Fiction?, a quiz using a Q-A format, or a repeated phrase introducing each fact.

Zines may also include an interview. Students could interview one person using 5 to 10 questions, or interview 5 to 10 people with one question. Another genre that might be incorporated in the zine is the personal essay. Written in the first person, it should include personal experiences that relate to the topic. It might also include factual information with sources. I did not require an interview or the personal essay for my students’ first zine; I thought they might be overwhelming.

When all of the articles were finished, each student made a table of contents. The table included the title of each article, genre, page number, and perhaps a brief description. The zine had to be typed neatly with numbered pages and proofread for spelling, punctuation, and grammar. The articles and poems had to contain colorful graphics, illustrations, or photos. Finally, there should be a cover page, including the title, author’s name, date (exact, just month and year, or season and year), and eye-catching illustrations.

The Zine Project was a success well beyond my expectations. My “reluctant writers” now wanted to start writing as soon as they came into the room! Why? They were personally invested in their topics. Revising and editing was much easier on the computer. The students really enjoyed experimenting with fonts, graphics, and pictures. They acted as peer editors, reading each other’s work and offering suggestions. In a final evaluation, all the students commented that they loved writing the zines because it was fun. Several said they enjoyed choosing their own topics, another said he never got bored, and yet another student said she loved doing the illustrations.

The Zine Project helped my students develop language proficiency by requiring them to write in several different genres on a single topic. It walked them through the stages of process writing: planning, drafting, revising, editing, and publishing. It gave them access to computer technology that was not available to them in their homes. Finally, and perhaps most important, the Zine Project provided the personal connections necessary to make learning English more meaningful. Thanks to the Zine Project, my English language learners are now enthusiastic writers and communicators!


Elizabeth Oldendorp has been teaching ESL, K-12, for 22 years in the Wantagh School District. Ms. Oldendorp was recently awarded a Certificate in Advanced Studies in Literacy, Birth-Grade 6 at Hofstra University, completed her ESL certification at C.W. Post, and earned her M.A.T. from Johns Hopkins University, and a B.A. from the College of New Rochelle.