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Not surprisingly, someone who has just published her first online novel and received dozens of comment-filled letters finds it disappointing to return to the classroom where her work will be read only by the teacher-whose feedback may dwell more on comma splices than character development. Some teens have confessed to smuggling drafts of stories to school in their textbooks and editing them during class; others sit around the lunch table talking plot and character issues with their classmates or try to work on the stories on the school computers until the librarians accuse them of wasting time. They can’t wait for the school bell to ring so they can focus on their writing.

It is not clear that these successes can be duplicated simply by incorporating similar activities into the classroom-though some teachers are using fan fiction exercises to motivate their students. Schools have less flexibility than the fan community does to support writers at very different stages of their development. Moreover, schools impose a fixed leadership hierarchy (including very different roles for adults and teens); it is unlikely that someone like Heather or Flourish would have had the same editorial opportunities that they have found through fandom.

Even the most progressive schools set limits on what students can write compared to the freedom they enjoy on their own. Certainly, teens may receive harsh critical responses to their more controversial stories when they publish them online, but the teens themselves are deciding what risks they want to take and facing the consequences of those decisions. The Harry Potter books are not universally welcomed into U.S. schools; they have been at the center of more textbook and library controversies over the past several years than any other book. The teen writers are acutely aware of those censorship struggles and many have decided, not to talk with parents and teachers about what they are writing. What the grown-ups don’t know can’t hurt them.

Some students say teachers have ridiculed them for the time they put into their fan writing; others complain of parents trying to protect them from the “demonic” influence of the books. But some teachers do care enough to read and give feedback on these stories. And there are supportive parents who fly with their sons and daughters to conventions where the young writers speak to rooms full of people about the story-writing craft. These teens don’t need adults taking over their spaces-but they do need adults to respect and value what they are trying to do.

Many young fan writers aspire to professional writing careers; many are getting accepted into top colleges and pursuing educational goals that stem from their fan experiences. Fandom is providing a rich haven to support the development of bright young minds that might otherwise get chewed up by the system, and offering mentorship to help less gifted students to achieve their full expressive potential. Either way, these teens are finding something online that schools are not providing them.

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