100 word memoirs

For the past few years, I’ve used Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher’s idea of a 100 word memoir as one of the early assignments for my classes. It’s miraculous. Over and over, students engage deeply with this task. They dive into their notebooks for ideas; they draft multiple options; they give each other feedback, laughing and talking in small groups as they tell their stories. Best of all, they revise and revise – actual revision! – to get their word count and their craft just right.

Each time I assign this, I write in front of my students. They see how I generate ideas. They help me choose my topic from my list; they almost always choose ones about dating or embarrassing things I’ve done. They watch me struggle with decisions – how should I start? does this ending work? maybe I should fiddle with this sentence – and see my mini-memoir grow and shrink as I aim for 100 words. Sometimes, I actually get to the end.

Today, teaching online, I shared some of my potential ideas and saw the reaction of the two kids whose cameras were on; no point in taking a vote, experience told me that this topic would win. I fiddled and futzed, changed and rejigged. I started 87 words. I changed the opening. Moved the middle. Added some details, took out others. 100 words! But still not quite right. I moved bits, changed sentence structure… They were writing, I was writing. It’s actually pretty fun. In fact, I kept fiddling with it after class until I got something I liked. Tomorrow, I’ll ask my students for feedback, but you can read it here first.

Kissing J Austin
As soon as my lips touch his cheek, I know this is a mistake. I’m already seriously awkward and Pammy has pushed me forward, so I nearly knock him into a shelf full of beakers. Supposedly every girl in the 7th grade is kissing J. Austin for his birthday, but at this moment I realize he isn’t in on the plan. He rights himself and stares at me…horrified? disgusted? Red-faced, mortified, I retreat from the science supply room. Behind me, the popular girls titter and flit around him. How many girls kissed him that day? I never dared ask.

Craft moves: use of present tense, a hook that drops the reader into the moment, 7th grade POV/diction – all the emotions are giant

Ask for help

Since day 1 she’s been glaring at me. By day 5 I work up the confidence to ask if something is wrong. “No,” she says casually, “I just have resting bitch face.” She’s 16. I laugh with her, but seconds later wish I had pushed back. I wish I had said, “No, not bitchy. You look sad, scared, wary and maybe just a little doubtful. You look like you and you are not a bitch.” But I didn’t.

Every day I say, “I need you to put your phone away.”
I say, “I know this is hard, but the phone is keeping you from doing your best thinking.”
I say, “Maybe you could create a 20 minute reading playlist so that you can read without touching your phone.”
She puts her phone away politely, but it always comes back out.

She has already failed English once. She does not like to read. She does not write. Still, when she wrote her goals in her notebook on Friday, the first one was “Read every day for the assigned time with no phone distraction.” She doesn’t say a thing about it, just hands me her notebook at the end of class, like she does every day.

We’ve read memoirs almost every day since school started. We’ve read poems and essays and picture books. We’ve looked at craft moves and done our own mini-writes. She doesn’t do much. “Resting bitch face” I remind myself when I look at her. I want so badly for her face to tell a different story.

Today we start 100-word memoirs. She checks her phone several times. She goes to the bathroom. Then she starts to write and does not stop until time is up. She shares a line with the class. As class ends, I ask students to write down one or two things they want to work on in their memoir tomorrow. She calls me over.

“I think it’s good the way it is,” she says. I feel my protest rising, then squash my first reaction. “Ok,” I say. We pause.

“Will you read it?” her eyes go down, her face turns away from me.

Her memoir is beautiful and powerful. She will edit it – we will edit it together – but her words, her story… it blows me away. I tell her so.

She says, “I want to enter that contest, the one about ‘One Strong Woman.'”
“Yes,” I say, “I think you should.”

In her notebook, her other goal is “actually ask for help.”

“I’ll help,” I say.

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