100 words

He has written 100 words.

“100!” He  puts down his pencil. “Done.”

“Not done,” I say. 

He glares. He wrote 100 words. Mostly about a dog bite. Some about a broken arm. He added the broken arm because he didn’t have 100 words about the bite.

I talk about telling a story, about narrative arc, about sensory detail and dialogue. 

Done done done. “You said 100 words.” He plays tic-tac-toe with his friend.

But… what about that dog, that bite. Was he big? Did it hurt?

He waits. I wait. Two days. Then he picks up his pencil and writes.

(Today’s exit ticket was “one thing you learned”. His response: “I’m not a bad writer even though I thought I was.”)

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

This is the end/beginning #SOL21 31/31

This is the last day of my fourth year of writing (and publishing!) every day in March. This is the end of the 2021 March Slice of Life Challenge – an amazing idea and community supported by Two Writing Teachers. I can’t lie: this year was a slog. I didn’t have much of a plan when I started this month – I usually have *some* ideas before I dive in; I didn’t have many hidden, half-written pieces that I just needed to tidy up and publish – I usually have half a dozen, even if I don’t use them all; I didn’t have any sort of available time – I usually have a schedule with daily quiet moments and a March Break. This year, I was constantly scrambling. There were nights when I posted at 10pm (or later), days when I sincerely wished that my children were younger so I could write about them with impunity or that I could tell everyone else’s stories without telling mine. I barely knew my students when we began and didn’t feel comfortable writing about the classroom most of the time. I didn’t join the Welcome Wagon ,and I didn’t have time to read and comment on nearly enough other blogs. (I tried; I honestly did, but there are only so many hours in the day.) As we come to an end, I am relieved.

So why did I keep writing? Well, first of all, I hate leaving things incomplete – even self-imposed things – and I love the community of writers. I know that daily writing – pushing past the point of frustration, letting go of my need for perfection – makes me grow as a writer. Most of all, I feel nourished as I read other people’s work and as they read mine. I learn and think, learn and grow.

This year I end at a beginning, as though I spent a month (or a lifetime) clearing away the underbrush and then am surprised to discover insistent green shoots poking up here and there. This year, I have a sense that some of these shoots are ready to grow. I have ideas that are ready for a little fertilizer, a little sunlight. I’ve found writing under my writing and, while I couldn’t write everything in the rush to write daily, I think I can nurture some of these shoots into something bigger. I have things to say that will take longer than one day or twenty minutes, things that need time. We shall see.

I guess I had to write every day for a month, every week for four years, to realize that I am ready to write, but I think I am. If nothing else, here I am, writing – always writing – at the end of the day, at the end of the month. So, look for me here. Even I’m curious to see what I come up with!

I can’t wait to read other people’s beginnings that stem from the end of March – see you on Tuesday!

Come, begin with TwoWritingTeachers and the supportive community they have grown.

Words can never hurt me #SOL21 27/31

This week, the end of week four, one of my students turned in her first major assignment. In a quarter that lasts only four and a half weeks, her piece was two weeks late. I was delighted.

The first week of class was, I think, a shock to many of my students: they read every day & chose their own books; they wrote every day, too, in quickwrites, freewrites, prompted writes. The rhythm was unfamiliar, not least because of our compressed and off-kilter pandemic scheduling. By the end of the week, they had written a short memoir.

Not every student, of course, slides easily into memoir. She was one of these. No matter how many mentor texts or brainstorming sessions, no matter how many small group or large group discussions, when it came time to write something “important,” she shut down. I managed to finagle a 100-word mini-memoir out of her, but she steadfastly refused to consider the longer piece.

In a normal school year, I would have waited her out. Slow steady relationship building goes an awfully long ways, and I know how to use daily interactions to learn about students. This year, I don’t have time. Of course, the thing about trust is that it can’t be rushed; trust comes when it comes. The best I could offer this child was conversation and genuine curiosity, so I started talking to her during the walk breaks I’d built into our 4-hour-long classes. Every other day, every other week… and I didn’t realize there was a problem until near the end of week one.

But there is something about that memoir unit… I swear she wanted me to know her story. During week two she confessed: she had never – not once – submitted an essay for a high school English class. She shrugged, “My mark is always good enough that I can afford to take the hit.” The hit? The zero she would get for not writing the one assigned essay. I must have looked physically ill because the poor child rushed to reassure me, “It’s ok, Miss, my mark doesn’t go down that much.”

My mind reeled. Where to start? One essay? Just one? No other writing? “No,” she told me simply, almost quizzically, “not usually.”


“And no one said anything?”

“Well, I mean, they are definitely disappointed with me.”

I closed my eyes, and then, just to be sure, I repeated, “So you really haven’t written any long essays in all of high school? None?”

“No.”

Something lurked under that word: fear? or hurt? defiance? anger? I didn’t know, but I had to ask. “Why not?”

The story came out over a few separate discussions – the teacher, the public reading of her work, the shaming; the demand that she re-write or take the zero; the twin feelings of impotent fury and mortification; the decision not to write again.

And now I wanted her to write. She told me, frankly, that she couldn’t do it. Oh, we brainstormed together on Google Meet; she acknowledged that ideas were not her problem. I did my trick of scribing what the student says and giving it back to them; she said it looked better than she’d expected. Still nothing. And the quarter raced forward. During our class walks, every other week, every other day, I made sure to chat with her. She completed an infographic and participated in book club discussions. I praised her liberally. Week two ended and still no essay, though she wrote happily in her journal.

Week three, I kept looking for strengths, but she was keeping her head down. She still was reading, freewriting, participating in class… It wasn’t nothing, but it wasn’t a piece done from beginning to end.

Week four and the class working on another essay, this time analytical. And there she was. “Maybe,” she said, “you could help me with a checklist for the essay?”

I looked up, trying to keep my breathing even. “Sure. The analytical essay?”

“Oh,” she said, “yeah. I turned that other one in just now.”

I used all my strength not to open it right away. We made a checklist. Two steps at a time. She went back to her desk. I did not read her essay until after class.

It was excellent.

And then, suddenly, I am angry. I am angry that a teacher decided to humiliate this child. I am sure that the teacher didn’t *intend* to humiliate her, but it happened nonetheless. I want to scream. I want to yell at the universe. This child has missed three YEARS of writing. Three years. I imagine where she could be now if someone had said something kind instead of something hurtful.

Nothing I do in the classroom is magic. Nothing I do is shocking or wild or inexplicable. I look for their strengths. I try to help them see the possibilities that exist. I insist that all of the students are capable, even when they tell me they are not. That’s it.

She turned in an essay. I told her all the good things about it. Now maybe she can write again.

(For more on the power of a teacher’s words, consider reading Melanie White’s post Journals or Molly Hogan’s post Thank you, Mrs. Minzy!)

Writing in front of them

When I teach memoir, I like to model my process for my students. For me – and often for them – one of the trickiest part of writing a personal narrative is coming up with the right story, so we often begin with a list of prompts from the New York Times Learning Network . The students and I all respond to these as quickly as we can, skipping anything that doesn’t call up a memory. My students do this in their notebooks; I do it on the board (or screen):

A time I took a risk:
A time I learned something about myself:
A memory from childhood I think about often:
Something that happened to me that still makes me laugh:
Something very few people know about me:
Something I regret:
A time when I felt rejected:
Something I am really proud of:
Something that changed the way I think or look at the world:
How I am different from most people I know:
Some of my fears:
A time I felt truly satisfied:
A time I failed at something:
An object I own that tells a lot about me:

Because I want to model the process from the beginning, I like to come in without preconceived ideas for my list. I’ve been teaching for long enough that I can typically self-censor my stories on a dime – and I tell my students that I’m doing this because I assume they may also have things they wish to keep private. Still, sometimes I surprise myself. Like Wednesday, when, without warning, I wrote “not kissing Torin” next to “something I regret.”

I almost erased it, but some of the students were watching and I didn’t want to draw attention to it. I looked at it again, added the world “don’t” in front of “regret” and brainstormed a few more ideas. No teacher in the universe will be surprised to learn that, when I asked which prompt I should flesh into an essay, the students chose the one about kissing.

So there I was, writing in front of my students about not kissing someone in a bar in Prague almost 30 years ago – which, I suppose, is slightly better than writing about kissing someone in a bar in Prague almost 30 years ago.

I started off a little embarrassed, and I rapidly became very embarrassed. Should I tell them that my friends and I went to an apartment with a man who was standing on the quai as we pulled into the station? Our guidebook said that was a great way to get a deal. Do I tell them about the Russian champagne? Maybe leave that out. I felt obligated to say that my friends were also at the pub that night, dancing and… maybe I shouldn’t mention that Torin was Swedish & very handsome? Dear Heaven *how* did I end up writing about this in front of my students? Why didn’t they choose the nice necklace story from Ireland? or even the time I wrongly accused a student of cheating?

Flustered, I stopped. I was red enough that I probably didn’t need to acknowledge my awkward situation, but I did. “This is not what I expected to be writing about. I’m feeling a little uncomfortable.” I hesitated, “I guess the real question is: why, nearly 30 years later, does this memory stick? What is the point of writing this in an essay?”

That’s when the real work began. “It was my junior year abroad,” I told them. They nodded – as if they know! – and I fumbled forward, “I had a boyfriend in France.” Some eyebrows raised; I was not making this any less awkward and awful. “Maybe I remember this moment because I consciously decided to be loyal?” I wrote that on the board. The 17-year-olds looked unconvinced. They weren’t wrong. “I mean, no one would have known,” I added lamely. No response from my audience. Remind me again why I’m doing this in public?

I stumbled along, writing and thinking aloud, searching for the reason that this particular night stands out for me. My students watched, interested. Finally I hit upon something that felt true, “It was like summer camp inside of summer camp – Spring Break during my junior year abroad – and if I had done this, if I had kissed him, no one would have known or cared – except me. I would have known, and I would have cared. I think maybe that was a moment where I realized how much we are responsible for our own lives, our own values.” I started to scribble – arrows here & there, numbers. This is how I might organize this essay; this is how the details might fall into place.

Moments later my students were hard at work. Despite the fact that school right now is less than ideal, I saw them thinking, writing, sharing with each other. Relieved, my face slowly settling back to its normal colour, I sat down at my computer and considered whether or not this essay was worth actually figuring out. Maybe later, I decided, my embarrassment still too fresh to allow for real focus.

And maybe I’m imagining things, but the essays that particular cohort handed in at the end of the week seemed especially honest. Several of them pulled at my heart. None of them were about kissing or not kissing strangers in bars. Thank heaven.

Many thanks to https://twowritingteachers.org for hosting the weekly Slice of Life.

What we are creating

Today, a young woman I have never met before came into the Special Education room and asked, “Is there anyone here who could help me with an essay?” In Spec Ed I pretty much always get to answer those questions with a resounding “YES”. It’s fantastic.

She and I sat side by side looking at the essay she had written and the comments her teacher had made. The essay was already strong, and the teacher had ideas for how to make it stronger: try discussing your theme in more depth in the introduction; try making your topic sentences more specific to what you are proving; try breaking down long quotes and discussing the importance of particular words or images. The suggestions were clear and came with thoughtful direction.

The teacher had not provided a grade on the essay, and the young woman was quite nervous. We spent time deeply focused on the comments, what they implied about the essay in its current form, what they envisioned for a future form. We looked back and forth between the essay and the comments, talking, pointing, questioning. Eventually, I left her to her writing and moved on to work with other students.

At some point while I was talking to another student, she finished up and left. She didn’t say goodbye; she didn’t need to. She was deep into her own learning and confident in her own process. I was delighted, and I kept smiling a secret little smile as I continued through the morning.

This was the story I told about my day when I got home, and then the story I wanted to write about today, which made me curious: What was it about this interaction that was buoying me up? I have edited literally thousands of essays with students. I have helped thousands of students. As great as this interaction was, it has happened before and it will happen again. (Though I freely admit that I love it every time.)

I thought about the moment when she understood how to re-shape her topic sentences. How she suddenly said, “Oh! So stop trying to be general and really dig in to what I’m going to be saying in the paragraph. It’s almost like leaving off my old first sentence.” Was that it? It should be, but no…

What old first sentence did I need to leave off to see what was really going on? How could I re-view my experience of this? I decided to do what I tell my students: just start writing and see where you end up. It’s only a first draft.

And sure enough, as I wrote, I got it. That young woman who stopped into Spec Ed for help: she doesn’t have an IEP. In fact, she doesn’t have an IEP, she’s in a Grade 12 University level English class, and by all accounts (I asked her teacher), she’s an excellent student. But she came to Spec Ed for help. This is fantastic. Our Special Education room is becoming the room we’ve envisioned: everyone who wants to learn is welcome. Spec Ed is a space for learning strategies, for valuing how we learn and that we learn. You don’t need an IEP to look honestly at your strengths and your needs and figure out how to mesh those two things. You don’t need a learning disability to realize that you need help. And if you *do* have a learning disability, you should have a place that values learning for all. That’s why helping another student with another essay made my day. We’ve created a real learning space right in the middle of the school.

And now, I take a leap. This isn’t my first draft (I’ve been revising as I go), but it’s not a polished piece, either. This is my first blog and today I will publish a piece that is definitely still in progress. Since I decided to participate in the month-long Slice Of Life challenge, I’m going to have more of these, and I’m not used to it. Still, if I value learning and I value writing, then I value the process as much as the product. I say this *all the time*; today, thanks to this challenge, I start to live it. Here goes publishing a draft…