Personal Universe Deck: An Oldie, but a Goodie

Personal Universe Deck is a great way to tap into kids’ linguistic whimsy and their sense of playfulness with words. Plus kids get a personal deck of 100 word cards they can keep all year long or for the rest of their lives. The Personal Universe Deck as a writing exercise has been attributed to American poet and playwright Michael McClure .  This archived one-hour 1976 lecture where McClure takes poetry students through the process is a must-listen before you lead your students through the process.

This activity has been tweaked and adapted many times to teach a host of writing and language skills.    Sometimes when we have an afternoon where a fire drill, a pep rally, or some school wide test has jangled our nerves and squandered our sacred time, I ask kids to pull out their universe decks and write a poem using four of their cards. Sometimes I ask each student to throw three cards into a basket, then I pull out ten cards, write the words on the board, and we each write a short story or scene based on the words.  The key to doing this well is allowing each student to build her own universe in words. Their universe; their words. I usually take about five days to allow kids to develop their deck.  Each day, as a bell ringer, I take kids through one stage of creation.

 Day One: I ask kids to write 100 concrete, specific words in ten minutes (or longer, depending on the class) that represent their individual, personal, beautiful universe.  All words need to be words each kid loves, words she thinks are beautiful, words she thinks exemplifies who she is, and words that are in some way associated with the five senses.  The words should also represent their good side and their bad side, as well as their past, present, and future.

I model this on the board:  “Okay, start with free association on clean sheet of paper.  Start with the first word that occurs to you.  Lilac. I don’t know why I just thought of that, but my grandmother had lilac bushes in her yard, and I’m trying to keep in mind my past, present, future. Each word needs to have some significance to you, so lilac. That’s a smell word, right?  And now I’m standing in my grandmother’s yard by the lilac bush, and what do I hear? How about thunder? Yep, I visited her in the summers, and storms popped up a lot.  That would be a sound for me. Now, just start writing concrete words and follow the associations.  I remember touching the cool, rough concrete of my grandfather’s dairy barn.  Barn is one of my words.  That might be a touch word for me.  Don’t just write down anything to finish the assignment – find words that are beautiful to you, that represent your universe, that are concrete.”

Day Two: Same thing on Day Two as Day One:  we create another 100 words.  This second day of free assocation will be important when we start the selection process on Day Three.  My philosophy is that each kid needs 200 words to find the best 100 words that represent his life.

Day Three:  I ask students to start weeding and whittling down their words to the essential 100 beautiful, signficant, personal words.  I remind them  the words should not be descriptive of senses, like “salty” or “sweet,” but concrete words like “hot dog” or “custard.” Cut out the vague words and replace them with specific. Avoid “bird;” intead say “wren” or “raven” or “blue jay.” Also, cut out words with suffixes, like – ing, -ly, -ed, -s.

Day Four: Students begin selecting words for categories. Eighty of the words need to be related to the five senses:  16 words for sight, 16 words for sound, 16 words for smell, 16 words for touch, 16 words for taste.   Add ten words for movement. Add three words for abstraction.  Then the last seven words are anything else they want.  Kids can make the below chart in their writing notebook for classification or just number their words.

Sight  (16) Smell (16) Sound (16) Taste (16) Touch (16) Movement (10) Abstraction (3) Anything (7)
             

Day Five: I give each kid 50 index cards, and they fold them in half and divide them into 100 small cards that create their “deck.”  On the back of the card, write your initials or some tag that indicates the card is yours.  On the front of the card, write one glorious word.  Repeat 99 times.  Presto, your Personal Universe Deck! (You can even get fancy and laminate these if you bring your media technician a nice pie and promise to clean her house.)

Teachers, how would you use this in your classroom?! Please share and add your ideas in the comments.

 

 

Arts Integration: Not Your Grandma’s Piano Recital

Three years ago, Cathy Rowland, the piano teacher at the high school where I teach, asked me and the art teacher, Jason Sturgill, if we would like to collaborate with her during a piano recital.  Her idea was that her students could learn piano pieces around a theme, and our students, creative writers and visual artists, could be inspired by those arrangements. Her vision was that all the creation could happen at the same time, in the same room, while the pianos played.   Writers writing and reading their work, artists painting, dancers dancing, actors acting in a dynamic, unrehearsed, live integration.

We did it. And have continued to do it for the last three years.   For teachers who are trying to build an arts integration program within their school, here’s the story of our collaboration.

Six weeks before the showcase, my creative writing students met with Rowland’s piano students to listen to the music.  Each student chose one or two songs with which they felt an immediate attraction.

In addition to listening to the musical compositions over and over, the poets researched the history of the songs, the life stories of the composers, and different forms, such as Russian folk ballads, Germanic legends of the supernatural and Chinese poetic traditions.  During the six weeks, their poems started to emerge.

“I typically write just for myself, but this experience forced me to write for an experience that was being communicated through music by the composers and the pianists. I started to look at music as language, emotion, and thought,” said creative writer Hannah Bernard. “I felt like my poems were much more dynamic and complex because of the music.”

As each piano student performed, they were accompanied by either a piece of drama, art, poetry or drama.  Each student artist created a piece of art in his or her discipline, based on the music of Debussy, Tchaikovsky, and Beethoven, to name a few of the featured composers.

“Playing the piano is traditionally a solitary experience,” said Rowland. “Through this collaboration with students in other arts areas, the piano students were given the opportunity to share their interpretations of both their solo and ensemble pieces with the other artists.”

“My students listen to the piano arrangements to get a feel for what they saw in the music,” said art teacher Jason Sturgill. “I feel like I learned, and my students learned too, a valuable lesson about community.” Some art students completed their works before the showcase and displayed them, but other students painted their works as the pianists performed.

“It was like art theatre.  The audience was behind me, and I zoned out and pretended they weren’t there. The music was all around me as I created,” said graphic artist Nia Burney, who created a digital piece with ArtRage studio software.

In addition to become an invaluable learning tool for students, the showcase also provided an exhibition of the wide range of arts disciplines within our school. Parents, faculty, administration and community members were on hand to witness the range of student talent.  “I can think of no better way to demonstrate the value of our arts program than to experience all of the arts on display in the same program,” said drama teacher Paul Thomas.

If your school wants to host an all-arts spotlight, determining a theme is crucial to create cohesiveness among the artistic products and performances.  After determining a theme that provides artistic unity, students interpret the theme through their own original, interpretative directions. Elementary classrooms could create a showcase within a single classroom, while high school arts components could collaborate across arts disciplines or even content areas.

This project proved what is best about the collaborative dynamic –creation and self-reflection that moves outside the individual artist into a community.

 

Twenty Little Poetry Projects

Wonder how many poems you can stuff in a mailbox?

I am not a poet, but I love the room of opportunites that poem doors open up for writing teachers.  Leave it to a fabulous poem to start many, many conversations about language, choice, authorial intention, image, or persona. Or a hundred billion other things.

The Practice of Poetry is one of those books I’ve used exhaustively over the last ten years to get those discussions started.   The exercises are unique and delivered in such a way that even the most reluctuant student poets can produce something artful.

Because the writing exercises in The Practice of Poetry are written by poets who are also teachers, each exercise comes with an explanation of how the poet developed the exercise and the purpose for which she created it.  In class  Friday, we embarked on Jim Simmerman’s great exercise “Twenty Little Poetry Projects.”  Simmerman states, “This exercise is great for producing free-for-all wackiness, inventive word play, and the sheer oddities of language itself.”   Because I have a mixed bag of writers in my classroom, I felt like this exercise would be great for those who felt stymied by the pressure to sound “poetic” (whatever that means) or any kid out there dealing with writer’s block, or as Simmerman states in the explanation, any one “stuck in a single style.”

The key to doing this exercise is to write all the “projects,” then revise for unity and coherence, looking for the  opportunities for repetition and parallelism, capitalizing on the experimental nature of the activity to have fun and take risks with language and image.  The twenty projects are:

  1. Begin the poem with a metaphor.
  2. Say something specific but utterly preposterous.
  3. Use at least one image for each of the five senses, either in succession or scattered randomly throughout the poem.
  4. Use of example of synesthesia (mixing the senses).
  5. Use the proper name of a person and the proper name of a place.
  6. Contradict something you said earlier in the poem.
  7. Change direction or digress from the last thing you said.
  8. Use a word (slang?) you’ve never seen in a poem.
  9. Use an example of false cause-effect logic.
  10. Use a piece of “talk” you’ve actually heard (preferably in dialect and/or which you don’t understand.)
  11. Create a metaphor using the following construction: “The (adjective) (concrete noun) of (abstract noun)…
  12. Use an image in such a way as to reverse its usual associative qualities.
  13. Make the persona or character in the poem do something he/she could not do in “real life.”
  14. Refer to yourself by nickname and in the third person.
  15. Write in the future tense, such that part of the poem seems to be a prediction.
  16. Modify a noun with an unlikely adjective.
  17. Make a declarative assertion that sounds convincing but that finally makes no sense.
  18. Use a phrase from a language other than English.
  19. Make a nonhuman object say or do something human (personification).
  20. Close the poem with a vivid image that makes no statement, but that “echoes” an image from earlier in the poem.

The students had a lot of fun doing this activity.  Even though the exercise is a formula of sorts, my students made the poems personal through the use of voice, style,  or mood.   Here are a few selections for your enjoyment.

#1 David, Grade 10 

#2 Marin, Grade 10

#3 John, Grade 10

#4 Katrin, Grade 10

#5 Taleah, Grade 10

 

Lesson Plan: Using transference in fiction

Manuel Gonzalez, author of The Miniature Wife and Other Stories and The Regional Office Is Under Attack! recently visited my classroom to talk about craft and lead us in a few writing exercises. During the craft talk, he had good advice like “Get your butt in a chair and write 500-1000 words every day,” but the writing exercises were especially good, so I thought I would pass them along to you.

According to Psychology Today, a classic example of transference occurs when someone unconsciously redirects or transfers feelings from one person to another or from one experience to another.  In the world at large, transference might occur when you develop an unwarranted attachment to a coworker who reminds you of an old flame.  But in the writing world, transference can be used to migrate authentic feelings from an author’s real life experience into the world of fiction to bring specificity and humanity to a character.  Gonzalez, quoting fiction writer Tayri Jones, said, “If you’ve been stuck in an elevator for more than five minutes, you know what it’s like to be stuck in a space station.” In other words, you take what you know and transfer it onto fictional characters and fictional places to make them seem real.

At the outset of the exercise, Gonzalez told a story about an Orthodox Jewish Broadway actor who was playing a character contemplating suicide. The last scene required him, without any dialogue, to have the gun in his hand, but then convince the audience he had decided not to kill himself. The reviews for his performance were wild with praise for his showcase of pain and struggle with the decision.  But as an Orthodox Jew, he wouldn’t have ever even considered suicide. At a press junket, a journalist asked him:   How did you inhabit your character?  He said that he lived in a four-story walkup flat with an old water heater in the basement. When he took a shower, it took forever to get the hot water going, so many mornings he had to take a cold shower if he wanted to take a shower at all. “I would stand there and look at that cold water, but some days I just couldn’t bring myself to get into the bathtub. I took that feeling and transferred it to a character who was contemplating suicide, but ultimately can’t do it,” said the actor.  Gonzalez then led us in three transference exercises to bring specificity and humanity to a small scene by channeling personal experience into scene.

  • Think of an ordinary or typical moment in your life. Write that moment, but choose to do something you would never do in real life, adding complications and tension.
  • Write a short scene about something that really happened to you, but change the one thing that pivots the story, so the outcome is radically different from what really happened.
  • Take yourself as a character and drop yourself into a wildly unfamiliar environment. React as you would normally react in an environment like this.  Write that scene.

 

The kids loved these activities, and many of the scenes we wrote during this visit ended up in polished pieces at the end of the unit. Boom! Lesson plan.

World’s Most Invasive Character Speed Dating

Students get ready for a round of speed dating to discover their characters and possibly love?

Today my peer tutor, Serena, a Senior in SCAPA’s Literary Arts program, lead my class in a character development activity so fabulous, I wish I could claim I developed it myself.

Some Background:  We’ve been unpacking the power of point of view in short fiction, specifically looking at where the language comes from in models like Daniel Orozco’s “Orientation,” Gish Jen’s “Who’s Irish?” and John Cheever’s “The Swimmer.” This week, we are looking at characterization as the point from which every element naturally stems – detail selection when describing setting, the word choice in dialogue, and the action/reaction in scenes with other characters.  The objective of this lesson is to allow students to explore their character in a safe environment in order to understand the motivations and back story of the point of view character.

The Setup: When Serena was a sophomore, my students participated in a character development activity where students had to walk across the room or tie their shoes or order coffee or drive a car in the skin of their character. It’s method acting meets creative writing class. As Serena and I talked about her lesson plan, she recalled that the activity wasn’t very successful for her because she didn’t really know her character yet, and she wasn’t quite sure how they would walk or talk or drive a car.  She recalled that the class was hesitant to stand up and walk around in front of other students in their character’s skin, because as Freshman they were barely comfortable in their own skin. So she came up with this idea she called “World’s Most Invasive Character Speed Dating”  The purpose of speed dating is, of course, to find a compatible match, but the purpose of our activity was to provide students with ready-made questions and a limited time rotation process to interact with another person as their character

The Activity: We set up the desks in the room in pairs and numbered each pair with a set of odd/even numbers (Ex. 1/2, 3/4, 5/6, etc.) Students were directed to sit down anywhere. On each desk, Serena had placed two questions.  She had 20 different questions total. Some of them were innocuous (What is your eye color? Hair color? Is it natural or dyed? Do you have a birthmark? Tattoos? Where is it? What about scars? How did you get them?) but some of them went deeper into the psychology and back story of the characters, (Have you ever been in love?  What is in your refrigerator right now? On your bedroom floor? On your nightstand? In your garbage can?) and others delved even deeper ( Do you have any powers? If not, if you could pick any power, what would it be? Would you use it for good or evil? If you had to commit a murder, how would you execute it? Where would you hide the body? What weapon would you use? ).  Some of the questions she cabbaged off character development websites, others from speeding dating websites, and others she made up.  Students spent about 4 minutes at each table.  The even number characters stayed seated, and the odd numbers rotated to other desks when time was called.  Since I was not running the show, I participated as a character: a nine-year-old Christian fundamentalist named Charlotte Bromagen who fancies herself as a neo-Joan of Arc with a loose sense of mission.

How Did It Go:   This was one of the most successful activities we’ve done all year.  Several students completely forgot who they were, and actually became their character, adopting tics, mannerisms, dialects, facial expressions.  As they moved through the speed dating, they invented complete back stories, motivations, secrets, dreams, and fears for their characters.  After the activity, Serena asked them to reflect in their notebook.  Students commented that they were surprised when they started to answer as their character.  “As the activity went on, I built up my character and got more and more into it,” commented one student. Some of them were so method, they had trouble coming out of character.  As they made the rounds in the speed dating cycle, they reported, they were forced to react, not as themselves, but how they imagine their character would react.  Hmmmm… that’s exactly what good writers do. ♥

 

 

 

 

 

Spring Break Observation Logs: Teaching Kids to Witness

On the Friday before spring break, my classroom has the kind of frenetic expectancy that exists between a lightning bolt and a thunder clap.  Kids are jangly and wrangly.  Into this fray, I wade.

“I have an assignment for you over spring break,” I yell over the din. They begin to groan.  Spring break is about breaking and springing, not working. I know. I get it. But this is so important.

“I’m giving you these little notebooks.” I wave a little notebook around. Perhaps the novelty shushes them. The notebooks are pocket size with 80 small pages.

“I want you to write down anything you see, hear, touch, taste, smell or feel during the seven days of our absence from one another. Everything. Everyday.”

They are intrigued.

I’ve been passing out little notebooks over spring breaks for about six years now.  In 2009, my AP Language class read Joan Didion’s masterpiece essay “On Keeping a Notebook” and were duly inspired to take up pen and paper and practice the art of observation.

The point is simple:  develop a habit of noticing things and writing them down.

This is not a diary or a journal of weight loss, profit margins, egg sales. I want them to cultivate a writerly habit that some of my students already have: compulsive recording. But even more important than the chronicling itself is the action that comes before the chronicling: the noticing.

Everything becomes a rich opportunity.  Every detail becomes a brush stroke in a story; every drifter or butcher or bus driver becomes a character.  Or they don’t.

There’s a snippet of the lyrics “knock, knock, knocking on heaven’s door” in your head, and there’s a dog that looks like your priest walking down High Street. On the radio someone is looking for used tires and they want to trade a baby crib for them. Someone has scrawled on the bathroom wall: If your parents didn’t have children, it’s a good bet you won’t either.

It means whatever it means.

In a culture of high stakes assessment, common core cramming, and standardized breathing, this project is refreshingly simple. Teaching students to observe their world with no other objective than merely witnessing it is absolutely vital.

“I want you to look like a writer,” I say to them.  “Stick this notebook in your back pocket, the string of your bikini, the side of your backpack, and become obsessed with collecting notes, looking at the world like a writer would.”

“How will this be graded?” asks the front row handwringer.

“It’s a pass/fail assignment. You’ll get a 100% if every page has something on it or you’ll get a zero.”

“But what do we write?” says the still dubious cynic in the back row.

“Phrases that tickle your fancy, phrases your geography teacher says, phrases your grandma says, phrases you hear at temple, phrases your sister whispers in her sleep. Notes from a lecture, notes from a talk show, notes from the underground. Gossip you hear, gossip you make up. Sermons. Songs. Poems. Lists. Jokes. Riddles. Lies. Mysteries. Tall tales. Visions. Dreams. Revelations. Secrets. Graffiti. Facebook updates, Twitter shout outs. Headlines, bylines, hashtags, short lines. A toast someone gives at a wedding, a farewell someone gives at a funeral. A scene you see, a scene you think you see, a scene you make up, a scene you wished you’d see. Wishes you had when you were five, wishes you had last year, wishes you have right now. Disappointments that have hurt you, disappointments that have inspired you, disappointments you’ll never get over. Fears you project, fears you hide. Lists of things your friend carries in his wallet/purse. Lists of things you carry in your wallet/purse. Conversations you overhear at the coffee shop, at the gas station, on the street, in the cafeteria. Conversations you imagine two people having, conversations you have with imaginary people, conversations your parents have when they think you’re not listening, conversations your parents have when they know you’re listening. Description of people in Wal-Mart, descriptions of people at the bus stop. A dream you have while asleep, a dream you have while awake, a dream you have while someone else is talking. A new word you want to remember, a new word you make up. The names of your future children, future pets,  future company, future empire. Good titles for your life story, your novel, the Lifetime Original movie of your life. Any more questions?”

Didion says:  “We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were. I have already lost touch with a couple of people I used to be.”

Here’s to a spring break they’ll never forget.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Lost Art of Talk

One Friday, our school had an unusually long lock-down drill.  A lock-down is a drill, similar to fire and tornado drills, where teachers and students go through the steps they would take in the event of an active shooter or a hostage situation.

We have these drills about once a month. I’m lucky to have a classroom in our 75-year-old building that is attached to a long, narrow closet.  After my students hustled in and sat down, I turned off the light, and because the drill went on longer than normal, the kids started telling stories.  The moment took on a summer-camp feel. We were sitting cross-legged in a small, tight circle in the dark.

There was 100% engagement around the circle. No side-bar conversations. No one was checking cell phones.  After one kid told a story, there would be laughter or questions or a small moment of lull, until another kid said, “Yeah that reminds me about once in fourth grade…,” and we were off again, a “real or imagined narrative” rolling out naturally, first-draft fresh.

“We should do this every Friday,” somebody said.

“Can we?” another student asked.

“I like that idea,” I said.  It felt subversive, but I knew I could defend this practice in the scope of my curriculum.

I teach creative writing at a large urban school, but anyone who teaches anything anywhere on the planet could do this activity.  Oral Tradition Friday (which has morphed into just Oral Friday, with all the attendant high school snickers and winks) hits every speaking and listening standard for social studies and science classrooms as well.   Oral Friday has been going on now in my freshman and sophomore classes for two years, and it is, by far, the most successful, engaging lesson I “teach” all week long.

Professional Growth Fridays in my junior and senior classes developed along the same pattern.  One Friday, I had assigned a very technical, informational article about how writers select a point of view from which to write a story. My students had annotated the text and were prepared to discuss it.  But the weather was perfect and little birds were begging us to come outside. So I told my students to leave everything in the classroom including their painstakingly annotated margins, and we went outside, sat in a circle and discussed point of view. Specifically, we talked about how the article applied to their own writing choices. Now, we do this every Friday.  One student is elected to find an article about the professional or technical side of writing, distribute it to the class, and lead the discussion as it applies to their work.

  Sitting around in a circle talking is not a new instructional technique.  But it seems to happen less and less frequently.  The demands of covering standards and integrating technology have crowded out the oldest curriculum trick in the world – tell a story, have a conversation, talk face-to-face with another human.

When I was growing up as the youngest child in a family of five, we always ate dinner together and seemingly— although my memory may have taken a few instances and extrapolated them into an every dinner staple—afterwards we had what my father dubbed “roundtables.” I don’t remember many of the topics, which tended to center around current events, University of Kentucky  basketball, the weather – we were farmers— but I remember the feelings it gave me: the feeling of struggling to figure out how to say what I wanted to say and the more important feeling of being taken seriously by an adult when I talked.

Talking to students is a powerful instructional tool, but allowing students to talk is an even more powerful one.  Make your classroom a place where students can talk about ideas, practice the art of spoken persuasion or storytelling, or inquiry. I have elected Fridays as the day we talk because Fridays, as every educator knows, holds magical powers. The weekend stands within reach. The sun shines a little brighter.  Use the charming force of that day to initiate learning that doesn’t appear to be learning.

 

The No Grade Experiment: An Update

As those of you who read this blog know, I recently embarked on a no-grade experiment with my SCAPA Literary Arts students for 12 weeks.  We are now on week nine, and the results have been interesting.

The unit in which we embarked on this experiment is the novel unit, which requires four weeks of plotting, thinking, developing, sketching, and storyboarding, and eight weeks of execution:  actual writing day-in-day-out, putting black on white. It’s a ridiculous timeline and everyone knows it, but we are pushing ourselves for the experience and the practice.

From the outset, I conceded this unit might be difficult for the people whose writing process resisted plotting.  Writers generally fall into two camps: plotters and pantsers – those who plot, and those who write by the seat of their pants.  But even the non-plotters in the class agreed that they wanted to know something about it, and the class was very excited to receive James Scott Bell’s craft book, Plot and Structure.  This is a nuts and bolts book on structure— no theory, no literary hoo-ha, just plain carpentry aids.

Each night students read one chapter, and the next morning, I would give them a five-question quiz to assess their comprehension of the reading, then we had a discussion and completed an activity that would allow students to apply what they had learned from the chapter to their burgeoning novel.

It was the same format I used in the first unit on the short story. We read a craft book, students took five-question comprehension quizzes, then we discussed the chapter, and I gave them an application exercise.

Here are the scores from the previous unit when grades were actually being given.

FAILED PASSED Scored 100%
Quiz 1 11 out of 21, or 52% 10 out of 21, or 48% 7 out of 21, or 33%
Quiz 2 7 out of 21, or 33% 14 out of 21, or 67% 5 out of 21, or 24 %
Quiz 3 3 out of 21, or 14 % 18 out of 21, or 86% 7 out of 21, or 33 %
Quiz 4 3 out of 21, or 14% 18 out of 21, or 86% 8 out of 21, or 38%
Quiz 5 5 out of 21, or 24% 16 out of 21, or 76% 7 out of 21, or 33%

This chart represents what most classrooms look like. About 80% proficiency overall.

Even though I wasn’t recording grades (they already had a 98% A guaranteed), I continued to collect data to see if the lack of pressure  to “make” a grade actually impacted their performance either positively or negatively.

Here are the scores from the novel unit when grades were not going to be given.

FAILED PASSED Scored 100%
Quiz 1 13 out of 21, or 62% 8 out of 21, or 38% 7 out of 21, or 33%
Quiz 2 12 out of 21, or 57% 9 out of 21, or 43% 6 out of 21, or 29%
Quiz 3 15 out of 21, or 71% 6 out of 21, or 29% 6 out of 21, or 29%
Quiz 4 10 out of 21, or 48% 11 out of 21, or 52% 8 out of 21, or 38%
Quiz 5 14 out of 21, or 67% 7 out of 21, or 33% 5 out of 21, or 24 %

 

When no grades were on the line, the pass rate for quizzes dropped, on average, from 72% to a 39%.  But then I noticed something very interesting.  On every quiz, I had 5-7 kids who got 100% each time.  I looked back at the quizzes from the previous unit and realized those two charts were virtually identical.  For about a third of my students, grades are a non-issue.  They did their absolute best whether they were being rewarded externally for it or not.

Of course, you might say that quiz grades aren’t really a great measuring stick for actual learning, and I would agree with that, but I noticed the same results when we completed hands-on activities and exercises that were student-selected.  After reading the craft book, the tools that the students indicated they needed prior to writing the novel were:  a plot summary, a timeline of events, character profiles, and some kind of plotting device, like a story board or intensity scale, that would allow them to lay out the beats of their novel.

There was more buy-in with these activities. In fact, 50% of the students completed these activities with some degree of accomplishment and 45% either didn’t complete these activities or completed them in a manner that would have been deemed failing. I only had 1 student who turned in nothing.  And there was still those 5-7 kids who did the activities with aplomb, going above and beyond the requirements, turning out activities like they were vying for the Pulitzer.

And maybe they are.

Conventional wisdom dictates that without a paycheck at the end of the week, we wouldn’t be driving to work every day.  I can’t wait to query these high-flyers to find out why they excelled when no grades were on the line.

There are other considerations, of course.  It could be that those 30% are the true writers in the group, that they would write if the world were burning down, if they were locked in a closet with only a piece of charcoal and blank wall on which to write their story.

It could also be that those other 70% just aren’t mature enough to be self-motivated or to handle the kind of freedom that would allow them to direct their own path.  Or it could be that they were going home every night and writing reams and reams of poetry, the genre that they truly love.

 

In November, we started writing our novels, and they are keeping spreadsheets and “state of mind” calendars to chart their word count and their disposition o’ the day.  I will be updating you with their progress in a future blog post.

Stay tuned!

Flash Fiction: Sharp Stories in Small Packages

This weekend I delivered a session on flash fiction at the Write Eastern Kentucky Conference on the campus of Morehead State University and decided to share some of my plans here.

While the length of most fiction is determined by the guidelines of the journal or magazine to which you plan to submit your work, a generally accepted word count for a traditional short story is 2000-8000 words while a piece of flash fiction can be as small as 100-1000 words.  Most of my student’s flash fiction pieces are between 500-750 words, which is about two-to-three standard 8 ½ x 11 pages, double-spaced in 12 point type.

Unlike vignettes, which tend to be impressionistic or slice-of-life narratives, flash fiction pieces are complete stories with a beginning, middle and an end.  Because of the economy of the form, every word, every image, every shred of characterization needs to be exact to deliver the narrative arc precisely, resulting in a full story. My students tend to embrace flash fiction because the stories are simpler, clearer with fewer characters and one central conflict.

There’s no room for exhausting exposition or tangential descriptions that tends to bloat student writing anyway.  Because of the demands of the tiny frame, students can’t spin off into pages of backstory either.  They have to have a clear vision of a simple story: How do I establish time/place immediately? Who is my main character? What does my main character want? What stands in the way of the main character’s desires? Does she have a distinctive voice? What is the climax and resolution?

I typically start my flash fiction unit with a simple and often-used prompt: Write a 500-1000 word story about two people, who are attempting to do something together, yet become trapped in a small space and each want to do something different than the other.  For example, two siblings traveling home over Christmas when a freak snow storm traps them on the highway. One wants to try to get home for Christmas; the other wants to abandon the trip altogether. What happens?

While I like to see students wrestle with structure and framing in a longer, traditional story, I often use ready-made story shells when teaching flash fiction. Because the narrative framing is already there in a story shell, students can focus on the smaller details of diction, selection of detail, verbal precision, and the power of image in characterization.

Here are a few of the story shells I like to use when teaching flash fiction.

  • Stories in songs: Country music was once known for the story song, but many pop, rock, and R & B songs have simple, narrative stories in their lyrics.  The website Lyric Interpretation and Listal’s Songs That Tell Stories allow students to pick a song which offers them the essential elements of the narrative as a shell to develop into the flash fiction piece.

 

  • Stories in poems: An About Education site has a collection of ballads that also provide students with a story frame that they can use to develop into small, insular works of fiction. After reading the poem, students delineate the character, conflict, climax and change necessary to create a full story.

 

  • Stories in arts: Students can also distill the stories from art. This is a great cross-curriculum activity for humanities as well. The Lucas Museum of Narrative Art has hundreds of pieces of art works that can be used as the start of a simple story for a flash fiction piece. Using the character and conflict in the art as a starting point, students can render the full narrative in a small story.

 

 

  • Stories in memories: At the beginning of the year, I have students jot down 25 stories or anecdotes that are often retold or repeated by their family. These tend to be funny or sad or bittersweet or haunting. The anecdotes generally have one or two characters and there’s almost always a conflict.  With a little fictional tweaking, these personal stories can develop into great flash fiction pieces.

While Short Shorts and Flash Fiction and Sudden Fiction have been around since the late 80s and early 90s when the genre seemed to spike, I am partial to the flash fiction on Flash Fiction Online for sci-fi, fantasy and horror flash models that students will enjoy.