Writing Open Letters, Memoir, and Flash Fiction with Middle Schoolers

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Johanna classThere is an incredible 8th grade ELA team at a public, middle school near my university. Maria, Johanna, and Sam are dedicated teachers who work closely together and aren’t afraid to take risks to deepen the learning for their students and themselves. They are living a writing life with their students that meets the skill and conceptual goals of their district and the Common Core. This is the first year that they have put into practice a writing-based curriculum, and it is changing the culture of their classrooms and the quality of the work. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing some of their students’ writing in Curved Lines On The Terrestrial Sphere, our online journal for student and teacher writing. The first issue focuses on the art of the Open Letter, Memoir, and Flash Fiction. The Open Letter is a wonderful literary conceit because it is never intended to be read by the person, place, thing, or idea to which it is being addressed while at the same time, the letter is open to all to read. This irony tends to diminish writing inhibitions and give license to students to reveal the sharp, witty, and fresh writers that they are. Memoir is the perfect genre to explore craft because the moves that writers make in memoir are often transparent and accessible to  young writers. It is also a slippery genre, meaning that the writer can play around with the sometimes subtle differences between truth and fact. Middle schoolers love t0 mess around with those kinds of distinctions. Finally, Flash Fiction is usually no more than 400 words. This concision pushes students to think strategically about what they put in and what they leave out. The form lends itself to mirroring life’s idiosyncrasies.

When the teachers submitted their students’ writing, I asked them to respond to a few questions regarding the work and how it is influencing them as teachers. They talk about developing a culture of risk-taking, the ease of differentiating within a writing-based curriculum, and how the deep practice of writing prepares their students for life. For this first issue, I include below their thoughts on what their students’ writing makes them think about.

What does your students’ writing make you think about?johanna 3

Looking over the student writing makes us think about the growth the kids have achieved not only in terms of skill but in terms of confidence. They were mired in self-doubt in September. For so many 8th graders, the idea of writing is fraught with fear, anxiety, and a certainty that they will do it “wrong.” In their early journal reflections, students offered sentiments such as: “I’m a terrible writer. I wish I could be better but I don’t know how to be.” Worse yet, some firmly closed the door on the idea of writing and declared, “Writing is for some people but not for me.” Now, though, we see writers who are skilled and confident, eager to delve into new writing challenges, to experiment, and to take bold risks. It really drives home the fact that literacy is tied to cognition and that as their writing/reading grows, so does their analytical and problem-solving skills.

It also excites us to reflect back on what worked really, really well and what didn’t work so well so that we can refine it for next year. With stunning clarity, we can see that any time we veered from the routines and rituals of our writing-based classrooms – whether because of interruptions, timing, or other extraneous factors – we were frustrated with the results. This provides us with great reassurance and comfort that this path is the right path to journey with our students.

Submit your students’ or your own writing to CLOATS

If you are interested in submitting some of your students’ writing, or your own, please send it to Leif Gustavson at gustavson@arcadia.edu. I will be happy to include it in future issues. Please also leave a comment about the writing. We’re interested in hearing your thoughts.

Go to Curved Lines On A Terrestrial Sphere to read the first issue!

johanna 2For other great examples of open letters go to McSweeney’s Internet Tendencies

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