Today’s guest post is from one of Rebekah & Allison’s colleagues, Maria Bartz. Maria is an English teacher at Trinity Episcopal School in Richmond, VA. She loves a clean white board for spontaneous think tank sessions with her inspiring colleagues, a fully charged laptop to explore the ever-growing world of educational technology, and big circle of passionate teenagers engaged in thought-provoking discussion.
Planning for the first day is a balancing act. I want it to be fun, unique, and a truthful preview of what the school year will look like in my room. For the past six years of teaching, plans for the first day were a mix of icebreakers, quick review of the syllabus, and writing some sort of introduction letter, which they would finish for homework. It just never felt genuine or much like my classroom.
This year, I decided to make it truer to my class: I wanted them writing. And not just an introduction letter that skims the surface of who they are and what they like to do. Still, it’s tough to get students studying mentor texts and writing a finished piece in only 25 minutes. I was up for the challenge.
My secret weapon came in the form of six word stories….with a twist. In past years, I have used Ernest Hemingway’s famous six word story to open the conversation about intentional word choice: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” While this is still one of the most heart-wrenching stories I have ever read, I wanted this activity to act as an introduction to the process of studying mentor texts as well as a gateway into the students writing about themselves in a personal way.
So instead of asking them to create a fictional six word story, it had to be a six word memoir. Here’s how the class went:
I define the word “memoir” for my students and explain that memoirs can come in all lengths–a couple pages or an entire book. I then tell them that they are going to write their memoir in only six words (listen for the gasps!).
Study one six-word memoir together.
I preface the reading by saying, “This writer was asked, ‘If you had to tell me about your life in six words, what would you say?’ This is the memoirist’s response: ‘Ask me again in a month.’”
Independently, students respond to these questions: What is the tone, the feeling exuding from the sentence? How do you know?
I let students share with their group and then share to the class. Students notice that the word “month” is an indicator of hopefulness or despair, depending on how they perceive the length of a month to be. Students note that the word “ask” is friendly or intrusive, depending on how they interpret being asked personal questions. We only spend a few minutes discussing this, as they quickly grasp the power of each word in the sentence.
Study more mentor texts
Next, we read ten examples of six word memoirs (amazing examples here). I chose examples that varied in topic, tone, and style and that resonated with high school students. Here are some of my favorites: this and this and this and this They are unintimidating and clever; students have even commented, “I like these” or “This is cool.”
Students choose their favorites from the list of ten and work through the same questions about tone–what is the tone? How do you know? To that question, I add “What makes that sentence special–is there a play on words? Is there a creative use of punctuation?” Some circle or highlight words, others don’t. Since this is a 25 minute class, I will save that discussion for another day. My goal today is just to have them read sentences thoughtfully. Due to my time constraints, we don’t share our thoughts on our favorite sentences; although, if the class was longer, I would ask for volunteers to share their findings.
Students take a turn
I then tell the students that it’s their turn–that they will be writing their own six word memoirs. Some eyes widen, some let out a groan for having to do more work on the first day of school, but most are already spinning the wheels in their heads.
For the sake of those who are not as eager to write, I offer up myself as tribute and share the drafts of my own six word memoir. I explain why I made any major or minor adjustments in each draft and show my final draft written cleanly on a sentence strip. This is intended to ease their anxieties, allow them to get to know me personally, and illustrate the power of revision.
At this point, there is about five minutes left in class. I coach them along, asking rhetorical questions that could spark an idea–”What is going on in your life right now? What is your life motto? What are your hopes for the future?” Some students will write six words immediately. Others reread the mentor sentences and have zero words written when the dismissal bell rings. Homework is to finish the first draft of their six word memoirs.
Without much dawdling, this took one 25-minute class period.
The next class, as the warm up, I ask the students to reread their original six word memoirs–does it reflect the tone you intended? Does anything need tweaking? Once they are satisfied, they will write their final drafts on sentence strips–no names required.
That afternoon, I staple all the memoirs on our bulletin board to publish their writing. When students return to class, they are given three votes (pencil hash marks) for their favorite ones; we applaud those who got the most votes but keep the winners anonymous.
Students love reading each other’s memoirs and seeing their own work displayed. I’ve even had a few students submit a new six word memoir, feeling the inspiration of their peers’ and their own writing. We will refer to this activity throughout the year when I introduce the concepts of mentor texts, word choice, and taking risks.
It is my favorite first day yet.
(For another beginning-of-the-year writing idea using six word memoirs, check out Stefanie’s post from last week!)
What new experiments are you trying on the first day this year? What are your tried-and-true favorite ways to getting students writing from day one? Comment below, find us on Facebook, or Tweet Maria @MsBartz.