Slice-of-life writing: the anti-Instagram narrative

These short narratives celebrate the ordinary and challenge high schoolers to write creatively

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One result of a three-month summer break? Students out of practice with writing, especially creative writing.

To remedy that last week, I decided to introduce my high school students to slice-of-life writing, a fairly new genre within the world of narrative non-fiction. In my former middle school ELA teaching position, slice-of-life writing was a staple with my students. They enjoyed writing slices more and more as they became familiar with the form.

By the way, I learned about slice-of-life writing from this inspirational group of writer-teachers. Teachers write and post their own slices on Tuesdays at this site. For information about this group’s Slice-of-Life Writing Challenge for classrooms, visit here.

One way to think of slice-of-life writing is to consider it an acknowledgement of the moments we wouldn’t post in an Instagram feed. Usually, we put the major moments of our lives in our feeds… memorable vacations, weddings, graduations, fun outings. With slice-of-life writing, however, we write about the more ordinary moments of our lives. These have merit, too, and perhaps as much merit as the milestones in our lives simply because the small moments are more numerous.

After a brief introduction of the genre to my high schoolers, I went over the points on the PowerPoint slide (shown below).

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After talking through the above Powerpoint slide, I passed out copies of a sheet with mentor slice-of-life essays. I read aloud these three from the sheet: Drip Drop by Annison E., Feeding the Dogs by Isaiah F., and Cutting the Grass by yours truly.

The first two were written by former students, and were published by Creative Communications of Logan, Utah in one of the publisher’s essay anthologies. (While the company continues to publish poetry anthologies for middle schoolers, they no longer publish the essay anthologies. Darn!)  Here’s that mentor text handout:

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After reading and discussing the mentor texts, I asked students to spend thirty minutes working on a first draft, after which we would do some revision. As for length, I asked students to fill the front side of a sheet of notebook paper plus a few lines on the back.

In some of my classes, it was evident that some additional guidance was needed. Some students seemed to be confused by what exactly constituted a “slice.” During my first hour class, I wrote alongside them, scribbling out a first draft about cleaning the windshield of my car, which I had done the night before. I read it aloud, stumbling through my quickly written cursive. I told students I was not totally satisfied with it (especially the  powdered sugar reference), but it was a start. Here’s my quick “demo” first draft of my own slice:

“Shhhhhhhhh.” The foamy spray fizzes onto my car’s windshield like a thin layer of powdered sugar. A sweet chemical odor lifts from the foam.

The foam sludges down the glass like a glacier, shifting and sliding slowly down toward the wiper blade, a guardrail of sorts.

The stains of unlucky insects that fluttered their wing one final time against the glass melt into the white of the foam cleaner. Moths, wasps, and horseflies decompose and disintegrate into the liquid… a tiny life lost and wiped away.

I rip off a handful of paper towels  and wipe the glass. Clean straight swaths absorb and remove the foam, the bugs, the film of road grease and oil.

The window is wide and requires that I stretch to reach the entire glass. So I walk around to the other side to clean the remaining half.  I trip on a cord from the leaf blower left on the floor. I untangle my ankle from the cord and finish cleaning the windshield.

The glass is clear. One crusty patch remains and I spray it one more time. The crust dissolves and I smudge out the remaining residue.

The paper towels, damp and dripping, feel cold in my hand. The job is done.

Following my read aloud of my demo slice, they started or continued on their own. After about thirty minutes, I asked students still working to finish the sentence they were writing, so we could add to our first drafts.

Adding to our writing is one way we revise, I said.

“Let’s add to our first drafts with sensory language,” I said. “Skim through your draft and look for  a place to add a sound,” I suggested. Students worked for about five minutes to add a sound.

Of course, without fail, in each class, one student would ask, “What if you already have a sound?”

“See if you can add another,” I prompted.

Following sounds, we then added fragrances/odors (smell), textures (touch), and if appropriate, a flavor (taste) to our drafts. Obviously, if students were “showing and not telling,” their writing should have already have contained an image.

After our revision, I asked for volunteers to share their slices. A few students agreed to do just that. My first impression from their writing: I hadn’t sufficiently stressed the importance of focusing on a single moment in their slices. When a few students shared their entire morning routine (First, I get up and then I take a shower, and then I grab some breakfast, feed the dog, brush my teeth, wait for the bus, and then it comes and I go to school.), or evening football practice, I knew I needed to emphasize that slice-of-life writing is all about focusing on a single small moment in life, an ordinary moment that one would never think to include in their Instagram feed, for example.

I had conveyed this idea earlier in the lesson by recalling last week’s reading of excerpts from Bill Roorbach’s Writing Life Stories, where Roorbach discusses memory. He mentions “informational memory,” which he calls the “stuff of lost days.”

Slice-of-life writing  builds on  and celebrates the “stuff of lost days” people are engaged in on a daily basis.

Yes, our lives are punctuated with big life events, but our lives are also lived in the not-so-big events, the events that are easily forgotten or downplayed, but actually form the bulk of our existence.  Slice-of-life writing capitalizes on these easily dismissed activities.

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Because a handful of students (in one particular class, curiously) wrote what I call “And then I did this, and then I did this” essays, I tweaked my Powerpoint slide to place more emphasis on focusing on a single moment or task. The final version of that slide is the one I’ve included in this post above.

However, I still need to add these points, which should help them write “in the moment” better next time:

  • Write in the first-person point-of-view to put the reader right there with you.
  • Write in the present tense to add immediacy to your slice.

The next day in class, students typed up their slices in the computer lab. I told them that if their slice was a series of events or moments, that they could go ahead and use it for this first slice, since I felt my instructions hadn’t been clear enough at first. Next month, however, when we try another one, they will need to get choosy with their writing and focus on a single moment.

Right before they began typing, I asked students to create a Google Doc and name it Slice- of-Life Essays so we could add a slice monthly for the next few months. We’ll plan to publish a small collection of slices at the end of the semester or at the end of the year. Having a collection of essays about their everyday and ordinary teenage life should be a treasure as they continue through high school and beyond.

After typing, I asked students to print two copies and read their copy aloud to a partner who would follow along on their own copy so they could  offer feedback for more revision. I specifically asked students to look for:

  1. First: unclear and/or confusing areas
  2. Second: editing, such as punctuation, grammar, and spelling

I added, “When you turn in your final draft, also hand me your first draft copies so I can see the feedback your partner gave you.”

Unfortunately, most kids brought me their final drafts with a first draft that contained minimal feedback provided by their partner. Many simply had misspelled words circled or commas added in here and there. “That’s not revision. That’s editing,” I thought, making a mental note that my new students would need extra encouragement to revise.

And that’s where we are in my new high school classes. I am figuring out that they need to learn some revision strategies. This week, I plan to cover “exploding a moment” and “writing small,” two similar yet separate strategies that should help students flesh out their writing into fuller, more meaningful compositions. Stay tuned.


Thanks for reading again this week. It’s interesting to make the transition from middle school to high school. Older students definitely have different motivations and goals. Learning ways to make writing (and revising) more relevant is definitely my charge.

 

 

 

 

2019 Middle School Writing Conference…A Great Day!

I was finally able to take some students to this regional day of writing at MSU just for middle schoolers

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One student asked for feedback on her poem from another. Even over lunchtime, they took time out for writing!

Last Friday, May 10, I took eight students on a field trip to the Middle School Writing Conference at Missouri State University in Springfield, Mo. The conference was hosted by Missouri State University’s Center for Writing in College, Career and Community and the Ozarks Writing Project. It was a fast and fun day!

I wanted to take a group last year, but the date for last year’s conference coincided with a field trip. At one time this spring, it looked as if the conflict might occur again, so early on, I hyped up the conference and made sure the kids knew that a field trip to a local bowling alley might pale in comparison to spending a day on a college campus with other kids fired up about creative writing.

When I first mentioned the conference to my classes, more than twenty students expressed interest. I wanted to narrow the number down to five, the number of spaces that would receive scholarships from the Darr Family Foundation that would cover the $50 conference fee.

To do that, I asked all those interested to write a paragraph explaining why they wanted to attend the conference. Eight students submitted paragraphs to me. The paragraphs were honest and heartfelt, and I had a difficult time choosing only five. Fortunately, in the end, three additional spaces were opened up to our school, so I was able to take all eight students for a day at college.

I asked each of the eight students to choose their top five choices from a list of creative writing classes, knowing that the schedule would allow that they attend two of those five. The second flyer photo below shows the list of classes from which students could choose.

Here are photos of the flyers from the conference:

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This is the first page of the flyer for the conference.
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This is the list of sessions I gave to each student. They were to choose their top five sessions they were interested in attending. They would attend two sessions during the day. I signed up to teach two sessions on headline poetry.

The schedule for the day began at 8:45 a.m. with a session opened with welcomes from university officials followed by a keynote address given by Shaun Tomson, a South African World Surfing Champion and author of the best-selling “Surfer’s Code: 12 Simple Lessons for Riding Through Life.”

Tomson discussed the importance of young people writing “I Will” statements, “simple codes of commitment for success in life and business.” These “I Will” statements propose concrete, do-able ways for students to effect change and purpose in their personal lives. The ultimate goal? To create a wave of positive change in society and the world.

The kids responded enthusiastically to Tomson’s heavy South African-accented presentation. At the conclusion of the session, they even texted their own personal “I Will” statements to his app and/or read their statements onstage to the entire audience. I was so surprised to see how assertive and bold my students were. Every one of them approached the line at the stage to read their personal “I Will” statement!

Here’s a picture of Thomson’s presentation followed by a photo of students reading their statements onstage:

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Thomson was a three-time World Champion Surfer.
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Students readily accepted Thomson’s invitation to read their “I Will” statements onstage.

After Thomson’s presentation, the entire crowd of approximately 500 student attendees from approximately thirty area middle schools walked from MSU’s Plaster Student Union to Strong Hall where the writing sessions were to be held. Students attended their first session from 10:50 a.m. to noon. This was followed by a box lunch provided by the conference and another 75-minute session after lunch. After this second session, it was time to go! As I said, it was a fast and fun day!

We had a one-hour drive back to our school. We were home by 3:30 p.m. The kids really seemed to enjoy the entire day, and due to its fast pace, it ended up being a very convenient and easy way to offer a field trip focused on writing!

In addition, it was an appropriate way to end my time at Kirbyville Middle School in Kirbyville, Mo. I will be moving over the summer to Bolivar, Mo. and have secured a high school English position at Skyline High School (Hickory Co. R-I) in Urbana, Mo.

Perhaps next fall I will be able to take a group to the high school conference hosted by the same sponsors at MSU! (Maybe I’ll even present again.)

By the way, below is one especially intriguing headline poem created by an area student in one of my sessions. Headline poetry is a very unintimidating way for students to create powerful poems with incredible and unexpected word choice and imagery. Here’s a link to a previous post on headline poetry. It is truly one of my favorite writing activities.

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Headline poetry always surprises with its spontaneity!
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About 22 students attended each of my two sessions on headline poetry, a form of found poetry.


Thanks for reading again this week! Consider attending the Middle School Writing Conference at Missouri State University next year! Follow this link for more information.