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.

 

 

 

 

“Exploding a Moment” with Barry Lane

This year, we wrote out an exploded moment instead of just watching one be narrated in a video.

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Photo: Pixabay

Last Tuesday, I planned an activity for my seventh- and eighth-grade classes that worked so well, I knew I had to share. We exploded a baseball moment.

“Exploding a moment “ is what writing teacher Barry Lane calls it when writers take an important moment from a narrative and approach it like a filmmaker treats an important movie in a film… in slow motion. When we visualize the moment in slow motion and then describe the moment in slow motion, we automatically describe it in such detail that the reader views the event with the same intensity and importance that the writer does.

 

In the past, I have always shown one of Lane’s videos where he replaces the sentence, “I poured the milk over my cousin’s head and it made a huge mess and milk went everywhere,” with a thoroughly engaging and highly detailed “mind movie” of the milk incident that explodes across a full page or two. We visualize the milk running in rivers down the cousin’s face. We visualize the milk dripping onto the table and then puddling on the floor. We visualize the horrified expression on the cousin’s face as she blinks to keep the milk out of her eyes.  Here’s that video, which we watch only to 2:40.

This year, I decided to show another of Lane’s videos where he hits a baseball out of the ballpark. It’s a three-second moment and then it’s over. But then he follows that clip with the same scene in a slow-motion sequence that extends for about one minute.

As I previewed  the video, I got the idea to play the slo-mo part in class and stop the video about every five to ten seconds so students could describe what they saw in each snippet.

With a short talk, we recalled the spilled milk video to review what we already knew about “exploding a moment.” Then we reacquainted ourselves with the concept to use in our “slice of life” essays that students had started the previous day.

Following this, I played the “baseball video where Lane introduces and discusses using the “explode a moment” technique to describe especially important moments during decisive events in our lives, such as hitting a home run in a championship game.

(By the way, for a link to my post about how to do this activity with high school students with a video better suited to older kids, click here. )

After the introduction, we watch the slow-mo part and then I ask students to get out a sheet of notebook paper and a pencil or pen. I explain that I will play a short segment of the slow motion portion and then stop it. At that time, they’ll write about what they just saw. And that’s exactly what we did last week.

After about every third snippet, I asked a few kids to share the last two to three sentences they had written. They had fun doing that, plus it was fun to see how different kids described the exact same video.

When we finished the activity (at the 1:39 point), several students shared their writing, which filled the front and back of a sheet of notebook paper. Only a few kids had less than a page. Most of the students couldn’t believe how much they had written.

We discussed how “exploding a moment” in slow-motion helps the readers visualize the story and how sometimes that kind of visualization involves a lot of writing.

Watching the video five to ten seconds at a time takes quite a bit of time. In fact, when I do this again, I’ll adjust my bell-ringer activity at the beginning of class so we end the activity with about twenty minutes left of class so kids actually have time to get out their laptops and work on their drafts.

Last week, when we finished, there was about eight minutes of class left… not quite enough time to get out their slice-of-life drafts in order to apply the technique.

That last eight-minutes of class last week would have been a prime time to share a handout I made the next morning called, “Explode the Right Moment.” I used parts of a book by Gary Provost called 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing.

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This book, although a little outdated, contains so many short chapters on key writing techniques. Besides the chapter mentioned in this post, I especially like the one on sentence variety, which I discuss in this post.

My handout basically suggests using the “explode a moment” technique judiciously. In other words, choose the right moment to explode.

In any story, there will be only one to two key moments to explode in this way. For example, don’t explode your character’s walk to his car if the walk isn’t important to the story.

Find an important moment and explode that moment only.

Some kids have trouble finding such moments. I let students know I can help them find “explodable” moments if they need help.

 

 

Three more key tips I remember from last week:

  • Let kids know that, although Lane suggests exploding the big moments of our lives, this technique works equally well with the small, yet important, ordinary moments of our lives. That’s why I think it applies to “slice-of-life” writing especially well.
  • Don’t play the video segments over again and again. Perhaps once is fine, but any more than that and kids get the idea that they don’t have to be watching carefully.
  • Make sure kids stay “in the moment” for now. Some will be tempted to write about, for example, Aunt Julie watching the home run from the stadium bleachers and dreaming of her former baseball playing days. Encourage students to stay on the field and not to over-invent for now. The point is to describe the hitting of the ball, the build-up before the hit where the pitcher and batter are eyeing each other up, stepping back and forth, taking a few test swings, and all the other tiny worthy details that create a vivid, fleshed-out version of the hit.

 

I heard probably one or two “That was kinda fun!” comments in each class and I thought about how neat it would be to have other one-minute videos available of some activity done in slow motion. These could be a band walking onto a stage at a concert, the first time seeing a baby sibling, opening a special Christmas present.

Using videos such as these would allow this to be a recurring activity where we could  continue to build our skills in seeing the intricacies of a moment in order to write about them fully and completely.

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I’ll be trying this activity with sixth-graders next, who are shown in this photo learning new revision techniques during the first week of school.

I may even do this activity with my sixth-graders in a couple of weeks as they continue to work on their memoirs. I’ll share about how it works with them when I write about that unit soon.


Thanks for reading! Let me know how you use Barry Lane’s materials in your classes. I have the entire “Barry in a Box” set, but frankly, the DVD set was somewhat disappointing in quality and navigation. I just use what videos I can (such as the two mentioned in this post) by searching for them on Youtube. Follow me for more news from my middle school ELA classroom.