Slice of life writing: here’s a mentor text for high school students

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Slice of life essays written by elementary students are everywhere; high school slices are harder to find. Here’s one.

Last fall, near the beginning of the school year, I introduced my high school juniors and seniors to slice of life writing. Slices are short narratives that celebrate the ordinary moments in our lives that we may often overlook as worthy of documenting.

To read my post from September about how my students approached Slice of Life writing, click here.

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.

Slice of life writing has few guidelines. Writing a slice is largely a way for students to merge narrative writing with autobiography. Writing slices helps students, especially those who don’t enjoy writing, experience some success within the confines of an essay that runs around 250 words.

Here are the main guidelines that I use when introducing high school students to slice of life writing:

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If your students need a word count,

ask them to shoot for 250-300 words.

I also provide mentor texts so students can read examples of the moments that slice of life writing is intended to document. Because this is my first year teaching at the high school level, I didn’t have any examples written by secondary students; all my examples were written by students at my previous middle school position.

And let’s face it, middle school is middle school.

High school students definitely have more mature concerns, goals, and preoccupations. After all, college and career is on the horizon, social relationships deepen, and many students have jobs.

As a result, I decided to share with you a slice written by Kenna, one of my high school juniors. Feel free to use this as an example when you introduce your own older students to slicing. I especially like this slice because it’s very visual and takes its own sweet time to record an activity that many, if not most, girls can identify with. Curling one’s hair is an oft-repeated task that, while mundane, can come alive when approached creatively.

By the way, this was a third draft that she completed during our Writer’s Workshop weeks last fall. It was nice to see her slice improve gradually over three drafts.

Golden Perfection by Kenna D.

“My hair is long, golden and shiny. It flows through my fingers like the flow of a summer breeze. My hair is flat, and fairly straight. It almost looks like it would be stiff…until you run your fingers through it, and until I decide to style it. When you see it, you can already imagine without touching it, that it is soft and silky like a fleece blanket. 

As the curling iron heats up on the bathroom counter, I look in the mirror to see how all of the lights are aiming down on my hair. They are making it shine like a star in the night sky.

I begin to curl my hair. The beautiful, golden caramel colors, heating up and twisting around and around the hot iron. As the iron gets close to my head, I can feel the heat, beaming off of the iron. It reminds me of the warmth of a fireplace on a cold, snowy winter morning. 

 Ten seconds, twenty seconds, I hold the golden swirl of hair around the iron, and wait for it to give the golden swirl that perfect spiral shape. Thirty seconds pass by and it’s time to release  the hair. I gently let it unravel itself from the iron. Almost as if it’s in slow motion, my hair falls. For a moment I wonder: Is it really going to curl? Will I have to redo this piece of hair?

Fortunately, the golden spiral coils. I stare back at myself in the mirror to see this beautiful, golden swirl of perfection.

I repeat this over and over again. Little pieces of hair at a time. Until every single piece of my hair is curled into a perfect, bouncy coil.

But wait, here’s the plot twist, I’m not a very “girly” girl. After all that work, I end up putting it up into a ponytail of golden, caramel swirls.”

Wasn’t that an awesome slice of life? For a link to a Google Doc file of this slice, click here: Golden Perfection Slice of Life.

I sat up in my chair as I read it, mesmerized by how Kenna zoomed in on a seemingly boring activity and made it come alive with sensory imagery. I loved seeing the “mind movie” as I read.

In addition, Kenna gave us a glimpse into her personality.

Who of us hasn’t put on our best clothes, or spent a lot of time on our hair, only to abandon it all to throw on a pair of jeans or opt for a ponytail instead?


Thanks for reading again this week! I’ll be adding more high school slice of life essays to my blog over the next few weeks. Follow my blog to catch those mentor texts!

The One-Word Summary

It’s one of the most specific and structured assignments my students do.

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Photo: Pixabay

One of my favorite activities to do in my language arts classes is to assign one-word summaries. These quick assignments are an easy way to encourage kids to think deeply about a text, including its theme or gist.

I assign one-word summaries for literature or informational text, for short articles or longer passages, or even whole books. I assigned a one-word summary to my eighth-graders about a week ago after we read an excerpt from 102 Minutes: The Unforgettable Story of the Fight to Survive Inside the Twin Towers by Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn. I also just assigned one on Thursday to my sixth-graders based on a short story we read from our textbook, “All Summer in a Day” by Ray Bradbury.  Some of my sixth-graders are still working on theirs and I’ll give them more time on Monday, Oct. 1 to finish it; this is the first of these exercises they’ve encountered in my classes.

The basic assignment is:

  1. Read a text.
  2. Choose one word to summarize it. (Sometimes, depending on the passage, I may have students choose their word from the text.)
  3. Write a paragraph or that explains or defends how the word summarizes the text.
  4. Here’s how I tweak the assignment to help students write more fully.

I also require that:

  • They quote the text directly by requiring that one sentence start “According to the text/article/story,… followed by the direct quote.”
  • They interpret the quote and how it summarizes by following the direct quote with a sentence that starts “In other words, …”. This prompts them to rephrase the quote, explaining it in their own words and possibly coming up with additional ideas to support their summary.
  • Adding a sentence or two after their “In other words,” sentence with more discussion of the quote and how it supports their one word.
  • They elaborate by adding somewhere in their paragraph a sentence that starts “For example, …”.
  • They use complex sentences by starting one sentence with a subordinating of their choice. I have a chart on the wall in my classroom that lists the most common ones: although, while, when, until, because, if, since. (Sometimes we call these subordinating conjunctions by the acronym AWUBIS words.)
  • Last week, to change things up with my eighth graders, I had one student choose one AWUBIS word that they would all use, and I asked them to start their summary with this word. The chosen word was “If.” Starting a sentence with “If” will automatically create a nice, flowing complex sentence. (Just to make sure they can write one of these, I usually have a few students rattle me off an example; if someone has trouble, I do some explaining and write an example on the whiteboard.)
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Here’s the rubric score sheet that kids follow along on as their friends read their one-word summaries.

Sometimes, I’ve wondered whether having all these requirements seems a little excessive, so I will occasionally, depending on the text, adjust the rubric to fit the text or a student’s ability level. I used to feel also that I was forcing a formula into my students’ writing. However, I don’t worry about that anymore, especially when I know I offer them plenty of creative writing activities and projects

Another reason I don’t worry about forcing a formulaic style of writing onto my students is because I’ve done some reading about the benefits of providing kids with specific tools for analytical writing. I added the “ According to,” and “For example,” sentence starters based on tips outlined in The Writing Revolution: A Guide to Advancing Thinking Through Writing in All Subjects and Grades by Judith Hochman, Natalie Wexler, and Doug Lemov.

I learned about this curriculum when I read “How Self-Expression Damaged My Students”  in The Atlantic magazine, which included details about the changes in writing instruction practiced at New Dorp High School in New York City. I figured if it worked there, I should try it here. This is a super compelling article to read that stresses the importance of providing students with the exact words they’ll need to use to craft complete, fleshed-out ideas.

The idea to encourage kids to rephrase evidence with an “In other words,” sentence came directly from the book They Say, I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing by Cathy Birkenstein, Gerald Graff, and Tony Craine, and Cyndy Maxwell. One chapter in this book discusses how to “interpret” texts with the goal of not being a “hit and run” quoter, but instead to stay on the scene of the quote and explore it, discuss it, and relate it to the point of the paragraph.

About every other time my students write one-word summaries, I’ll have them present these to the class. I’ve found it works best to let them know from the beginning that they’ll eventually be presenting these in class. They try a little harder that way.

To start with, I make a rubric score sheet that the listening students fill out. The sheet is customized for the specific summary we’ve written, since I change up the requirements from one summary to the next.

As students read their summaries out loud at a podium at the front of the class, those listening really have to pay close attention. First, they must write down the chosen one word. Then when they hear the “According to,…” sentence, they check it off. When they hear the “For example,” or “In other words,” sentences, they check those off, too. I also have them rate the summary on its “clarity”, i.e. how easy it was to understand and follow.

I also ask presenters to make eye contact and use a hand gesture or two or to step out from behind the podium. Some kids will go out of their way to make googly-eyed contact  with me or a friend in the audience. I don’t mind that. It’s all part of learning to be comfortable up in front of a crowd.

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After they present, kids get candy, a Brave Buck, and stickers.

Presenting our one-word summaries usually ends up being a fun activity (I usually schedule it for a Friday), even though kids may be a little nervous at first. I don’t feel comfortable up in front of big crowds, either, so I understand how they may feel. I’ll even stand up next to a student if it helps them. I don’t want this to be an overly stressful part of the assignment.

And then when they’re done presenting their summary, if they’ve included all of the requirements in the rubric, or at least made a good, honest effort to, they receive lots of fabulous merchandise: three Brave Bucks (our school’s incentive coupon they can spend in the “store” on Fridays), a piece of candy, and a sticker of their choice from the stockpile in my desk.

Oh, one other thing: they also get to draw the next number for the next presenter… the next lucky member of our studio audience. The rubric score sheet has enough spaces for everyone, but drawing names makes it more fun. We applaud after each person speaks because everyone at least tried.

The one-word summary, while being one of the most specific and structured assignments we do, is also one of the most fun. I honestly believe it has helped my students think more deeply, better use and interpret the evidence they choose from their texts, and write more fully.


Thanks for reading! Let me know if you’ve tried this activity with your class and what “tweaks” you’ve made to make it work for you and your students. Have a great week!

Here’s what happened when I submitted a student’s writing to a hunting magazine

 

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Photo by Hunter Bryant on Unsplash

 

Last fall, one of my seventh-grade students wrote an “Expert Advice” article, one of ten assignments in our Writer’s Workshop project list. My students seemed to like this particular assignment. They chose a topic they were familiar with and then wrote a how-to article. “Jared” wrote an article called “Four Ways Novice Hunters Can Avoid Hunting Accidents.” He wrote a first draft, received feedback from another student, and then submitted a second draft to me.

Right away, I could tell it might be a piece I could submit on his behalf to a magazine, print or online. I knew Jared had a publishable story because of the way he tackled the assignment. First, he wrote his article in steps, which always makes for a reader-friendly piece. Second, Jared’s advice indicated that, as an avid hunter, he wrote from experience and possessed some natural expertise. In addition, his writing contained his own voice with tips such as, “Hunting on legal ground is also an important law to follow. By hunting on legal ground, or government property, you can avoid trespassing and a visit from the sheriff.” I knew that, with a few more rounds of revisions and edits, Jared would have an article ready to send out.

So the next morning during my plan time,  I googled “deer hunting magazines youth” to see what I could find. A few results popped up. I visited a couple and found one in particular that seemed promising. I read what kinds of articles they typically publish and found the name of the editor. I also discovered that the magazine had a distribution of 57,000 copies!

After talking to Jared’s mother for her approval, I dashed off a short email to the editor asking if he would be interested in reviewing the article after Jared finished it. Here’s my email:

Dear (Editor’s Name):

Good morning! I’m an English teacher in Missouri and I have a student who is working on a very good how-to article for novice or  first-time hunters. I told him I would inquire about any publishing opportunities he may wish to pursue.

Does your magazine ever publish student-written articles? Would this how-to type of article be a fit for your publication? If not, do you have any advice on where he might send his piece when it is finished?

Thanks for your time in thinking about this. I appreciate it.

Marilyn Yung, Teacher

Within three hours, the editor responded. (His quick response surprised me, by the way, because in my own writing experience, editors usually require from a few days to a week or two to respond.)

The editor’s reply: Yes, he would be interested in seeing the article when Jared had it ready. He explained that while the advice may not be useful to many of the magazine’s readers, the fact that the writer is a student may be the interesting part. He added that even if it didn’t work for the print publication, it could likely be used for the website. He ended with, “Either way, I’d like to take a look and see. We are trying to provide more how-to info for beginners, and we are also interested in encouraging young hunters and writers!”

So after two or three more revisions, we emailed the final draft just before the holiday break. I’ll let you know when I hear the final word from the editor about Jared’s article. Whether it is accepted for publication or not, it’s my hope Jared has learned he has solid potential as a writer for the world beyond the school walls.


Thanks for reading! If you found this post useful, click “like” so more teachers will find it. Follow this blog for more articles and stories about teaching middle school ELA. Check out my sister blog for other writing.