Tuesday, January 25, 2011

This Is How You Flash

Which is, of course, a far preferable title to "Flashing With Teenagers", which was what this post wanted to be called. And just to make this crystal clear, I am talking about flash writing, not any sort of sick, mind-in-the-gutter stuff.

Okay, so here's what happened.

I was late to work today. Let me just say that, despite my disorganizational tendencies, I am fairly compulsive about time. I deplore being late for a variety of reasons, most noteworthy that it conveys a sense of irresponsibility, deserved or not (I know a lot of really responsible people that are often late). Since my much maligned desk at work, for example, sends a certain message, I try to counter that with being early. Always.

I think most people are aware that the northeastern United States is taking quite a hit from Mother Nature this year. On a more personal note, I've been trying to contend with the added stress of a newly minted driver, so the do-I-let-her-drive-today-or-don't-I has been the litany in my mind for the past week or so.

Anyway, we'd decided that Addie would be able to drive herself to school. We looked out the window at the roads and, while there was some snow on the roads, there were clear track marks that went down to bare pavement. If I'm driving Addie to school, I have to leave at six, but I can leave half an hour later if she drives herself. At 5:45, the roads looked doable, so I took my time drinking a cup of coffee and watching the news and so on.

It's amazing how much snow can fall in half an hour.

When I left to go to work at 6:20 or so, I quickly realized just how treacherous the roads were. When I saw three cars go off the road in the space of five minutes, I called Addie and said I was turning around and would be bringing her to school.

I'm not going to perpetuate my recent "Wow, the driving is HORRIBLE" theme I've been focused on lately. Suffice it to say that I didn't get to work until fifteen minutes after my first period class started.

And, since I assumed there were other teachers with a similar problem, I didn't stop to make photocopies of what I'd be teaching this morning because I was in a rush to get to my classroom and relieve whoever had been covering my class. It occurred to me as I was walking into the building that there was no way I'd be able to pull off my intended lesson for the day ... so I decided to improvise.

By my second class of the day, I'd figured out how to make it look like I'd actually intended to teach flash writing today.

I wrote on the whiteboard: YOUR SNOW STORY and explained that, when I started the clock running, they would have ten minutes to write a snow story (in other words, a memorable experience that they'd had concerning snow). I didn't let them ask a lot of questions, because in a class of twenty-five adolescents, that's a Pandora's Box you don't want to open.

"Just think for a minute about a specific memory that concerns snow," I said, "And start writing when I say, 'Go'."

Now, one of the things that I do as a teacher when I give most assignments, particularly a writing assignment, is to sit at the student tables and write with the kids. I tell them it's so that I can relate to what I'm asking them to do, but the truth is that I just seize any opportunity to write.

And, of course, what I wrote about was Addie's car debacle last night.

When the ten minutes were up, the kids weren't thrilled with me. At least half of them hadn't gotten to finish their story--"I was just getting to the good part!" one student complained.

"Me, too," I said, and read my flash writing piece aloud to them.

And there was a cacophony of, "So then what happened?" "Did you get her car out?" "Did she get in trouble?" "Did her car blow up?" "Did you fall down your driveway again?"

I sort of gave them that patented teacher, "So I'm guessing you got my point" look, refused to answer their questions (for the time being), and asked if anyone else would like to share their pieces.

It was a pretty amazing learning experience for these kids. They have a writer's notebook that they have eight minutes to write in at the beginning of most classes, but they know well in advance about the eight minutes. They watch the clock. They plan out about how much they can fit into the eight minute timeframe, because it is a known.

This was completely new to them.

Their biggest complaint? That they didn't get to finish ... I was sooooo excited ;)! I even had a couple of kids ask if they could take their pieces with them so they could finish.

This is what I think they learned:

1. Planned, expected, daily writing is good ... but it's easy. You know the parameters. Complacency is a high probability.

2. With flash writing, your pen has to be quick and your brain has to be quicker. In other words, you need to be planning ahead, visualizing your memory, even while you're writing.

3. When stories are unfinished, there are some really cool questions and predictions that can be made (we call that "rich dialogue" in the education world).

4. When you take a common experience such as "snow" (well, common to us New Hampshah folks), there are almost infinite connections to be made between what someone else wrote and something that has happened to you.

I don't think they're ready to go the whole-hog flash fiction yet, but now I have hope that it's not totally beyond them ... and that the lessons they learned from today's class will transfer over into the realm of creative writing.