GUEST BLOG POST: Weaving the “Slice of Life” Routine into Writing Workshop

Tara Smith teaches writing workshop, Language Arts and Social Studies to sixth graders at a middle school in suburban New Jersey.  Before she was a teacher, she was an editor first at the Cloverdale Press and then at Macmillan.  She blogs at “A Teaching Life” (at  http://tmsteach.blogspot.com/) and continues to slice away at Two Writing Teachers every Tuesday.

Two years ago, as I was wandering through the blogosphere in search of ideas to improve my writing workshop practices, I came to rest at “Two Writing Teachers.”  I could not believe my good fortune!  Stacey and Ruth wrote about the teaching of writing every single day of the week; their advice was informed, generous, inspirational, and (best of all) practical.  I read about writing notebooks, mini lessons, strategies, conferences… and then I came upon:

“Slice of Life Tuesdays” was Stacey and Ruth’s invitation for writing teachers to write – to live the life of writers, even if it’s just on Tuesdays, in the same way in which we were cultivating writers in our individual classrooms.  Several Tuesdays later, having read through and enjoyed many a slice, I tried my hand at “slicing” as well.  This was writing of a different sort than what went on in my own writer’s notebook for the following reasons:

  • I had to consider and establish the focus of my piece.  The technical definition of a slice of life (provided via Wikipedia on the TWT website) is that it “ presents a seemingly arbitrary sample of a character’s life, which often lacks a coherent plot, conflict, or ending and often has no exposition, conflict, or dénouement, with an open ending.”  But slicing requires a clear vision of what that arbitrary moment meant to the writer – why he or she decided that this was the slice to develop, to write.
  • The format called for a short piece of writing, not the long stream of consciousness type that I often practice in my own notebook.  Writing like this really means making  every word choice and punctuation a well-considered one. For all its appearance of spontaneity, planning and thought were very much required.
  • I was writing for an audience.  People I did not know and have not met will be perusing this slice, perhaps even having something to say about it.

I took the plunge and never looked back.  I even participated in the March Challenge of slicing every day – a true writer’s challenge, requiring endurance and the willingness to sit down in front of the computer screen and summon up something to slice about no matter how boring the day or week had been.   I continued to keep my own writer’s notebook, but I really looked forward to participating in the slicing community.  And the community itself was becoming something more and more “known” to me.  Names began to take on a familiarity, I could see common strands of thought and experience, and I began to “hear” the individual voice of these familiar names.  We were truly a community of writers – just like my sixth graders in our writing workshop.  Most importantly to me as a writer, I began to notice that the very practice of slicing had improved my own writing.  The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to bring this experience into my classroom.  I wanted to share my own discoveries as a writer with my students.

I began slowly.  In our middle school, writing workshop is taught as a semester class – my morning class has the first part of the year, my afternoon class the second.  Within that semester time frame, we cycle through genre studies in memoir, the persuasive essay, feature articles, and the short story.  Although my kids make good use of their writer’s notebooks all year, our limited time together makes it difficult  to take on yet another “writing assignment.”  So, year before last,  I began small.

I introduced the idea of a “Slice of Life,” shared some of my own slices, and was thrilled to see that my kids were immediately intrigued by the very idea.  Everyone wanted to slice!  We began with a slice due once a week, in our writer’s notebook.  Two or three students would get a chance to share in our Friday writing circles, and many others would get a chance to “comment” (just as we did at TWT’s on Tuesdays).  We got off to a great start. I could see that my kids were putting thought into their slices, working on their word choices and experimenting with phrasing and shaping their pieces.

However, it became difficult to maintain that Friday commitment.  We were often in the midst of our genre writing, and we needed the time to meet for our minilessons, to confer, to revise, to publish and celebrate.  Our Slice of Life Fridays appeared and disappeared from our routines on and as-needed basis.  At the end of that school year, when we met to create our annual “I’ll take it!” and “I’ll leave it!” list of the highlights and lowlights of our school year, I found that the Slice of Life Friday appeared on the first column.  As I talked to my kids, I discovered they had truly enjoyed participating in these and wished we had done them more regularly (maybe even with snacks – these are sixth graders, of course!).

During my summer planning time, I tried to think through how I could go about slicing on a regular basis with my kids.  I wanted to make sure that it was a meaningful endeavor, and that the writing community aspect of slicing could be preserved.   Halfway through the summer, our district adopted a new web page format, one that came with a blogging platform (Blogster).  Now our sixth grade “Slice of Life Fridays” could function in the same way as our TWT’s effort on Tuesdays, complete with comments!

This year, I introduced slicing much earlier – the third week of school.  We were deep into our Writing Notebooks by this time: examining and discussing fabulous mentor texts, gathering ideas for writing topics, experimenting with language and sentence structure.  The idea of slicing seemed very natural, and the kids were enthusiastic.  The guidelines were:

  • By Friday of the week your Slice of Life should be on  the blog page dedicated to this particular enterprise.  A copy of this, printed off the web page, should be in the Writer’s Notebook. (This way, every student had a hard copy of their slices – just in case they’d want to develop these into longer writing pieces.  These also functioned as wonderful tools for revision and conferring opportunities.)
  • By  Sunday of the week, each student must have left comments for at least three other students (I love reading comments on my own slices, and wanted my kids to have that writerly encouragement, too), no one’s slice could be left out – that was a class commitment.

We were off and running in no time, and this time around we were able to maintain our routine all year.  Here’s what I noticed about how slicing helped my kids as writers:

  1. They became more deliberate in their focus and use of language.
  2. They noticed the choices their fellow students made in their writing craft (“I loved the way you said…”, “That was so cool how you described…”, “I noticed how you used figurative language when…”) and then tried to experiment to improve their own writing.
  3. They paid attention to the world around them in the search for a “Slice of Life” moment.  Every so often there would be a “moment” in our classroom life, and it became a matter of course to hear someone turn to the class to say, “Now that’s a slice of life kind of moment!”
  4. They became much more conscious of mechanics – a spelling mistake, a misplaced punctuation mark, a run on and a fragment seem much more magnified when it’s on a public forum for the rest of your classmates to see.  They became careful – not easy for sixth graders!
  5. They took pleasure in each others’ writing; knowing how much they valued an encouraging comment, they made sure to encourage each other.  It made us even more of a writing community.

There is a wonderful video I found on the  Heinneman website sometime ago, in which Lucy Calkins talks about the power of writing communities.  In it she says: “ You need to create a community in your classroom that honors writing, because if you do that then writing is going to flourish.” Our weekly “Slice of Life” is very much a part of our writing community, and that it has, indeed, allowed writing to flourish. With a new school year just around the corner, I know that the “Slice of Life” will find its place in our writing workshop once again.  At the end of the year I’d like to present each student with a printed and bound copy of their years’ worth of slices, complete with comments.  I’d like to experiment with digital story telling with slices as well.  I’m sure my kids will have ideas of their own, and we will find ways to realize these.

What a good thing I took that writing plunge all those many Tuesdays ago!