Flash drafting our way to a “best first draft”.

We are trying something new in our memoir unit this year: flash drafting our way to a “best first draft”.  The main reason for this is that for as long as I’ve taught memoir, I’ve always had a handful of students who would reach the midpoint of their first draft and then just stall.  Our conferences would begin with big sighs and  something like this:

“I think I want to switch my idea – this just doesn’t feel memoir-y now.”

or:

“I don’t know Mrs. Smith – this felt memoirish when I was planning and sketching and thinking and stuff…but not any more.  I kinda want to start again.”

And then we would both glance at all the writing that had been done, think about all the new writing ahead, and share a common sense of despair. After all that careful mentor text work, planning and  rehearsal, it seemed just plain wrong to start all over again.

So, this year  I planned something different: we would flash draft three strong ideas before committing to one memoir-worthy idea.  Think of it, I told my kids,  as test driving three different cars before settling on the one you are ready to drive off the lot with, the one you are ready to attach your vanity plate to.  They were all in.

By the time we had arrived at this point, my students had lists of memoir worthy ideas; these had been gleaned from our mentor text work and from sharing time in our writers’ circles, where we bounced ideas off of one another in an effort to jog our memories.  They had further winnowed these lists down to three strong ideas, each of which we would flash draft over the course of three days.  We were ready to get going.

In a further effort to make the most of each flash draft, I had my students craft purpose statements and a quick writing plan before beginning “fast and furious writing” (as this process is described in the Units of Study):

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At the end of the third day, we gathered together to ask the big question: were we ready to commit to one of these ideas? now that we’d had a chance to “test drive  each of our top three”, were we more sure of the best choice?  Here’s what my kids had to say:

  • it wasn’t stop and go and so I was able to get all my ideas down in one sitting – that was cool
  • I felt like I was just testing out my ideas, so I wasn’t so stressed about getting it right, just getting it done
  • I liked that we had just one period to work – it felt great to work from start to finish in one go
  • now that I had a chance to try out my “top three”, I feel really sure about the one I really want to write

Last Thursday and Friday, while I was off learning at NCTE, my students began working on their “best first drafts”.   We began conferring on Monday and Tuesday, and I was able to see whether this “something new” was yielding results.  Here’s what went well:

  • every student was happy with their topic choice, and confident that theirs was truly a memoir worthy moment
  • the flash draft served as a reference point – “when I felt stuck, I could take a peek at what I’d written before and that got me going again”

Evan’s work is a great example of how my kids were able to use the flash draft as a springboard for more powerful and intentional writing work:

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But…here’s what went really wrong: some students simply copied their flash drafts and called it a day. That was certainly not the plan!   So, it was back to the drawing board for me: a mini lesson and clear directions about how not to use flash drafts when composing those best first drafts.

All in all, this was a much-improved way  to move along in our memoir unit of study.  No more getting stuck in the depths of “unmemoirish” drafts!