Slicing Through the School Year

My first Slice of Life for the TWT writing community was a huge leap of faith – would readers find it interesting? would it be worthy of comments? did I make sure to check for grammar, punctuation, usage so that it made sense? At the click of “publish” I realized that I was doing something new with my writing life – I was lifting the words off the pages of my writing notebook and crafting something entirely new: I was writing for an audience.  Within an hour, I had my first comment – Stacey’s, and, with  those words of welcome and support, I never looked back. I slice every Tuesday (unless I am sick, or on holiday), and I jump right into the March daily SOL challenge (even if, midway through, I begin to question my writing stamina and resolve).  Slicing every Tuesday has, without question, benefitted me as a writer.

One summer three years ago, as I sat at my desk sketching out our writing year, I began thinking about how wonderful it would be if I could bring the Slice of Life writing experience into my classroom – what if we, as a sixth grade writing community, slice once as week as well?  Our school website includes access to classroom blogging through Blogger, and it would be easy to set up a weekly discussion board, complete with posts and comments.  I could also merge my morning and afternoon classes so that we could slice as a sixth grade class: Room 202, a writing community!  Yes, it would be one more homework assignment. Yes, it would also be an assignment that would be time consuming: write the post, comment on others’ posts – this does take time. But, I felt in my heart that it was worth the effort. And so we began slicing in Room 202, and we have never looked back.

So, somewhere at the end of the second week of school, when we have learned our routines, labeled our notebooks, and begun learning how to keep and use and practice with our writer’s notebooks, I launch our Friday Slice of Life Challenge this way:

  • a first minilesson to articulate what it is and how to use our notebooks to collect ideas, sketch and craft slices

slice of life chart 1

  • and, immediately after, a mini lesson to describe the purpose and the format of the comments to follow.  Each student must post by Friday and is responsible for leaving at least 5 comments on any selection of slices they choose by Sunday.  On Monday we vote on two slices (one from my morning class, one from my afternoon class) that we consider to be standout slices,  we discuss why, and we share what we learned from these slicers.

slice of life chart 2

I’ll be honest and admit that very few students greet this new assignment with delight and enthusiasm – they focus, of course, on the work involved.  Every week? they ask. Five comments? they ask, skeptically. But, what if my life is boring and I can’t think of anything to slice about? they wonder.  And I remain firm: Yup, once a week, five comments, and we start next week – look for the opening post on Monday.  Just as the complaining reaches a certain level of noise and general ruckus, I share some slices from past years, and some of the slices I’ve written for our TWT community.

Immediately, my kids begin to see that this is actually doable – the slices are not long, they are actually fun to read, they may even be, actually, fun to write.  We meet in small groups to look over our writing entries, our writing lists, our heart maps, and our timelines: all the work we’ve been up to in writing workshop thus far.  I make sure that every student has at least two ideas they feel comfortable about slicing about sometime the following week, and then we’re off.

As with anything else, we begin cautiously and gain in writing confidence. I know that my students feel the same trepidation I felt when I first began slicing; sixth graders are a self conscious group, they want to fit in, to feel accepted, to belong.  But, with each week of writing, of sharing and commenting and celebrating, they grow stronger as writers and we grow closer as a writing community.  We learn things about each others’ lives that we may never have otherwise known: the death of a beloved grandparent, the loss of a pet, a sibling going away to college, an uncle or aunt returning from a tour of duty in Afghanistan.   We learn that some of us can create a vivid sense of place, and others can write the funniest laugh-out-loud scenes, we discover what it feels like to be cut from the team, to have a best friend suddenly drop you, to have no one to sit with at lunch. We learn that slices need pacing, dialogue,titles, a point. We learn  that a supportive comment can make a world of difference, and that part of being a writing community is to value each of our contributions as a writer.

We learn that yes, it is satisfying to collect as many comments as possible, but that it is really even more satisfying to know that you are being generous in your comments as well – the point of a writing community is to share, to celebrate each others’ efforts, to take the time to make sure everyone is included.  Everyone deserves the satisfaction of knowing that someone read their slice and had something kind to say.

Here are some examples of what our slicing week looks like:

Drew: I watch T.V. in the basement when I smell bacon and eggs fill the air. My mouth starts watering as I slowly stand up, I walk like I’m hypnotized upstairs. I get to the top of the stairs and I see the greasy bacon on the stove. Toast pops out of the toaster and the eggs sizzle. My whole family smells it and they all wake up. We sit at the table staring at my dad waiting for him to turn around and bring the food over. He picks up a cooked piece of bacon and tortures us by eating slowly and chewing loudly.

Then, he turns the stove off takes everything off the pans, puts them on separate plates and brings the food over. Our stomachs grumble as our eyes follow the plates. He puts them on the table and we all dig in like we haven’t eaten in days. Our food is gone in about two minutes as the greasy bacon and egg sandwich slowly goes away in our mouths.

  • N: Nice job! You were very descriptive. Now I want bacon.
  • W: I like the descriptive words you used. When you said my mouth starts watering you really pulled me in.
  • T: mmm…i can smell the bacon!
  • L: Nice job! Very descriptive.
  • Mrs. Smith: Alright…now you’ve got everyone wanting bacon and eggs and someone kind enough to wake up early to prepare it for us. This was a good piece of writing – especially the way you described everyone drawn like magnets to the kitchen…and bacon. My only advice – I would change “greasy” to something more like “crispy” or “delicious” or “golden” – it just makes the bacon more sound appetizing (which it is!).

Nick: There I was sitting at my desk when I heard my mother ask me to come onto the living room.

I walked into to the living room to find my mom standing by the front door with her shoes on.

“Are you going somewhere?” I asked.

After she went over the list I said wouldn’t do any of those things. Then I walked back to my desk.

About ½ hour later I was just finishing up my homework when the phone rang as I always do I reached for the phone on my desk and waited for The Caller ID Name to appear. When it finally showed up it read: “Unknown Caller.”

Just imagine what I was feeling at that very moment. I was about to answer the call when my mother’s voice rang in my head saying “don’t answer the phone if it is an unknown caller” so I decided I shouldn’t answer the phone. Even though I decided not to answer the phone I still was very curious to find out whose name was being hidden by “Unknown Caller.”

So I ran to the answering machine and waited as frozen as an ice cube for the answering machine to say something exciting like “Hello, this is The F.B.I. calling to see if you have seen any suspicious looking people walk by your house” or “Hello my name is ___ and you have just won the lottery!” But after waiting 5 seconds, (which felt like 5 minutes) the whole moment was ruined by “Hello this is your Local Congressman Bill calling to tell you that by having me alongside Governor Christie will help lower your taxes in New Jersey…”

  • R: Ha ha! All that waiting for nothing. I liked how you listed the possibilities of who could be calling.
  • J: I like how you described how you felt while waiting for the answering machine.
  • L: I really can’t stand that I never know who is calling! Great job!
  • Mrs. Smith: I loved this slice! You used emotions, humor and dialogue to really bring it alive. Nicely done!
  • G: this is really funny. I liked how you said “frozen like an ice cube”
  • E: what the heck?I love your slice a lot!why did you answer the phone though?

As a teacher, I know that this weekly slicing gives my kids the chance to practice writing for an audience in a very special way.  I can see the ways in which they learn from each other, in the writing experiments they take on with their weekly slices as they try this or that technique they have seen their classmates use.  I can see their confidence grow as their slices improve.  So, as their writing teacher, I know that slicing is an important part of my writing curriculum as a whole.

The added benefit, the part that came as a welcome surprise, is that slicing has also brought us closer as a class, it has become an important piece of the identity we have: Room 202, sixth graders, all for one and one for all. That sense of community spills over into our reading workshop lives and our social studies lives, as well: projects, book clubs, discussion groups, etc.

Best of all, my kids come to love slicing – the most welcome surprise of all! Here is what two of them said in their final slices last year:

Juliette:

I am really sad that this will be the last slice of life. I really enjoyed getting to write about some new exciting adventure that I have had the last week.

I loved reading everyone’s stories, their experiences they have had in the last week. I always thought they were so interesting, you could take a sneak peek into someone’s life, learn something new about them. I loved the fact that whenever someone wrote their story, it felt as though you were on that journey right with them.

Not only am I sad that this will be our last slice of life, I am sad that school is coming to a close. I really enjoyed being in this Block class, it will surely be the highlight of my 6th grade year. In Block, we would always have a good time. Learning was turned into fun, whether it being sharing our photo essay about a new topic to just getting to learn and grow as historians, poets, writers, readers, etc. I know that I felt Block allowed us to become close almost like a family. It also allowed us to learn more about each other as classmates.

From Christmas parties to just having a discussion as a class, Block was always fun. Just getting to walk into the classroom puts a smile on my face. I love learning about new topics in The Civil War and in Slavery and in everything else was fascinating.

I would just like to say that I will remember Block always. Walking into the classroom set a new adventure every day, it was fun, a great experience, and most of all, something I will remember in my heart always

Ellen :

Searching through topics to write about for slice of life each week was a relatively easy task, but now that the last slice of life is upon us I found it extremely difficult to find a topic special enough to end on. Should I write about getting my braces on Thursday? No. Should I write about ending school? No. Then I got the perfect idea, I could write a slice of life about slices of life’s. I was all set and ready to write my slice of life about slices of life’s but before I could start to write it I had to take a trip down memory lane.

As I looked through my old slices of life’s, I discovered memories that seemed such a long time ago. I read my slices about my grandparent’s anniversary, a tree falling down, getting teeth pulled, and many more memories throughout my 6th grade year. I may not enjoyed writing slices of life’s sometimes but I’m grateful we have gotten the chance to do slices of life’s because we have been making one big scrapbook that holds all our memories of our 6th grade year so we never forget them.

Looking back at all my writing, I see how I’ve improved as a writer from my first slice to my last slice throughout the year. Slices of life have also let me express my feelings on certain topics and see how my fellow classmates thought of them.

As I started nearing this last paragraph in this last slice I could feel myself getting emotional. Slices of life’s have been our 6th grade staple in Mrs. Smith’s class that has followed us each week. After each of our individual exciting weeks we would all want to share our stories with each other, but with no more slice of life it’s like a huge chunk of our week is missing. After I wrote the last sentence of this slice, I pasted it on the website, pressed the “comment” button, and posted my last slice of life ever.

And here is what I blogged about as I reflected upon SOL in our classroom:

“My kids will not slice next year, or the year after.  But they will write.  And they will have all their slices from their sixth grade year to read over (I make each of them a booklet of their slices) to dip into for ideas and memories.  They know now that writing is a habit one can grow to love – that is how they came to feel about slicing. And they know that  writing is also something that requires practice – just like soccer and lacrosse and dance.  The more they sliced, the better those bits of  writing became.  What seemed impossible at the beginning of the year, became a well loved habit.  I know that this is what they will take away from our year of slicing, this is why we do this every year in 202… in spite of all those doubts (teacher and student) when the year begins.”

jelly belliesSome nitty-gritty items you may be wondering about:

  • My students usually write their slices in a Word document and then past their entries onto the website. This allows them to have a hard copy just in case something goes awry.
  • Yes, I read and comment on every single slice – it’s part of the modeling they need to make this a meaningful exercise.
  • Yes, this is a graded assignment (of course!). I keep a simple spreadsheet tally for the marking period: check plus – every slice posted, five or more comments left (A)/ check – almost every slice posted, five comments left (B)/check minus – missing slices, missing comments. At the end of the marking period, I enter that grade.
  • At the end of the year, I print out the slices and make a booklet for each student of their own SOLs – a memento of our slicing year.
  • Our weekly winners (you cannot win two weeks in a row) are awarded a bag of Jelly Bellies…sweet success!

Tara Smith teaches sixth grade in Glen Rock, New Jersey. When she is not teaching, she can most often be found reading or writing…and when she is not doing either she is most likely on the hunt for new books to read. Tara blogs about her experiences teaching reading workshop, writing workshop and social studies at A Teaching Life.