Students in my freshman English class have incredible stories to tell, but they aren't always eager to share them.
A quick scan of the room makes it easy to understand why. One student, Johnny, is a talented artist but reads and writes well below grade level. His catchphrase is “Oh, writing isn’t my thing.” Johnny’s discussion partner David moved to the U.S. two years ago and has been developing his English language skills over time, but is repeating the course after struggling through it last year—and his confidence is shattered. Seated behind them is Sara, who has attended four schools in the past two years and hasn’t established relationships at our school yet. Her partner Jasmine, has a college-level vocabulary, but gets bored quickly and often tunes out.
Building a classroom community in which all students feel valued and respected, and creating a learning space where everyone feels safe openly sharing their stories will take a lot of work. We need low-stakes, shareable writing assignments to break the ice, so I use micro-writing exercises as often as possible.
Many different types of teachers use micro-writing in their classrooms to build a diverse range of skills and to check for understanding. A math teacher might ask students to describe the difference between mean and median in one sentence, while a science teacher might ask students observe a diagram of the water table and describe how it would look during a drought in less than 20 words. These assignments are efficient and have many academic benefits. They’re also easy to share, and when students start talking to one another about what they write, the value of micro-writing goes beyond academics, addressing social and emotional needs like self-perception and confidence.
In my classes, micro-writing assignments help students develop and strengthen their identities. In a room full of reluctant writers, I can sense tangible fear of a blank page even after I assure my students that their papers won’t be graded. Many of them believe they can’t write a “good” essay and they are hesitant to even try—but everyone can write one great sentence, and a sentence is where it all starts.
When I begin a micro-writing activity, I intentionally send signals to students that it’s not about quantity. Recently, I gave them sticky notes instead of notebook paper, assigned a 10-word limit and asked them to write a sentence about someone they consider a hero. We’re preparing to read Homer’s Odyssey, and I wanted them to consider the characteristics of modern-day heroes so that later, we can discuss how Odysseus measures up. A few minutes later I asked students to share their answers with a partner, then I read my own sentence aloud to the whole group and invited others to do the same.
After an awkward pause, a few kids began to share—all of them named their parents and none of them offered an explanation. Then Johnny, who is often distracted and struggles to finish his assignments, raised his hand.
“My grandma’s a hero because she does what my mom can’t: raise me.”
It was a powerful sentence and it resonated with his peers. A few classmates followed his lead, mentioning their own grandparents and siblings, and sharing details big and small about their personal heroes. It turned out that a lot of people in the room were being raised by someone other than their mom or dad.
The connections that emerge as students share their writing are key to building community. This particular moment provided evidence of Johnny’s ability to make meaningful connections, demonstrate vulnerability and show leadership in front of his peers, just by sharing what he wrote.
We had a good discussion that day, but what happened during that class period isn’t always how it goes. Sharing can take many different forms. Students can post their answers in assigned locations in the room and reveal their opinions and experiences without saying a word. They can also share their thoughts and comment on their peers’ work online using a bulletin board app like Padlet.
No matter the medium or sharing strategy, it’s essential that micro-writing assignments are quick, focused on improvement (not mastery) and easy to celebrate. Three of my favorites are:
- Six Word Compositions: There’s something magical about about telling a story in six words. It’s enough to ensure students say something meaningful, yet short enough that everyone can do it in a few minutes. I’m able to offer support to students who get stuck like reminding them that they only need to make one point or helping them verbalize an answer and then transcribing it on paper. I can challenge my advanced students by carving out time for feedback and revisions so they can add more details or manipulate the tone.
This fall, my freshmen wrote six words about how their first day of school was going, then posted it on the board underneath a thumbs up, down or in the middle icon.
- 3-2-1s: Micro-writing doesn’t have to focus on sentences and paragraphs. Lists are great tools to help students summarize, analyze and evaluate information on the fly. As a warm-up, my class recently wrote down three things they didn’t do over the weekend, two people they trust and one difficult decision they’ve made at some point in their lives.
We circled up and shared one of the things we didn’t do over the weekend as a starting point to help check for understanding and students get comfortable speaking to an audience before diving into the more difficult topics (students had the option to “pass” when it got to more personal elements of the list).
- Sentence Starters: Sometimes finishing someone else’s sentence is easier than starting your own. Providing a sentence starter that students can end with their own words can jumpstart reluctant writers. One way I use them is to help students respond to dialogue between characters in a book. After we read a chapter, we revisit an important passage and respond to prompts like “This makes me think about ______________.”
Once students fill in the blank, they can share their responses silently by trading papers, reading their partner’s sentence and then finishing another prompt like “I like that my partner ________________.” We often trade papers several times and progress to more open-ended prompts It’s a great way to get them to re-read parts of a text and to respond to their classmate’s writing. When students get their own papers back they read the responses to their first sentence and often recognize common experiences and ideas.
Creating a classroom community where students feel comfortable enough to share their stories, even when they know their storytelling and writing skills are still developing, takes work. There isn’t one singular strategy that makes it happen, but micro-writing can play a large role, and not just from a social-emotional standpoint. It can lead to academic gains, too. What begins as a few words can grow into a few sentences, then a paragraph, and eventually multiple paragraphs or pages. And as each student's stamina and confidence grows, and they find their voice, I often see improvement in style, organization, tone, grammar and punctuation.
While I love to see this kind of growth in writing, the most powerful part of short, frequent, shareable micro-writing assignments is that they can support identity development, help all levels of writers build a sense of belonging and help teachers and students create strong classroom communities.