For the last few weeks, I have been teaching my 8th graders how to write a memoir that reveals something about growing up. I ask the students to recall a time when they were all by themselves for longer than usual. I also ask them to recall a time when they felt exceedingly happy, a time they felt as if their heart was breaking, a time with a mom or dad or sibling or grandparent that they will never forget.
I instruct the students to choose a topic and then write freely for seven minutes, urging them to keep their pencils moving. I make a show of timing it with the clock on the wall, and as the second hand approaches the 12, I issue the command to start writing with the confidence of a magician who asks you to reach into your pocket to pull out the quarter that has disappeared from his hand.
"Go," I say, and the students promptly comply. If one hesitates in front of a blank page I'll approach whisper quietly, "Just start writing anything at all." Before the first minute is up, all pencils are moving, and everyone is concentrating. Even the most reluctant of writers will soon have a word, then a sentence, and then a lot of sentences.
As I walk around the room, the busy, scrawling students have no idea how elated I am to be reminded that every student has a story to tell. When I ask them to put their pencils down, many don't want to stop. Table partners read to each other, and more than a few volunteer to share what they've written with the whole class. Some of these early drafts will become insightful stories about bonding with a new baby sibling, overcoming anxiety, discovering a new passion.
What strikes me about this writing unit today is how effective it is. In a time when, like a dog chasing its tail, education lurches and nips tirelessly at ideas like " reform" and " innovation," writing instruction remains a magically simple way to help young people tell their own stories, a vital process that begins with nothing more than some pencils and paper, and seven minutes on the clock.