From Babylon to New Hampshire: Tiny Writing Lives Large


Today’s guest post is from Elizabeth Oosterheert (@oosterheerte). Elizabeth currently teaches middle school language arts and directs the 8th Grade Theatre Troupe at Pella Christian Grade School in Pella, Iowa. She enjoys leading sectionals on young adult literature and writing workshop at the Iowa Reading Conference and the Heartland Teacher Convention. Her passions are writing beside students and encouraging students to use their gifts on stage.

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“Scientists seem to think there are no living beings up there…just chalk, or fire.”

Thornton Wilder

Memories & Miracles: An Autobiographical Journey

Reading Rebekah’s post about tiny writing and the necessity of publication for young writers at the end of October  inspired me to adapt some of her ideas for my eighth grade writing workshop. My students and I are engaged in a year-long autobiographical writing project that culminates in the publication of a class book featuring student photos and compositions. This year, our autobiography is entitled “Memories and Miracles,” a reference to our 8th Grade Theatre Troupe production of The Secret Garden. The goals of the autobiography are to engage each student in writing that is personally meaningful and fulfilling to him or her, and to encourage student growth as speakers, writers and thinkers as they prepare for the rigor of high school.

The autobiography consists of the following introduction and five chapters:

    • Introduction: A Room Called Remember: -Students compose place narratives framed around favorite childhood memories.
    • Chapter One: Encyclopedia of an Extraordinary Life: Using mentor texts by Amy Krause Rosenthal and Langston Hughes, students compose their own “life encyclopedias” and personalize Hughes’ classic poem, “Theme for English B,” so that it reflects truths about their lives.
    • Chapter Two: Youth, Joy, Adventure: Students explore mentor poems and narratives that I’ve composed as well as texts by professional authors like Billy Collins, and compose narrative poetry, poems for two voices, and snapshot narratives that tell the stories of favorite possessions or photos. Students have agency as far as which pieces they choose to write.
    • Chapter Three: In Spite of Everything, the Stars: In this chapter, students explore multigenre writing, experiment with writing editorial/opinion pieces after reading mentor texts by Rick Reilly, and with thanks to Penny Kittle, consider the songs that “live in their hearts” and write narratives about their life songs or life soundtracks. Finally, students dabble in composing Spoken Word poetry using mentor texts by Phil Kaye and Sarah Kay.
    • Chapter Four: Words for the Journey: Students write commentary after reading several mentor pieces by Mitch Albom, Leonard Pitts, and others. Students frame a research based commentary around an essential question of their choice, and are able to reference a folder filled with professionally written commentaries.  I also write a commentary with them as they draft theirs.
    • Chapter Five: Leaving a Legacy:  Students compose a Legacy Speech that reflects their life journeys. Students decide whether they wish to focus on their spiritual or academic growth, or some other aspect of their lives.  These speeches are drafted during our workshop time during the last month of school, and are presented at a local church.  Students also design websites featuring their compositions and we publish a hardcover class book showcasing our writing and photos using Shutterfly.




Tiny Writing with a Big Impact…Letter to My Younger Self

Letter to My Younger Self was a very powerful mentor for the second chapter of the autobiography.  I searched The Player’s Tribune site and found that it was indeed a mentor text goldmine, filled with letters both nostalgic and witty, regretful and encouraging, written by everyone from Kobe Bryant to Dorothy Hamill.

From the standpoint of writing craft potential, the letter that resonated most with me (and one of the mentors that I shared with my students) was Dorothy Hamill’s letter entitled “Go to the Ice.”

What I loved about Hamill’s piece was that she powerfully used a repeating phrase, and short, vibrant sentences to captivate readers with the story of her unlikely Olympic triumph. My students and I imitated craft moves that Hamill made like these:

Samples of Mentor Text “Gold” from Dorothy Hamill:


  • “Go to the ice. It’s your final time, Dorothy. It’s time for your long program-your free skate. The last skate between you and an Olympic gold medal.”
  • “You accelerate forward. You spin. You glide…backward. Just like so. Go to the magic place. Go to the ice.”


Whenever my students are engaged in a writing study, I compose each piece alongside them, and for this mentor, I wrote a piece in front of my students, a reflection on fifteen plus years of loving middle school theatre, and grieving every year when the curtain falls on another production, and I eventually say goodbye to cast members as they leave my theatre troupe and my classroom to navigate the often stormy seas of high school.

When I write in front of my students, I choose a craft element that inspires me, and begin to draft a composition using Google Docs and my projector, unsure of what the outcome will be, but excited to share something that I am passionate about, like theatre. My students select a craft move that they would like to imitate from the mentor, (or return to a piece they started earlier in the week) and begin writing at their tables. After several minutes of writing (I will write for 7-10 minutes depending on how I think the students are doing), I will stop, share what I have written, and ask students to give me feedback on how they noticed that I used the mentor text in my writing. Following is a segment of my draft for this piece, entitled: “Go to the Stage.”

So, don’t be afraid. Go back to the stage. Climb the steps. You know that Imagination lives there–on the stage. Memories. All of the characters you love. You see a boy who would never be old flying back to the Never Land, Jim Hawkins on a quest for himself, for the treasures of Possibility. You see Robin Hood taking Maid Marian’s hand in Sherwood Forest. Friar Tuck is about to officiate their wedding. Beautiful.

Archibald Craven waits in his Paris flat. He’s longing for spring, for a second chance, for healing in his frozen heart. Love gives him the courage to go home. Spring is coming.

Go back! Go to that magic place.

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Much of workshop is also about conferencing. After writing for a few moments, I will often leave my piece up on the projector and circulate to each table, checking in with each student about how his or her process is going. Finally, I invite students to “throw a line” that they have written for the rest of us to hear, or to ask a question.  It is awesome when we can conclude a workshop time with the words of one another’s writing in our ears.

Letter to My Younger Self was especially poignant for the students and for me since the lights had just dimmed on our production of The Secret Garden.  After we read Hamill’s piece, students had a chance to read several other mentors of their choice that I shared with them from the site. My eighth grade authors wrote everything from poetry featuring repeating lines like Hamill’s letter, to heartrending reflections about surviving a parent’s divorce, and emerging on adversity’s other side with resilience and hope. Wow!screen-shot-2017-01-04-at-11-02-27-am

From “Dear Younger Me” by Emma

Live life as abundantly as you can right now.

Savor contentment.

Just hold on to it.

Because once it goes away,

It’s hard to get back.


Give your grandma hugs and kisses

Because she will be gone one day

And you will miss her

But that’s okay,

because that’s normal.


Keep your promises.

If you don’t, drama will

derail  you for a long time.


Sing when you get the chance, because

You’re future could be very different

if everyone knew

how much you actually

liked to sing…


Don’t ask for too much…

Don’t give up.


you will get there one day.

You will reach a  sweet, successful place…

Live life as abundantly as you can right now.

Humans of New York…

The other tiny writing study that I adapted for my class was Rebekah’s idea for using the Humans of New York blog and Facebook page as mentor texts. After weeks of deliberating about how to optimize this mentor for my students’ success, I began by sharing a video with them about how Humans of New York started, and we reflected on the complexity of life at the crossroads of eighth grade, suspended between elementary memories and high school dreams. I gave my students a list of guiding questions, asked them to select a favorite photo of themselves, and invited them to choose the questions on the list that mattered most to them (or write their own) and then compose a personal profile (a self interview of sorts) that would be published in our middle school hallway for students to read, and also on our school’s Facebook page. The list included questions such as:

  • What is your greatest treasure?
  • What three words would you use to describe your best qualities?
  • Who is your most significant mentor? What excites you the most about the second semester of eighth grade, and moving on to high school?

We named our endeavor Humans of the PCGS Class of 2017. I asked students to limit their writing to a few well-crafted sentences. Again, I wrote a mentor text,  as well as sharing many stories with them from the Humans of New York blog. The result? Profiles that moved me by turns to tears or laughter. We shared favorite elements from our profiles during a class writing celebration, and the finished reflections will be published beginning in January.

Humans of PCGS 8th Grade

By Kayla


Question: What is your greatest treasure?

My Answer:

I think that my greatest treasure is childhood. In a way, your childhood is like the foundation of what you will become. I think I had the greatest childhood that any kid could ever desire.

My early years were full of laughter, fun, and imagination. The only thing to worry about was what shoes to wear, and which clothes were the comfiest. I lived in the small town of Prairie City, the halfway mark between Pella and Des Moines. I treasure this town because it holds so many memories for me….

Goodbye, Grover’s Corners…

A third writing study that my students will embark on in January will be a creative response to the text that we will be studying in our literature workshop, Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize winning classic, Our Town. Many of my students will join the journey to the fictional town of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, feeling like seasoned thespians after a fall jaunt in 8th Grade Theatre Troupe, yet we still pause to consider the power of all of the nonverbal elements of drama such as gesture, positioning on stage, facial expression and costuming before we actually begin reading the play, and I also give my students sixty second scenes to perform where they are given lines but no stage directions. This omission means that it is entirely up to them to decide what is transpiring in their scene, and how to interpret each line. Is their character frustrated or relieved? Arrogant, or humble? How will they utilize nonverbal elements to communicate the mood?  

Then, we read an adaptation that I wrote of Wilder’s one-act play Pullman Car Hiawatha. This is a fitting introduction to Our Town since it explores similar themes such as the nature of the soul and the passage of time in a snow globe sized drama. Next,  we immerse ourselves in small town life at the turn of the twentieth century in Our Town  by  reading the play aloud together and watching the 1989 Lincoln Center production as a visual text, starring a very young Eric Stoltz and Penelope Ann Miller as the star-crossed lovers. We track our wonderings and questions  in journals called Take Three, write poetry about what we would do if we could live favorite moments a second time,  inspired by a mentor poem by Nadine Stair entitled “If I Had My Life to Live Over Again,”  and finally, we take a “page” from Thornton Wilder’s book after joining George in the windy hilltop cemetery in Act III, to consider what it would be like to write a three-minute play for three people. Some of the students include these compositions in their autobiographies, since they reflect big questions they are asking as eighth graders.

By the age of sixteen, Wilder had written scores of short dramas for three characters, often scribbling them on any blank space available-even the inside cover of his algebra textbook. For me, a sentimentalist who loves happy endings, one of the most devastating aspects of Our Town is that George and Emily, who have loved one another from the tender age of twelve, have no opportunity for closure. There is no goodbye-only the rainy chorus of “Blessed Be the Tie That Binds” sung around Emily’s soggy grave. I invite my students to consider what they might change about the play if they could, and I write a three-minute play with them and invite several students to perform it for the class. The play that I wrote last year was called Chalk or Fire, and it was my version of what George would say to Emily if he could speak to her one last time. I am always amazed by the depth and clarity of my eighth graders’ thinking at the end of Our Town, and by how much they begin to own Wilder’s voice as a writer and use it to enhance their own.

To craft their own three-minute plays, students use noticings from their journals and our large group discussions, such as:


  • Wilder uses the omniscient Stage Manager’s character to “set the scene”for each act, to reflect on the past, and sometimes to reveal the future.
  • Wilder writes spare but beautiful prose that reflects the value and brevity of life.
  • Wilder relies on the characters to use both their voices and nonverbal elements like blocking and gesture to communicate what is happening in a scene, since few props are used in Pullman Car Hiawatha or Our Town.
  • Playwrights use punctuation such as colons and parentheses uniquely, and often capitalize or italicize words for emphasis.


These noticings help students to make decisions about characters and situations to include as they frame their plays. Finished plays are performed for our eighth grade class and our second grade “reading buddies.”


It’s incredible how much students can accomplish in just a few pages after immersing themselves in a meaningful text. Truly, there  is no limit to what young writers can do. Even the tiniest writing can speak volumes. 

How do you use tiny writing in your classroom? How have you seen tiny writing assignments add up to bigger projects for students? Comment below, find us on Facebook, or Tweet Elizabeth @oosterheerte. 


  1. This is amazing, I know Elizabeth personally as a wonderful friend and as a Teacher of 2 of my children. She is the most amazing writer I personally know, as well as her gift to inspire and encourage her students is so fantastic, they love her classes and love to write with her encouragement. She brings out their heart and soul in their writing.

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