<img height="1" width="1" alt="" style="display:none" src="https://www.facebook.com/tr?id=940171109376247&amp;ev=PageView&amp;noscript=1">

Dedicated to Teachers


Flash Fiction: Fostering Agency and Connection in the Classroom

Red Center (12)

This week Kim Culbertson and Grant Faulkner talk about their new book 100-Word Stories: A Short Form for Expansive Writing.

Download a Sample Chapter

Can you write a 100 word story? Sounds easy, right? That's what the students in Kim Culbertson's high school English class thought at first. A 100 word story, or piece of flash fiction as it's otherwise known, is a small yet densely packed teaching tool and harder to write than you think. In today's discussion between Kim and her contributing co-author, Grant Faulkner, they delve into the origin of the book, their own writing journeys, and beautiful stories from the classroom where flash fiction is fostering deep concentration, agency, and feelings of personal success

 

Below is a transcript of this episode.

Edie:

Hi, this is Edie. Welcome back to the Heinemann Podcast. Can you write a 100 word story? Sounds easy, right? That's what the students in Kim Culbertson's High School English class thought at first. A 100 word story or piece of flash fiction as it's otherwise known, is a small yet densely packed teaching tool and harder to write than you think. In today's discussion between Kim and her contributing co-author, Grant Faulkner, they delve into the origin of the book, their own writing journeys, and beautiful stories from the classroom where flash fiction is fostering deep concentration, agency, and feelings of personal success. And by the way, I tried, but that intro was not exactly 100 words.

Grant Faulkner:

Kim, I'm so looking forward to our conversation today about essentially my favorite form of writing or one of my two favorite forms equivalent with the novel and the 100 word story. I really discovered 100 word stories, I think back in 2009 or 2010, and I became just addicted to them and I'm still addicted to them. I started this journal, 100 Word Story, and launched in 2011, and one of the most gratifying things about launching that, because I launched it mainly for writers and readers, but then I heard about teachers teaching 100 word stories and in ways that I didn't even imagine, and the people I didn't even imagine would be so receptive and eager to write 100 word stories. And then you are the, I don't know, superstar championship of teaching the 100 word story form. So when I met you and you told me about why it was...

All the reasons why it's so great to teach and just how it affects young writers and how they engage with it, all that stuff, I won't go on and on, I'll let you talk, but tell me about that initial discovery of the 100 word story form and how you used it in your classroom and then how it led to this wonderful book.

Kim Culbertson

Absolutely. Well, Grant, I have you to thank for my addiction to 100 word stories because apparently this addiction is contagious.

Grant Faulkner:

It is.

Kim:

I met Grant, I met you at a Bay Area Book Festival back when I think I was there with one of my Scholastic novels and we were both part of the Writer's Council for National Writing Project and we had a dinner and I was lucky enough to sit by you at that dinner and we ended up talking about young writers and the work I do with them. I've been teaching high school since 1997, so I've been working with teenagers for a long time. And my true love is teaching writing and I think that's unique in that a lot of English teachers teach through the lens of reading. And while I'm definitely a reading teacher as well, I really come into my English classrooms from a writer's perspective, and these stories just lit up my classroom when I started using them. And it's why I call them small, bright things.

That's how I refer to them to my students because we all have that moment as a teacher where we're quite aware no one has done the reading in the room. Maybe that one child has done the reading in the room. And I was having one of those days and I thought, I'll throw up a 100 word story, we'll all read it at the same time. We'll read it again, we'll annotate it, and then we'll talk about the way it's built and how all of its parts add up. And my students just lit up. They were so excited, they felt so successful at the end of that discussion. So I just kept doing that. I kept using them to partner with longer works we were working on. I used them alone as a way of just discussing literary devices. And my students kept coming back to me saying, "More 100 word stories, please."

Grant:

That's so great to hear. And we should define the 100 word story a little bit for listeners. It is exactly 100 words, and at least for me, because my initial forays to try to write 100 word stories I couldn't get to 100 words, I'd write 150 words because no one had actually really taught me how to write shorter. I'd always been taught how to write longer. So it's a whole different mindset and I think I'm more of an editor than a writer when I'm writing 100 words. But the crucial thing I learned from when I tried to take my 150 word stories down to 100 words, it's not that 100 is a magic number, it's the process of getting to 100. And it makes you pay attention to every word and every nuance of the sentence. And it's almost like writing poetry because you're looking at the juxtaposition of sentences.

And I remember actually, you once told me this, that one of the beauties of the form... Like I get often asked, can you write a whole story in 100 words? Can you write a beginning, middle, and end? Can you have a character that goes through character change? These kind of traditions of western storytelling. And I remember you telling me that you could put a whole 100 word story on a projector and everyone could look at it together and analyze it together, so I was wondering if you could speak a little bit more about that, like reading and writing as a group activity.

Kim:

Absolutely. It's one of my most favorite qualities in this form is its accessibility and its visibility. When you put it up on a screen and they can see the entire piece there, they have everything they need to look at in that moment, in that one screen. It became especially essential during COVID because I was spending all my time on Zoom with my students and a 100 word story just beautifully films a shared Zoom screen so my students could feel like they could see immediately what I was asking them to reply to. I also want to say that it gives them a window into the architecture of a story. By seeing it in that tiny form, they can look at that closely and see the character, the setting, the structure, the arc, the character change, the landing, that lovely first line, all the things we ask them to do when we're asking them to analyze a novel, when we ask them to analyze a short story. We can have them do all that same activity, all that same practice with the 100 word story in a way that they feel is accessible.

Grant:

It's a fascinating form because it's so accessible, and so anyone can really write a 100 word story and it technically doesn't take that long to do. At the same time, to write a really good 100 word story, I was on a panel with one of the flash masters, Molly Giles, and she said they take five minutes to write and five years to finish. So that might be an exaggeration, that's funny, but I'm curious how your students... I mean, because it is actually a wonderful way to teach revision, right? Because you can-

Kim:

Yes.

Grant:

... You can revise them. It doesn't take months to revise it like it does a novel. So you can deal with their revisions almost in real time.

Kim:

And they get time away from it, right? So we keep a portfolio of their stories and they can go back to, maybe it's December, they go back to September, look at their portfolio, look at the story they wrote in September, and then I can ask them, what do you think now? What do you think about the story now? And so it really also encourages them to understand that writing is a process. It's time with a piece. It's not just get it done and turn it in. You revisit it, you come back to it, you re-see it. Revision is obviously one of the things I'm most passionate about as a teacher because I'm also a writer. And so I work constantly with my students on understanding that this isn't about product, it's about process, and it's about thinking, writing is thinking, this is something else I say to them all the time. And a 100 word story lets you put your thinking into practice.

Grant:

That's beautiful.

Kim:

And that's been so useful. Well, it bleeds into their other pieces because they suddenly start asking themselves, do I need this? Is this where this should be? Because you teach them about asking those questions of the 100 word story and then later on they're writing a two-page paper or a three-page paper, or one of my students stopped by yesterday with a five-page paper she had to write for a college class she was taking, and she said, "It was so helpful because all I did is do that thing you tell me, which is paragraph by paragraph, what do I need in this paragraph? Step by step." Which I fed her on 100 word stories for like a year, this girl, and now she's applying that to longer pieces.

Grant:

I love hearing that when one genre influences other genres and the 100 word story is perfect for that in so many different ways. And since you've talked a little bit about how you structure your class, I was wondering how you structured this book, what you wanted to impart and how and why it's useful for teachers, all that kind of stuff.

Kim:

Well, I love origin stories. So I want to talk for a minute about the origin story of this book because I will never forget sitting in my car. My daughter was in a piano lesson. I spent a lot of time doing work in my car when my daughter was in high school because I drove her to water polo, I drove her to piano. And I called you and I said, "Hey, Grant, is there a book out there that student writers practicing this form, that also gives teachers a way to access this form through lessons and the structure of the different literary devices, and that maybe also includes some professional writers who are practicing this form? Because I would love the idea of student writers side by side with professional writers in the same book." And you said, "Kim, you should write that book."

Grant:

Did I?

Kim:

You did. You are the reason this book exists.

Grant:

I'll take full credit.

Kim:

And so it really inspired me to sit down and just look at, if I was introducing this to a teacher, how would I structure that? What would I want them to know? What would I want them to have on hand? And then with my brilliant editor at Heinemann, Zoe, she made suggestions along the way like, how about we make all of the stories in it downloadable so that teachers can print them out and have kids annotate them? And how about we start with each end of each chapter, having both a classroom, and a writing exercise, and discussion questions. So we came up with this format of introducing a literary term like point of view, and then giving examples of stories that are dynamic versions of point of view, and then having the students read those, answer some discussion questions, respond to them, write their own focusing on point of view, and then sharing out with their classmates. So it's this idea that each chapter is a different literary element and provides lessons, and downloadable materials, and exercises for teachers.

Grant:

That's so great. I'm going to ask you a question. I'm basically going to ask you to solve a huge question, a huge societal question that is out there today. So I get asked this all the time because obviously, I mean per your doing a lot of work in your car while you're waiting for your daughter to get out of water polo, this is a familiar place for me to do my work as well. And I think people operate more and more in what I call time confetti mindset. You're grabbing little bits of time here and there, and obviously we're multitasking creatures in this world and we're highly prone to distraction. We just have a lot of things competing for our attention. And so I've heard it say, flash fiction, which is defined as stories under 1,000 words, has been a really emerging popular genre for the last at least 10 years, and especially with younger writers and readers. And so I'm just curious.

So I'm going to pose two things. One, a lot of people say the popularity of the form is because of the internet, because of distractions, because of all these things competing for our attention. I'm going to counter that a little bit by saying that flash fiction actually is more like poetry, that you have to read it more than once. You have to really slow down to truly get it. So I was wondering, here it is, the big societal question. How does this form fit into this modern mindset of distractibility?

Kim:

I love this question. I get asked this question a lot by my colleagues. There's sort of that gripe in the teacher's room, these kids, they're so distracted, they're always on their phones, they don't have any attention, that attention to detail, they don't focus. I would argue that they do focus. They're focusing on many different things. So there's this sort of collective cultural demand on them. I think they're incredible, these young people, this society they're inheriting and having to navigate through all of this. So when they do focus, I think giving them smaller chunks of deep, meaningful practice allows them to take a minute and step away from that busyness and from that noise and sink into what we love about writing. It's that beautiful experiment, that thinking practice, that exploration of the human experience. This is what I tell them, this is why we read. This is why we write.

We write because it's a beautiful human practice to explore stories, to explore what makes people make the decisions they make, what kind of settings influence the people who live in them, what kind of worlds you can build in those small settings. So I think we do have... The students are struggling with focus. I think it's a cultural issue, but I think they're also showing us that there's other things we should be doing with them given the culture we live in. I mean, I've been teaching for 25 years. There's always something that older teachers like me were griping about. Like, oh, the internet, oh, calculators, whatever it was. I've always felt that an inquiry-based classroom, which is what I feel like mine is, should always be interested in these issues and then turnaround and ask our students to be interested in these issues.

I've had the most incredible conversations with my students about, do you think you're too distracted? Do you think you don't have focus? What do you focus on? What makes you lose all track of time? Why? Why do you think that is? Why are you aging with that in that way? And so I always turn the question back to them. They're the ones inheriting the next 50 years. I get to sort of casually cruise into my later years, but they are inheriting this. So I always think it's important to bring the classroom back to letting them ask questions, share examples, wrestle with ideas. It's the beauty of an English classroom. So we get all this space and time to do that with them.

Grant:

I love that two-way, that you're receptive to what both their lives and their mindsets, their interests are like and forming instruction and the nature of a writing assignment or reading assignment around that, rather than saying, you must read this classic novel and write a paper a certain way.

Kim:

Some of them still want to do that, but not all of them do.

Grant:

Sure. I'm going to talk about constraints a little bit now because in some ways you don't get any say in the length of a 100 word story. You have to write it in a fixed compositional lens. It's 100 words. So yeah, so it's interesting because our life is about seeking freedom, but living within constraints and then perhaps finding opportunities in constraints for a different kind of freedom. And I think that's what's so interesting about the word constraint is it holds negative connotations yet for me, it's full of all these possibilities. And that's why I think 100 word stories are so wonderful is that the best ones bloom, they expand the world, they don't minimize the world. They're not just about the cracks of the world, although we need stories about the cracks of the world because a lot of bigger forms don't really allow the cracks of the world stories to be told. So I'm just kind of curious, how have you seen students, what benefits of constraints have you seen in your students when they read and write these stories?

Kim:

Well, first and foremost, they go into the practice, if it's their first time, thinking it's going to be easy because it's short. And so I love that and I go, "Yeah, try it, see if it's easy. Let's do that. Let's see how it goes." And then I watch them go through the five stages of writing a 100 word story, which is that where they say, this is hard. I need more room. How do I do this? And they start asking questions of the story. And this is where I tell them, for the next little bit, you're going to be in conversation with your own work. You're going to be in conversation with your own sentences. You're going to ask, what do I need as far as setting? What do I need as far as character? How can I show that? How can I show conflict? How can I show a character change in a single sentence maybe? Where do we put that? How is it looking on the page? And we just keep being in conversation with that.

Where teenagers love, the loophole they love with 100 word stories is that title, because that doesn't have a word count limit. We tell them the title doesn't get included-

Grant:

Right. That's my rule. That's my rule.

Kim:

... In the 100 word story. So I did have a sassy guy last year who wrote his 100 word story, and then his title was like 101 words long.

Grant:

I love that. Did you give him an A just for that?

Kim:

Oh, absolutely.

Grant Faulkner:

Yeah.

Kim:

Well done, friend. You know?

Grant:

Right.

Kim:

But when I give them 100 words, they know what I want. And so it's just giving them that really clear goal and it's something that makes them feel successful. And that's the thing I hear. I was talking with the National Writing Project a couple of weeks ago for the Write Now Teacher Studio, I'm going to do an event with them, and they were saying that when you talk to teachers all around the country right now mostly what they're feeling is that the students don't feel very successful in their writing. They just seem down. They seem frustrated, they seem, what was the word she used? They just seem like there's a feeling of I won't be able to get this done. Feeling overwhelmed. The 100 word story for me, I have watched all these humans achieve it. They've done it, they've accomplished it, and it's done so much for their self-esteem as writers, because they know they can finish a piece.

They can achieve, they can be successful. And just having that boost of self-confidence, I've watched that spill over into their other work because they go, oh, I know how to do this. I know how to finish a piece of writing.

Grant:

That's fascinating for me to hear because when I discovered 100 word stories, I was working on what I call my doomed novel. I've been working off and on the novel for 10 years, and I took a break from it to try to write a 100 word stories and it was exactly what you just said. Number one, I got the gratification of completing something, which is creative fuel unto itself. And then two, I could share it. I could put it out in the world and get it published. And that's also a different type of creative fuel. And so it fed into working on this doomed novel. But I mean, that's just the beauty of the form, that it replenishes you and recharges you because of the brevity. And I think that that is an important thing to give to writers, to let them have that feeling of satisfaction. And so my next question is about reluctant writers. And what I hear is because of the accessibility of the form, reluctant writers, it's an invitation for reluctant writers to try it out. And I'm wondering if you've experienced that.

Kim:

Absolutely. I teach a lot of reluctant writers and I teach a lot of what I'll also say are tentative writers. They just feel like they don't quite know if what they're saying is what they should be saying because there's a lot of emphasis nationwide on standards, on testing, on all of these things that states decide our students should be doing to show learning. And so the students, some of them, come into my classroom truly believing there's something I want to hear from them, that there's a right answer, and they need to tick a box, and work through a checklist, and then they'll get to move on to the next step. And what I try to have them unlearn when they're in my room is that writing is personal. It's a personal practice. You are growing your own voice. You are growing your own thinking patterns, you're growing your own practice as a human being of noticing the world and how you relate to the world around you.

And there is no testing that, that these stories are you get to step outside of all of that educational research and database things in order to engage in truly human practice. And they get tired of me saying that to them because I say it a lot. But one of my students came in yesterday, he's fallen quite behind. And I always do individual sessions with them if they want to have a thinking partner with me, come in after school and we'll just brainstorm some ideas. And he definitely brought up the 100 word story as a place where he has felt like he could at least have some freedom to put down ideas that he likes doing, that he cares about. And I asked him, "Well, why don't you feel like you can do that in your other assignments?" And he said, "I don't know. Why do I think that?"

And so we started just talking about how education trains us to try to please an outside source and that writing, we should really start with pleasing our own imagination and our own brain and the way that we think of things and show things. We can get better at it. So we can eventually let an audience read it, but we should start from a place of our own imagination, our own ideas, our personal voice. And that the unique and lovely part of it is that his is unlike anyone else's in the world, and that's magic. He's the only one who sees the world the way he does. And he was really sweet. He was like, "That's really cool. That's great." And he is going to go rework an essay for me that he's going to try this idea for, but he thought it was weird and he didn't know if I would like it. He didn't want to get a bad grade.

I just told him, "Let's not worry about the grade. Let's just try it. Let's see what happens. And if I think it needs to be something else, we'll keep working on it." He said, "But it's already late." I said, "Don't worry about the deadline. Let's worry about you extending the practice of this piece. You're already interested in writing it. Let's not move on to the next thing when you still have interest in this piece that you're working on." I think a lot of it is, as a teacher, it's building that relationship with them so they feel safe to practice, and imagine, and try things.

Grant:

Well, I think that's a beautiful pedagogy to write what pleases you for writing. I think so often it is students are writing an assignment for the teacher in particular, and to please the teacher, as you say. And I've always said with NaNoWriMo's Young Writers program, it's very similar in the sense that the premise of it is giving kids agency to write and giving them agency it's forming writing around joy and just the pure joy of doing the writing and doing it for yourself and expressing yourself. So I really do think that that is a fundamental building block of writing, but one that we too rarely hear. I guess in closing, I'll say, I think the reason I say that the pedagogy of joy is so important to honor is through... When you're teaching grammar, it helps a lot if the kids care about the words, if they care about the content and they care about the story. So Kim, final words, how does this book benefit teachers? What is the message you want to get across?

Kim:

I think one of the wonderful parts as a teacher with this form is that it's short and we all know we are overwhelmed with our grading, with our assessment. We get a lot of bang for our buck with this form as teachers from an assessment standpoint, as well as from a teaching standpoint, because we can use it as an annotation device, we can use it as a close reading device, we can use it as a generative writing device. We can use it as an editorial device with peer editing and in small group work, it is extremely short to grade. So you can give this incredible informed feedback in a very short amount of time. And so that's the piece for me as a teacher that has been lovely, to see that I can do this much meaningful deep work that doesn't take me an incredible amount of time to assess. It's a powerful tool in the classroom and you get a lot out of it.

Grant:

Thanks so much, Kim. I'm so inspired by you and the book, and I hope everyone goes out and buys it and teaches 100 word stories.

Kim:

Thank you so much.

Edie:

Our thanks to Kim and Grant for their time. You can order their book 100 Word Stories at heinemann.com. Learn more and read a transcript and a sample chapter at blog.heinemann.com.

 

 

Kim_Culbertson_Headshot

Kim Culbertson holds an M.S. in Education, an MFA in Fiction, and has been teaching high school creative writing and English since 1997. She is the award-winning author of five YA novels. Her titles Catch a Falling Star; The Possibility of Now; and The Wonder of Us were Scholastic book club selections. She won the Northern California Book Award for YA fiction for Instructions for a Broken Heart as well as had The Possibility of Now named a Bank Street Best Book of the Year. In addition to teaching high school, Kim sits on the Writers Council for National Writing Project and works as a Fiction mentor with Dominican University of California’s MFA in Creative Writing. With 100-Word Stories: A Short Form for Expansive Writing, Kim has finally found a way to blend her two professional loves, teaching and writing, into one book. These small, bright things have transformed her classroom and her own writing—she would love to share their potential with you. Visit www.kimculbertson.com.

 

Grant Faulkner is the Executive Director of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and the co-founder of 100 Word Story. His book The Art of Brevity was released in February 2023. He's also published Fissures, a collection of 100-word stories; All the Comfort Sin Can Provide; and Pep Talks for Writers: 52 Insights and Actions to Boost Your Creative MojoHis stories have appeared in dozens of literary magazines, including Tin HouseThe Southwest Review, and The Gettysburg Review, and he has been anthologized in collections such as Norton’s New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction and Best Small FictionsHis essays on creativity have been published in The New York TimesPoets & WritersLitHubWriter’s Digest, and The Writer.  Find Grant online on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Listen to his podcast Write-minded and subscribe to his newsletter Intimations: A Writer's Discourse.

Topics: Podcast, Heinemann Podcast, Kim Culbertson, Grant Faulkner, 100-Word Stories

Date Published: 11/10/23

Related Posts

Read Aloud Podcast: Authentic Writing for Real Audiences

Today on the Heinemann Podcast, how can writing for real audiences change student engagement?
May 20, 2024 4:00:00 AM

ON THE PODCAST: Writing as Healing with Barry Lane

Welcome to Writing as Healing, a Heinemann-podcast series focused on writing as a tool, to increase heali...
May 9, 2024 4:00:00 AM

ON THE PODCAST: Writing as Healing with Shamari Reid

Welcome to Writing as Healing, a Heinemann-podcast series focused on writing as a tool, to increase heali...
May 2, 2024 5:47:09 AM

ON THE PODCAST: Writing as Healing with Willeena Booker

How can classroom teachers invite their students to speak back to the world in this current moment? How d...
Apr 25, 2024 4:00:00 AM