by Kim Culbertson
It’s likely that most ELA teachers have been in the situation I found myself in one day: asking a question about a longer piece of writing our class was reading, and getting . . . crickets. I cleared my throat and tried to rephrase, hoping to get someone to say something about the piece. Nothing. Zip. Nada.
Next class, I changed gears. I loaded a 100-word story onto Google Classroom, read it to them, and had them read it again. Right then. On the spot. Then I asked the same questions I’d asked before: “What’s important about where this is set? Who are these characters? What do they want? What are the themes?”
Hands went up. More than several. What was happening?
I kept bringing in stories. They kept responding. So I had them write some, centering on a list of themes we’d generated from the stories we’d been reading. They wrote for me. And wrote. And wrote.
I started referring to these stories as “Small, Bright Things” because they brought with them a sort of magic to my classroom. They glimmered, breathing new life into our study of literature and our original writing.
When I first started assigning 100-word stories, one of my students said in surprise, “It’s like all the parts of a real story, but short!” I love this—even as I explained to her that a 100-word story is a real story, she was spot on about its parts. This is the beauty of using these stories to teach exploration and analysis of individual literary elements. In another class, we were unpacking a student’s original 100-word story when one of his classmates pointed out to him, “You devote sixty-two words to setting—that leaves almost nothing for all the other stuff!”
All that other stuff is what this teaching guide breaks down. All the parts—not just of a short story, but of any longer piece of fiction too: character, setting, point of view, conflict/tension, sensory description, arc, theme. Each 100-word story allows students to explore a structure that holds all these essential literary elements in an easily digestible package. I have found that working with this form before we dig into larger pieces, or during the study of longer pieces, enables my students to more readily recognize these elements in any piece of literature, because the study of these 100-word stories teaches them to identify a story’s intrinsic architecture.
When studying stories with my students, I generally group fiction elements into three categories: foundational, language-based, and structural.
Foundational elements are any element a story simply can’t exist without: POV, setting, plot, character, conflict/tension, etc.
Elements of language are sentence-specific: sensory language, imagery, active language, symbolism, etc.
Structural elements, for me, are things like form/structure, theme, genre, dialogue, arc (the way an author tracks plot across a story), subtext/backstory, etc.
As a fiction writer, I understand that any of these elements could be grouped differently, but this is one way to look at the architecture of a story, the specific choices/tools a writer uses to build a story, and their purposes within the storytelling. For the sake of this book, I grouped them this way, but you should feel free to move them wherever makes sense for your classroom.
I have divided 100-Word Stories into four sections and twenty-five chapters. You can use it comprehensively or jump around based on your needs. I’ve included in each chapter discussion questions that you can assign for written response or use for class discussion. I’ve designed the writing exercises to be done in class, but these can obviously also be homework assignments. The exercises are less formal—they are meant to be generative and to get those creative ideas flowing. I’ve centered the writing practice around the development of a 100-word story portfolio for your students to develop throughout the year. But again—mix it up, use one thing or all the things. I just hope you find something that lights up your classroom the way these small, bright things have lit up mine.
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.