We have all heard that teaching is tough. That’s not why this teacher got going and got out, but were I still teaching I would want to teach TUFF and use it with students and colleagues.
TUFF, The Ultimate Flash Fiction, developed by Charli Mills, is a tool of reduction, revision, and refining one’s writing. She explains it further in a recent interview at The Saddle Up Saloon, or see Charli’s explanation HERE. I have discussed and shown the TUFF process at ShiftnShake with some of my fiction writing, for example in Tuff Love, and in Styling. And to clarify, though I may use the term flash fiction out of habit, the applications (and the Carrot Ranch challenges) are certainly not restricted to fiction writing.
At the heart of TUFF is the 99 word piece of writing, at least that’s the word count arrived at by Charli and her Carrot Ranchers for the weekly writing challenges. The main idea is a word restriction, no more, no less, but I believe a number near to a hundred is good for both writer and reader. As schools are full of writers and readers, let’s examine these flash fiction tools, the 99 word constraint and TUFF, with students and teachers in mind, for these tools are advantageous to both groups.
In many ways teaching is like blogging. Even before Covid and remote learning, much of the communication is digital and many teachers maintain a website and social media accounts related to their classrooms. For those communications and word snapshots teachers should want to become effective at a ‘less is more’ style of writing. Specific emails or messages, especially those difficult ones that teachers sometimes must write to parents, principals, or colleagues, also benefit from the steps proscribed for TUFF. Write the one you will not send first; pour it out on the page, uncensored. That’s the free-write. Then pare that down (or build it up) to 99 words, words that might be more suitable for your audience yet still maintains the point that has to be made. To be sure of that point and your word choice, go the next steps; reduce those 99 to 59 then 9 words. You will see your word choice improve, your point made stronger and more clear with these reductions. You will also be much calmer and clearer than when you spilled the free-write. Now pick and choose from these versions to build another 99-word version. In this application, the difficult email, 99 words is plenty, and is about the most people are going to want to read. You may even want to revise the 59- or 9-word version and keep the message even briefer.
A teacher would also benefit from using TUFF for vision statements and goal setting, whether it’s at the beginning of a new school year, term, or unit of study. Bloggers were encouraged to do something similar at Carrot Ranch’s Saddle Up Saloon; you can see my take on that HERE. For teachers this could be a powerful exercise personally and professionally and again, could be helpful on social media and communication sites.
What teachers really need is time; having students practice word restrictions and TUFF practices can help with that. Writing teachers, English teachers, want their students writing. Some students want to write. Many don’t. The 99-word (or something like) challenge meets the needs of students of different abilities and ambitions. 99 words is doable, and the restriction, the rule of no more, no less, makes it a challenge, a puzzle, and as such is inherently engaging. Those students that write easily and prolifically will be more mindful of quality as they focus more on the story they want to tell and pare it down to its essence. Those students that find writing laborious will have an achievable task and with a specific, set word goal for their writing they will not feel overwhelmed and adrift. The 99-word constraint serves as both modification and challenge, and all students will be practicing craft and narrative structures. The advantage to the teacher, beyond having students who are actively writing, is that they only have to read 99 words per student and can more easily evaluate those pieces for whatever element they are focusing on. And of course TUFF comes into play when a piece of writing wants to be furthered; revised and expanded, but first getting distilled through reductions and revisions— 99, 59, 9, then some larger set number. This is where student choice could be elicited, which also fosters engagement. And again, though I use terms like ‘story’ and ‘fiction’, these practices apply to any form and genre, which means any subject can benefit, not just English classes, but math and science, social studies and health class.
If students were used to TUFF writing— free-write, focus, contract, expand— they could apply it to any subject in school, and teachers could assign a specific word count for written responses. A 9-word response to a geography question is not an easier task than a paragraph or essay, not if it answers the question. The go-getters will write that essay or at least the free-write version to get at that 9-word essence. The slacker in the back row who usually doesn’t write anything will write 9 words or even 59 because now it is an achievable set amount and it’s fair, everyone is writing that amount. Teachers might even be surprised to see that that slacker did take something in when the showing of it has specific limits as opposed to the vague and demeaning “just write some” or “write what you can”. Students nowadays are expected to write in all subjects, even math, and practicing TUFF can make any student more adept and effective in their responses. The teacher has less verbiage to wade through and can more readily read responses for content knowledge and synthesis. In any subject students will also have a tool to self-assess as they become meta-cognitive through this writing process. Teachers and students will see what questions need to be asked and addressed for deeper understanding of the topic at hand.
TUFF can be used in any subject area, and a STEM class does not need to mean just expository writing. TUFF should also be used playfully and creatively; why not have math students writing stories or fables? Why not learn what a student knows about the rock cycle by writing from a rock’s point of view? Using TUFF in classrooms regardless of subject provides a means of tapping into multiple intelligences and is a means of providing academic choice and creativity. A teaching staff that uses TUFF for themselves and in their classrooms could have productive conversations about teaching and assessing and would be set for cross curricular collaboration. Tuff could see teachers as well as students more engaged and more effective. With remote learning still happening in many schools, TUFF assignments could garner more student interest and completion and make assessment more streamlined for the teacher.
I have used TUFF in the ways mentioned, in my own writing, and with students. I enjoy it for the insights it engenders. The Carrot Ranch Rodeo, a month long series of writing contests, begins with the TUFF contest on Monday and different 99-word contests every Tuesday throughout October. Try it out. It is an excellent way to stretch your writing muscles and to examine your own writing through the revisions. The practice will provide a tool for your kit to help you decide, “More? Or Less?” as you develop and grow stories— or students.