So you're teaching from a distance and you'd like a non-invasive (dare I say pleasant?) method for gaining insight into your students, their homes, and their families. The best, most sensitive, most inviting method I know for this kind of thing is Deborah Bova's Million Words activity. While this assignment's utility is not limited to distance teaching scenarios — as I'll share, Million Words has a long history on the teacher interwebs — I do find it uniquely helpful during these times.
What follows is an examination of what the Million Words activity is, why I think it works so well, and the specific letter I'm using to introduce the assignment to parents this school year.
Deborah Bova's “Million Words or Less” start of the year assignment
The story goes that back in 2003, teacher Deborah Bova introduced something she called the Million Word essay to colleagues on a now-inactive listserv at MiddleWeb. Though the listserv doesn't exist anymore, this PDF of the conversation Bova started does.
(My colleagues in their lower-twenties right now are thinking, “Wait, what's a listserv?”)
(Actually, I'm thinking that, too.)
Here's what Deb posted:
The post was viewed thousands of times, and Bova's assignment idea has been used in countless settings around the United States and the world. As the listserv discussion quickly demonstrated, it works very well.
Here's why I think the Million Words activity is so effective:
- It's simple. Quick to explain, quick to understand. Parents aren't scratching their heads trying to figure out what to do.
- It's invitational. Parents are being invited to play a key role in introducing their child to their teacher or teaching team. They are free to write as little or as much as they can.
- It's far more humanizing than a survey. The “data” something like this elicits will humanize students for us like no survey ever can. (Now keep in mind that there is information best collected through surveys — see Practice 2.1 in this post on humanizing online distance learning environments.)
- It demonstrates the school-home partnership rather than paying lip service to it. I love that Bova communicates to families that this activity will help the teaching team best serve the child. That's right on.
- It's a chance to keep ourselves humble. As I've said, few teacher traits are as predictive of greatness as humble-boldness. When I get a stack of Million Words responses back and I sit down to them with a cup of coffee, I'm training my heart to marvel at the weight of my students and the trust implied in their coming to be with me each day, whether remotely or in person. Reading letters like these helps me to remember that I'm not Luke Skywalker in the story of my students' lives but am rather someone more like C-3PO or R2D2. I'm a side character in their quests, not the protagonist.
- And for distance teaching specifically, this activity is bound to give me high-use information that I need. If my students have specific life circumstances that will prove an obstacle to distance learning, I need to know. If they've experienced trauma during the pandemic, I need to know. If they or their families are nervous or troubled or overwhelmed or angry about the transition to distance learning, I need to know. Such information readies me to be the kind of warmly demanding (v. perversely compassionate) teacher that equitable school outcomes require. (For more on warm-demander pedagogy, see Practice 3 in this post.)
Here's how I'm introducing the million words activity to my students' families this year
Though there are countless examples on the web of letters introducing this activity to parents, I opened up a fresh doc and kept it simple.
During a recent webinar for teachers on building relationships from a distance, a colleague asked, “How can we sensitively learn of any negative circumstances that our students have encountered during the pandemic so that our teaching can be more informed?” This letter was the first thing that came to my mind. It's not going to get all the info on our students — and that is just as it should be. As a teacher, I am not entitled to all the info. But I certainly am deepened by knowing what my students' parents or guardians are willing to share.
I hope this helps. Ask any specific questions in the comments.
Best to you,
*Thank you to my Cedar Springs colleagues Eddie Johns, Kseniya Themm, and Erica Beaton for sharing aspects of the Million Words activity with me.