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Parents Flip Out Over High School 'Suicide Note' Writing Assignment

The parents of teenagers at York Prep High School on New York City's Upper West side are spazzing because of a creative writing assignment given to their kids. Namely, writing a first-person letter from the perspective of someone planning on committing suicide. Trying to teach kids is hard .

Based upon the book The Secret Life of Bees – which I have seen in every airport I've ever been to in the past few years and still not read – the teacher asked the students to pretend they had died as one of the main characters, May Boatwright, had (in the book, Boatwright apparently drowns herself). According to the New York Post , the project required the students to:

" fictitious character May Boatwright by writing in first person — as if they were her — about her legacy and how they wanted to be remembered by her sisters. 'How would you justify ending your life? What reasons would you give?' the project asked."

It sounds like some of the nuance of the assignment might have been lost here. The students were being asked to get inside the head of a character, not write about why they themselves would want to die. It's the kind of assignment that's both something teachers do to get their kids engaged with the work, and something that parents freak out about when they hear. But what exactly is so upsetting about this assignment? The "macabre" nature of it? Would having high school students imagine what another type of death be less weird? Would murder or disease be better? Or is considering the purposefulness of suicide the issue at hand? (It's important to note that the goal of the assignment was probably also about getting students to understand the ramifications of Civil Rights Era tensions. From my limited knowledge of The Secret Life of Bees , this seems relevant.)

It's hard to not feel that the real reason this is upsetting to parents (and that the Post wrote about it) is because of the taboo around suicide and the age of the students, not to mention the control parents like to wield over classrooms. We have a fanciful notion that children should be kept away from the saddest parts of our society, but for many students, it's during their teens that the reality that terrible things happen in the world comes to light and that they try to figure out what this means.

York's principal did note that no parents complained about the homework assignment to the school (just to the newspaper then?). And in another twist, the Post points out that this same teacher was the one who filed a $2 million lawsuit against a friend who both ruined her apartment and killed her cat. Life has certainly been difficult for her lately.

School suicide lesson: Pricey private school teacher asked teen students to write first-person suicide notes in bizarre assignment [NYP]

Image via Michael Jung /Shutterstock

Tag: English

The humanity.

english writing assignment high school

People from the National Writing Project don’t ask me to be ashamed of spending time writing.  They softened my attitude toward writing, and myself.  They suggested that the more I wrote, the better I would be able to teach writing to others.  In the world of public education, this is heretical.  Teachers should be grading papers all weekend– not practicing what they preach, right?

I took writing courses in college. The first one usually sent me back to my dorm for a good cry.  The other one bored me to tears.

I still wrote on my own.  Journals, fiction, poems.  I couldn’t stop myself.  But I felt awkward sharing my work, and the process of submitting to journals and magazines was discouraging.

When I started teaching writing to high school students, all I really knew how to do was give assignments and grade them.  Nothing in my education classes covered writing instruction.  During my first Writing Project class, they didn’t tell us how to teach writing.  Instead, we wrote.  We met in an old house that had been converted to a meeting space.  The first time I was asked to read my piece, I wanted to run upstairs and hide in the claw foot bathtub.  I thought I might die.  I didn’t.

With practice, sharing what I wrote was not the same as taking off my clothes.  I realized that I hadn’t charmed anyone with writing since elementary school.  In 3rd grade, I wrote little storybooks for my classmates about the Stuff family.  The Stuffs were little blobs whose chapeau looked suspiciously like those of  the Berenstain Bear family.  I churned out volume after volume for my classmates.  My audience was authentic and receptive.  It made all the difference.

Because my Writing Project colleagues were so open and supportive, I began to think that maybe I could find an authentic receptive audience for my adult writing, too.  They liked my ode to macaroni and cheese, and my serious pieces on teaching.  Maybe I could get things published.  Maybe people could give me helpful suggestions.  Maybe I wasn’t a great writer or a bad one.  Maybe, like most people, I was somewhere in between.  I observed myself as a writer, noticed what I did and what helped me.  I listened to other teachers discuss their writing and how it evolved.  I did my own research about methods of teaching writing.  I was learning to teach writing, not just assign it.

How could I teach my students those things if I didn’t really believe them myself? How could I encourage them to open up when I was so shut down myself?  You can’t teach what you don’t know.

People aren’t multiple choice, and they’re not matching.  Writing addresses their unique human needs, providing the opportunity to reflect and explore and connect. National Writing Project colleagues treated me like a human being.  They empowered me to be more human with my students, and make writing a more authentic and productive part of my classroom.

The National Writing Project has recently been defunded at the federal level , and many of us who have benefitted from their efforts are disheartened.  Taxpayer dollars have been very well spent by this organization, as research has proven, and it deserves continued support.

For more information, see:

Eating Your Words

I took my students to a writing workshop last week, and one presenter explained the importance of memorizing poems.  That while reading is critical, memorizing is ownership.  I have a great deal of trouble memorizing.  I read like bulimics eat.  I have trouble slowing down.  I am too impatient to digest.  And even more trouble taking small bites and tasting.  Emily Dickinson helps me with this.  She’s so dense and stingy that she forces my attention.

In high school, I was assigned to memorize Robert Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” and Macbeth’s “sound and fury” soliloquy.  I also memorized Juliet’s “Thou knowest the mask of night is on my face.”  I can’t say it was like pulling teeth.  It was more like trying to shove teeth into your mouth, implant them somewhere up there without a mirror or glue.

I already felt ownership of my language.  My brain waves with iambic pentameter– I grew up on Mother Goose and Protestant hymns.  The smell of English poetry was mine the way Old Spice was my dad.

That kind of ownership is deep stuff, without subtlety or particularity.  With that kind of ownership, I could wax easily about what Shakespeare meant .  I could even write a passage of faux Shakespeare.  I loved writing my own dictionary definitions in 6th grade.  It was much faster than looking them up.  I was never caught.  However, I was caught adding an extra chord to a Mozart piece, and my piano teacher laughed at my insistence on “improving” Mozart.  See, I’m a showoff dilletante.  While I could demonstrate rhythmic and thematic and style understanding, I didn’t own a particular piece.  The generalities were mine and the details swept through my fingers.

My junior English teacher didn’t know or care about my struggle to memorize.  He was just going to sit there with the text while I recited.  (He told us we had to memorize poems so that we wouldn’t go insane if we were trapped in a POW camp.  Funny…and wise.)  There was no way I would screw up an English assignment.  So I shoved Frost and Shakespeare into my mouth, piercing word by word.  I recited to the shower tile.  I recited to the popcorn popping on the stove.  After fifty repetitions, I still got lost and substituted words and mixed up phrases.  I kept going.

Memorizing gives words a sensuality that reading cannot.  Reading once, even reading aloud, you can’t feel the words in your mouth the same way you do when they are memorized.  And the difference is commitment:  time and tenderness toward each sound.

The poems are still there as much as my teeth are– drilled out and refilled, and five of them just gone.  It is good to be able to run your tongue over them, occasionally.  Several times, I’ve silenced students by setting aside the textbook and doing the Juliet speech myself.  I’m not a great performer.  It doesn’t show that I understand Shakespeare.  It just shows is that I own a little of Shakespeare, and I hope it shows that he is affordable.

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Ideas, Inspiration, and Giveaways for Teachers

We Are Teachers

10 Fresh Writing Prompts for High School English

They won’t be able to put their pens down.

Betsy Potash

By the time students walk in the door of our secondary ELA classrooms, they’re not exactly new to writing assignments. They’ve done autobiographies. Short stories. Love stories. Scary stories. They’ve journaled and summarized and analyzed. So how do we bring the spark back into writing for them? What can we secondary teachers offer in terms of fresh and exciting writing prompts and assignments? Here are 10 writing prompts for high school students to get them excited about writing in the new year.

1. The TED Talk

There are a lot of amazing TED Talks out there that students love. Launch a TED Talk unit by showing this one, from Tim Urban, called “ Inside the Mind of a Master Procrastinator .” Talk about what makes it powerful. Have students create TED Talks of their own, sharing a startling story, a piece of wisdom, or an idea from their own lives. Wrap it all up with a mock TED conference at your school, inviting parents, other classes, and administrators, if you wish.

2. Video Writing Prompts

If you’re looking for some unusual, short and sweet writing options, check out John Spencer’s  Creative Writing Prompts for Students playlist.  It features short videos meant to inspire students to think in creative ways. With clips like “What Are Five Things You Want Your Teacher to Know About You?” and “Invent a New Class,” these short pieces can also help you learn more about your writers.

3. Love Poems

What teenager doesn’t harbor some (not so) secret crush? Creating a unit around great love poems, both canonical and modern (e.g. spoken word poetry like this ), will help students get excited about writing their own love poems. Explore various forms, from haiku to sonnet to totally free expression, then create a class anthology of love poems, including both the greats and selections from your own writers.

4. Graduation Speeches

We’ve all sat in the audience of a graduation and wondered what we would talk about if we were on stage speaking. Give students the chance to find out. As the year comes to a close, invite them to write their own charge to the graduating class. What would they say to inspire the seniors? Something to make them laugh? Something to make them cry? Consider having your class vote on the top three pieces and printing them to give to the graduates.

5. Choice Blogging

Students always perk up for an authentic audience and a connection to the real world. Introduce them to one of the many free blogging platforms and let them blog about a topic that truly interests them. Choice blogging makes a great genius-hour option. You can devote one day a week (or every other week) to letting students write about their passions on their own blogs, simply by assigning a different topic each week. Start with list posts, review posts, news posts, video posts, and top-ten posts. Eventually, you can let them choose their own format, as long as they produce a post each week. You can find a full walk-through for setting up this type of project in my own blog post, “ A Beginner’s Guide to Student Blogging .”

6. Fold and Pass

When you try the fold and pass, you’re guaranteed to end up with some very surprising stories. Ask each student to begin a story on a blank piece of paper, introducing a main character. After a while, have them stop and fold their paper then trade with another student. You want the next person to only be able to see the last couple of lines of the beginning. In this next round, everyone will write the middle of the story, taking the character into some kind of conflict before moving the story toward resolution. Finally, have those students fold their papers so only a few lines are visible and trade with another student. When the next writers begin, let them know that they should bring the stories to an end. Then they should return the story to the original writer. The results will no doubt make everyone laugh. This is a great activity for when students need a bit of a break but you still want to keep them writing and building community in your classroom.


This writing assignment is not for the faint of heart! The NANOWRIMO challenge invites anyone interested in writing a novel to do so in one month (November). If you’re interested in exploring this ambitious mission with your students, their  site  is full of helpful information. You could also do a spin-off, asking students to write a novella in a month or perhaps a short story a day for seven days. Take the idea of a big and exciting challenge and make it work for your classroom.

8. “This I Believe” Essays

If you’ve never heard NPR’s old radio series “This I Believe,” it’s a great listen. People from around the country sent in short essays expressing a core belief, which could be as funny and simple as: I believe in the pizza delivery guy. Along with sharing a belief, writers gave specific, vibrant examples of why they held that belief and how they came to have it. It’s an easy format that helps students develop their ability to support claims and write with specific and powerful descriptions. NPR has already created a complete curriculum that is ready and waiting for you to use.

9. Letters to Students Far, Far Away

Several years ago, I taught in Bulgaria, and I loved connecting my students there to students in the United States. We did several projects involving writing back and forth about our views and ourselves.

Finding a collaborative classroom partner gives your students a real reason to write, new friends, and the chance to break down some boundaries. Try connecting your classroom to one in another country or even just in another part of the US. Join a Facebook group for teachers (like one of these ) and make a post to find a partner.

Seriously. I’m not kidding. During their lives, your students will probably write a gazillion emails. Why not teach them how to write a good one? Take back electronic communication from the clutches of sentence fragments, emoticons, and confusing demands. I love  this post from,  which features ideas for how to get started with an email etiquette unit.

What are your favorite writing prompts for high school? Share them in the comments below!

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I love to help high school English teachers innovate. Check out The Spark Creativity Teacher Podcast on iTunes for creative teaching strategies delivered on the go, or get my popular pack of free one-pager templates with complete instructions at

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english writing assignment high school

No Series: Grant Writing: Blending Literature and Community

Common core State Standards

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Grant Writing: Blending Literature and Community

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Private message to Connie Kamm

Connie Kamm Apr 20, 2021 10:00pm

Hello, I am also looking for this excellent video on grant writing. Has it been removed?

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sarah bolton Apr 14, 2020 9:51pm

Hello. I just purchased a subscription but I am still unable to play this video. 

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Hi Sarah, I signed up as well and cannot, too.

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shinay bowman Jul 17, 2020 10:23pm

Do you know how I can access your grant writing video. It is one of my absolute favorites.

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Lauryn Wild Apr 29, 2020 9:26pm


I am still using this video as I teach my credential students on how to write inquiry-based unit! Unfortunately, I am having an issue viewing it now, and it seems that others are too (as of recent!). 

Is there any other way I can access it?! 

shinay bowman Jul 17, 2020 10:22pm

Did you ever find a copy of it?

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    People from the National Writing Project don't ask me to be ashamed of spending time writing. When I started teaching writing to high school students, all I really knew how to do was give assignments and grade them

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