A Million Words or Fewer: Deborah Bova’s Tried-and-True Method for Learning from Parents at the Start of Distance Learning – Dave Stuart Jr.


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:

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.

Want an editable version of the letter I use to introduce Million Words to my students’ families?


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In sum

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.