“Stories Out of School” Flash Fiction Contest

Teachers have the most fascinating, difficult, and important job on the planet, and their work days are filled with stories. Yet teachers seldom appear in fiction. This annual contest was created to inspire honest, unsentimental stories about teachers and the rich and complex world of schools. Our partner this year is Electric Literature. There are a few criteria for submissions. The story’s protagonist, or its narrator, must be a K-12 teacher. Stories must be between 6 and 749 words and previously unpublished. Any adult over the age of eighteen (whether a teacher or not) is welcome to submit. Only one submission per writer. Sentimentality is discouraged and education jargon is forbidden.

The first-prize winner will receive $1000 and the story will be published online by Electric Literature in The Commuter. The second-prize winner will receive $500. Susan Choi will judge this year’s contest. She is the author of five novels: My Education, A Person of Interest, The Foreign Student, American Woman, and, most recently, Trust Exercise. She is the recipient of a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship and the PEN/W.G. Sebald award.

Submissions for the 2020 contest are no longer being accepted. The deadline was Tuesday, October 1, 2019.

2019 Contest

Cheryl Strayed, author of the #1 New York Times-bestselling memoir Wild, selected the winning stories which were published online by Tin House.

Santian Vataj, first prize for “A Brief Description of Mister Kuka”

Strayed writes: “I loved A Brief Description of Mister Kuka.” The writing is beautiful and precise, vivid and sure-footed. In very few words the author creates a striking portrait of both a teacher we all long to have—the eponymous Mister Kuka—and also of the curious object he one day brings to class—a real cow heart, which he zealously examines while his students gather around. Perhaps the real genius of this story is the use of the first person plural narrative point of view, which masterfully zigs and zags between the collective consciousness of a class in the thrall of their brilliant teacher and the experience of the individual students themselves as a world—and a heart—is opened up before them. The effect is magic.”

Danielle Stonehirsch, second prize for “The Language of Space”

Strayed writes: “’The Language of Space’ is a moving story about the difference one powerful moment with one attentive teacher can make in the life of a student. With great economy and clear concision, the author moves the narrative from panicky suspense to understated poignancy. From the first paragraph, in which the main character Elena makes the heart-sinking realization that one of the children under her charge on a field trip is missing, to the last, in which she and the child return safely to the group after having an exchange neither of them will forget, I was emotionally engaged and aching—as all good fiction makes you ache—to know what happens next. It’s a beautiful example of the flash fiction form.”

2018 Contest

Karen Russell, a Pulitzer Prize finalist for her novel Swamplandia!, selected the winning stories which were published online by Tin House.

Walker Rutter-Bowman, first prize for “Crafts”

Russell writes: “This piece delighted me. Its author is an artist of the sentence. The teacher at its center, Mr. Fisher, is a wonderfully idiosyncratic creation. You wish a teacher this brilliant and caring and weird for every student. I loved reading Mr. Fisher’s observational intelligence applied to things like the zen of pencil sharpeners and to the surprising emotional realism of wiggle eyes, “poached in terror.” Routed through Mr. Fisher’s vision, seemingly banal objects begin to shimmer and glow. The story has a patina of wonder that is not totally surprising, I guess, given that his students are covered in glitter.

I suppose you could grouse that nothing really happens in this story, which is why its ending feels so inspired to me–a student directs her teacher to the window. Snow is falling. Time’s cycling is magically visible to us, and to the children. Something real has been happening before our eyes, in the transfer of attention and energy and humor between Mr. Fisher and his young students: an education.”

Emily Zdyrko, second prize for “I Often Tell People”

Russell writes: “‘I Often Tell People…’ made me laugh out loud. The deadpan repetition of the sentence structure reminded me of Joe Brainard’s wonderful accumulative biography, “I remember.” Each iteration is a new surprise, moving the reader through the daily trials of teaching that veer from the deranging to the heartbreaking to the hysterical  (“I often tell people that they are using ironic incorrectly. ‘It is not ironic that you got wet on the way to school. It is raining.”).

By some magic trick, this author has managed to distill years of teaching into a few skillful paragraphs. We might wish to separate teachers into two camps, the heroes and the villains, but this narrator reminds us that teachers are fully human (“I often tell people I feel like neither”); the voice here is tonally complex and totally convincing. I loved it.”

Santian Vataj, honorable mention for “The Usurper”

Devan Aptekar, honorable mention for “The Fourth Sink”