A Message From Agent Secretface

Spy school -- er, I mean, observational writing practice

When I was in eighth grade, my friend Caitlin and I had a secret notebook, where we wrote down fake gossip about everyone we knew. I had the (probably paranoid) feeling that no one was telling me the real scoop, so we just decided to make up our own. I remember bumming around Mt. Baker Park with Caitlin, making up egregious and satisfying lies: our math teacher’s breath was bad because he stored dead babies in his belly, a smart friend of ours had a computer in her brain. The notebook made me feel important, observant, privy to the world’s secrets, even though I’d actually made those secrets up.

Well, it turns out I’m far from the only kid who loves scribbling semi-paranoid, semi-fantastical observations in secret notebooks. Kids love to be spies. For many years, we devoted a whole day to spying in my class, and it was a highlight of the year. At some point, my excitement for it waned because you can only teach the same thing so many times before the joy goes out of it, but the kids still loved it. Some day maybe, Spy School will return. Until then, I’ll share all my hard-won secrets. (Some of which were inspired by the awesome book Don’t Forget to Write put out by the 826 writing centers.)

And anyways, what is spying really, but Observational Writing?

Spy School: the syllabus

Decoding a Mission

We receive a coded mission – sometimes delivered by a random person, often in mirror writing, usually from an elusive character called Agent Secretface.

Taking an Alias

Everyone takes a secret agent name. We try to refer to each other by these names from there on in. If inspired, you could also take disguises.


We spend a while writing our own coded messages and trying to decode each other’s. Some fun and easy codes include:

  • Mirror writing

  • Writing in runes

  • Number code (A=1, B=2 etc)

  • Reverse code (A=Z, B=Y etc)

  • Symbol code (make a symbol to replace each letter)

  • Lilypad code (where you insert four [or three or whatever] random letters between each one in your message and hop from one letter to the next. Cfkjxofbsudosnkegudi spells “code,” for instance.)

  • Or any combination of the above.

Eating the Evidence

Everyone is given a piece of identical fruit – a strawberry, a tangerine – and given a few minutes to memorize it. They can draw it or take notes. What sets it apart from the other strawberries or tangerines? Then everyone gives their fruit back and I place them on top of index cards with the kid’s name written on the underside. Everyone gets a chance to try and find their fruit among all the fruit. Then we eat the evidence.


After that, we go on our big mission. Taking our notebooks, we go to the park. We pretend to be regular kids on a field trip. We talk loudly about our “science research” we are doing in the park. Everyone sits some place and writes down everything they notice. Anything can be a clue! Do you notice anything suspicious? How many cars went by? What colors were they? Did you notice any patterns? What were the squirrels doing? What did the people say? (Here’s where the mass paranoia sets in.) Then we gather up and debrief, and I act as if their observations are extremely telling of something mysterious and important.

Contacting Agent Secretface

Sometimes, we make contact with Agent Secretface themselves. There’s usually a secret coded message they give us that let us know it’s them. I’ve enlisted various friends to play this role. Best was my cousin Brooke, who wore glamorous sunglasses and a big floppy hat and sat on a bench sipping an enormous frappuccino at the Seward Park playground, whispering the secret message to any kid who got near. It was like Santa himself was sitting on that bench, the kids were so bedazzled.

Homophonic Translations

After the excitement of the mission, not to mention the way the kids’ imaginations run away with reality enmasse and hours of pretending I condone real world surveillance, I’m usually exhausted. But we come back to class and do some peaceful Homophonic Translations – I say we’re taking coded transmissions over the wires.

Then I send those secret agents home.