Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Storms of story ideas from 8 year olds… and the best Thank You notes ever.

A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to teach short writing workshops with four different classes of second graders at my son’s elementary school. Think of it is a pre-published author visit. (That’s how I thought of it!)

There were a couple of reasons I volunteered my time to do this. First, I wanted to get my foot in the proverbial door. I wanted to try out some ideas I had for elementary classroom presentations and see if they worked. I wanted to get experience in front of a room full of 8 year olds and see if I could begin building presentations and maybe even references for a day when I can do a “real” author visit. Secondly, I love to teach. I teach adults for a living and have spent time in classrooms as a Junior Achievement volunteer teacher. This felt like the next obvious step – turn my love of writing into a volunteer opportunity where I could help kids see how fun writing can be.

Can I just tell you what a hoot this was? I visited the four classrooms over two days – and spent an hour with each group. In each class, there were about 22 to 24 kids – all of whom were involved and interested and (dare I hope) excited to talk about stories. It was like being on stage in front of a captive audience and being allowed to talk for an hour about one of my most favorite things in the world: building stories.

I asked the kids at one point if they could come up with “juicy words” to replace more basic words in sentences. (Instead of “dog” we could say….) I still giggle when I think of the things they suggested. They’d start out tentatively. Maybe one or two kids raising their hand, confident they knew what I was asking for. Once a few examples were thrown out, the room would literally hum with ideas. I couldn’t even hear them all – but I could see the words filling their eyes, slopping around in their heads, and starting to leak out of their ears.

A few of the ideas for juicy words to replace “dog” were: huge (ok…a start), puppy (predictable), bulldog (getting more specific), Irish Setter (great image!), and….wait for it…..lawnmower (wha?? Weird, but imaginative).

Who else but a group of kids would hear the word dog and come up with literally dozens of different words they could use instead – even thinking way outside the box and using completely different nouns! Imagine… perhaps a boring story idea about a generic dog becomes some space age sci-fi tale about a lawnmower!

My workshop eventually had them work in groups to build “story webs” – a way of listing story ideas with a little bit of structure, but still allowing the ideas to storm their way into existence. Very few rules, lots of crayons and markers, multiple kids writing on their project at a time….no idea was wrong or not useful. Everyone got to add to the collective story ideas. And everyone did! I stood back and watched as they huddled over the big pieces of blank paper. I got to smile at them, lend an encouraging word here or there (lots of “LOVE it!” and “Ooooo! What a GREAT idea!”). Watching them get excited about characters and what might happen to them was….well…it may sound cheesey, but it was just plain fun.

I think all of us so-called writers could learn something from these kids about ideas and letting them flow. Letting them grow organically into stories. Exploring not only unexpected words, but unexpected events, settings, plots, and conflicts.

Over the following few weeks, I received thick bundles from each of the four teachers. Collections of thank you notes, written and illustrated as only kids can. Here are a few examples, just to spread some smiles.

If you haven’t volunteered in your local school or offered your time and talent to the kids in your community, think about it. In this age of computer games, Wii consoles, reality TV and fast-paced everything…you really can help kids learn that writing and storytelling is fun. And in the process, maybe (just maybe!) you’ll help some girl believe that she can write stories others will want to read. Or maybe inspire some boy to dabble with language in a way he never imagined before. Good stuff.

 (Note that this child thinks I ROCK!)

PS: Next month, I'm lined up to work with 8th graders. A whole new experience, I'm sure! No crayons there...but I hope more storms of story ideas.


  1. What fun! I would love to do something like this. You DO rock! :)

  2. I am loving the image you planted for me-- of a dictionary and a hand/counter squeezer/reamer to get those juicy words flowing and slopping around! And great, great notes! I have NO doubt that you sparked and inspired them! (ps Love the different outfits ... and have to ask about the long hair??)

  3. No long hair for me! funny how kids "see" adults, isn't it? One kid had hair on "me" that looked like Princess Leia's cinnamon bun 'do! Made me giggle. They were a lot of fun!

  4. This is a great story, great post, and great ideas. I also volunteered and did a language arts lesson for third grade in my kids school (it integrated writing and classical music - very cool). They ended up offering me a job! You never know what you'll get!

    Hope you visit me at my post - I am an educational / school psychologist and would love to hear more!

    All the best,

  5. What a fantastic idea! When I was eleven, my teacher organised for my class to spend a couple of days away at a camp and meet some authors. I'd always loved reading, but then and there my journey as a writer began. It's so wonderful that you've given these kids the same experience--in twenty years, maybe one of them will be looking back on your class the way I look back on mine.

  6. Thanks, Amie! I hope you are right!