The experience with writing with first graders can be both fun and frustrating. This experience is not unlike working with adults as well. It can be difficult to get the brain to unlock and put down the necessary information. We have so much crammed in our skull when we tell a story, but we try to go from A-Z but skip every other letter. Or the opposite happens, we go from A-Z, but we start adding symbols and numbers because we have more than what we need.
Most first graders are the skipping letters kind when writing. Character was. Character did. The end. But when they tell you the story, it is; Character was. Character did. And did. And then. And then. And then. And then. And then. The end.
So where is the happy medium? How do you not stifle their creativity?
(You were probably expecting a story on setting, but I am getting there. I am an A-Z with symbols kind of writer.)
The answer is, you ask questions. Let them frame their story (you can do the same). Then read “The Character was” and ask why. Why is your character this way. We are establishing the problem and understanding it.
Then read “The Character did” and ask how. Your character was this way, they did this. How did your character do this? What were the steps? Was it easy? Why did they do it?
That leads you to the end. Your story is done. Did your character solve the problem? How does the reader know?
So now you have built a basic story. Write it down and have someone else read it out loud to you. You have all this information in your head, so when you read, you draw on it. When you switch and listen to someone else read, you hear gaps.
Once my students have that cleaned up, I encourage them to find a way to make the story better. Often, they will tell their story out loud to a group while someone tracks their story. Then they read aloud their story and the other kids take note of differences. Why were their differences? Did it help the story?
It is not until all these revisions are done, that we tackle elements of the story like setting.
Setting in a story is not simply where and when a story takes place, but can be a character in itself. It can help with the problem or even be the problem itself. It can help the reader connect with information that may be foreign to them or propel them into a place that they never could have imagined.
You associate certain things with a certain setting. For example, samurai are associated with feudal Japan, but what if you made the story take place on the moon? You associate penguins with Antarctica, but what if you made them thriving in the middle of the Sahara? What would happen if you dropped a kid onto an island of monstrous beasts who make him their king? Imagine Genghis Khan having a tea party with his daughter.
Setting can alter your story. Setting makes your story come more alive.
For this weeks mentor study, we read the story, Interrupting Chicken by David Ezra Stein. A fun story in which a chick is getting ready for bed and wants dad to read to her.
So what is the setting? Even if you have never read the story, you can probably deduce where the story takes place. It is centered around the bed, which is likely in a bedroom, which means they are likely at home.
The reason I like to use this story as a mentor text, is that I can then switch the setting and see if the story would be the same. For example: What if this was done on an airplane during a really long flight? Who else would be involved? Would you have the same outcome?
Or how about if this story took place at school? Would the characters be the same? What kinds of things would the chicken be interrupting?
I have story dice in my classroom. These are dice with pictures on them that can create ideas for setting and characters or even plot. I pull out the setting dice and we roll one to get a setting and the kids discuss how the story would be different in each setting.
This can be a fun and creative way to make you view your story differently, it could also inspire you to take your story to new levels. You don’t need story dice to do this, simply drop your character in a new setting and see what happens.
My students had fun with this. Their favorite was hunting for treasure and making a parrot (instead of chicken) interrupt a pirate looking for treasure and getting him lost.
Next week, we are taking time off from writing to focus on other things in class. I will be discussing voice(s) and how we achieve them.