Writing With First Graders: A Look Back

Over the last couple of months, I have had the opportunity to work with some amazing first graders as they explored reading and writing. I appreciate all who followed my adventure (or came along later and read it), I hope you got something out of it.

My purpose has been to track what I taught and note the similarities and differences there are in writing in first grade and writing as an adult. The basics are pretty much the same, it is our approach that is different.

Sometimes, I think we forget that. Writing doesn’t change, the writer does. Sure, trends and styles and rules change, but the fundamentals of writing doesn’t change. That is because, as humans, we are social animals (just check out how many social platforms there are on the internet today!) and we are hardwired to share information. One of the easiest ways we do that is through storytelling.

What surprised me the most while working with these kids and guiding them on their journey, was the fact of how much I came to realize and learn.

I have been writing for a while….a long while….and it comes somewhat naturally to me. I am a storyteller. I knew the “hows” and the “whats” to writing, but what I didn’t clearly understand was the “whys”.

Why is the middle of a story so much longer and why the rule of three?

No one wants to hear a story without trial. Billy was hungry. He ate a hotdog. The end. 

Life is not easy and is full of trials. We want our characters to suffer and grow. That is how we connect with the character; their struggle.

It had been three days since Billy had last eaten. His stomach had given up growling and sat like a stone in the bottom of an empty well. He watched as people passed by, hoping his pitiful dirty face would convince one of them to stop for a moment and help him out. But no one dared look at him. He scavenged through a trashcan at the corner of the park, hoping that someone might have thrown away a hotdog or even an apple. He was not proud of digging through the garbage, but he was hungry and that overshadowed his pride. As he scrabbled through the trash, a man in a suit reading a newspaper on his lunch break, stood up from the park bench and walked away, leaving behind his wallet. Billy snatched the wallet and began to run. “Mister! You dropped your wallet!” The man turned and saw Billy running towards him, wallet held high. “Thank you young man. Let me reward you.”      Billy grinned as he took bites of his hotdog. It tasted like a million bucks!

The struggle makes you wonder if the character will succeed and want to know what is next. It builds empathy which allows the reader to be engaged in the story. An engaged reader is more important than any lesson you want to teach or story you want to tell.

Why can’t my story be didactic? (Have a moral or teach a lesson)

The truth is it can, but that should not be the point of the story. As you learn and empathize with the character, your character is going to grow and learn, and hopefully you will too.

What is the difference? Stories have multiple intertwining arcs. You have plot and character arcs. Some books may have multiples of each. You may have mini arcs than build into larger arcs. When you write to a lesson, character arcs tend not to be developed or you get gaps in the plot, because they may be irrelevant to the lesson.

In my book, Pedro’s Pan, I never intended there to be a moral or lesson to my story. It doesn’t mean there isn’t one, or even multiple. People can take away from it what they want or need, depending on how they engage with the story.

If my story had been written with any lesson in mind, it is likely that 1) it would not have been published, and 2) it would have missed many of the opportunities for people to engage and enjoy it.

When is my story ready?

The truth is, a story is never finished. You can spend the rest of your life improving (or ruining) a story. The universe in your mind is so much greater than you can ever put down on paper.

You are also your biggest critic. You know that you could do a little more. The story could be better. If only…..

The story will be ready before you are. So how do you know? Ask other people. Have them read your story. When you are only making cosmetic changes, don’t fool yourself. Set aside your story for a month or two, then pick it up again and reread it. If it is cosmetic changes still, you are good to go. If you find areas you think you can do better, your story is not ready. Repeat and rewrite as necessary.

The last thing I learned that I want to share is to Share your stories and set your priorities.

Writing should be fun and exciting. I know it can be lonely at time, but the effort is wasted if no one ever gets to read it. Share your work with critique partners and friends. Let them give you strength and support.

Also, prioritize your time and effort. What good is it if you spend your days writing the next great novel or picture book if you miss out what is going on around you. Give yourself a chance to laugh and read and enjoy life. Even God took a day to stop and enjoy His creation.

I hope you enjoyed reading this series and took at least one little thing away that might help you in your writing (or teaching) career. I will follow up in June to find out if any of my kids placed in the contest.

Also look forward to my next writing adventure. You never know where it might turn up!

Author: matthewlasley

I am a school teacher and an author. I like to write picture books, middle grade, science fiction and short stories. I live in Alaska and I love history, so those two things often influence my creative writing.

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