Writing With First Graders: Return to Writing

So the kids were off a week for Spring Break. Many of them had completed a draft of their story. As I reviewed them, some were as short as 4 very short sentences while a few were a couple of pages.

As I reviewed their work, I had to be mindful that I was not grading their work, but finding ways to encourage them.

That is important to you as  a writer yourself. This is not about judgement. Your story is not merited based on how much you wrote. Real merit is found in how well someone else can read and engage with your story.

We began by looking and discussing their stories as a group. I do this by having them tell us their story. Each child is given another child’s story to read as well. The author gets up to tell their story, while the reader takes the story into the hallway. Once the author is done, we quickly recap the character, the problem, solution and setting.

We then invite the reader back in to retell the story. They are allowed to have the story in hand, but I do not ask them to read it out loud. Instead, they recount what they remember about the story. Then we recap the character, the problem, solution and setting.

I kept notes on both so that we could compare the tellings of the stories side by side. I also open up the author to taking questions and record those as well. In the end, the author has information and feedback to help them improve and clarify their writing.

What a lot of the students came to understand is that there is still a lot of information about their story in their head.

While most first graders tend to skip details in their stories, as seasoned writers, we can make the same gaps in our writing.

Example of a first grader: The girl went to the beach. She forgot her swim suit. She bought a swim suit. Then went home.

The story was actually about a girl losing her cat. She had searched for it and was sad, so she went to the beach because the beach makes her happy. She wanted to go swimming, but did not have a bathing suit. So she went to the store to buy one. She went home to change into her swim suit because there was no place to change at the beach. When she got home, she heard her cat meowing under the porch. Her cat came home and she was happy.

Her telling of her story is much better than her writing the story. Her story makes logical sense, but most of the story is irrelevant to her story. We ended up with a second problem (no swim suit).

So we had to figure out what the story was about. What did we need to tell that story?

For her, she needed to understand her plot.

For you and me, it may be something more complex like a flat story arc. We may have a good story, just not a great one.

When I wrote Pedro’s Pan, my issue stemmed from not understanding all the nuances to the  market I was writing too. But even when I did, the story was flat. My character lacked an arc. That was solved by writing the story from a different perspective. The new character POV made a good story into a published story.

Over Spring Break, I took a story I have been working on for a couple of years and again changed which character was going to tell the story.

And it was some of my best writing to date. Telling the same story, but changing the driving character helped me write a more complete story. I now had my new voice reacting to the old voice.

But what I think made the story so much better, is it filled in many of the gaps that I could not see. I had to anticipate how another character might react or feel about the actions of my original character.

It is a good practice to change up your focus. After you have written something, turn to viewpoint around and write it from a different character in the story. What would the sidekick think and say? How about your antagonist? What happens if you introduce a completely new character?

You may choose to keep your original POV, but with luck, it will help you enrich and define your main character’s voice.

Next week we will be wrapping up writing our story and preparing to submit it for a writing contest.

I also found out this week that we will be readjusting the groups I have been working with to finish out the year.

I still had three weeks planned, so I will be throwing out some things and cramming other things into the week that I have left.

So next weeks theme: Writing to a deadline!

Writing With First Graders: Editing

This week the kids are off for Spring Break, so I have taken the time to edit their work and look at what they have created.

On Friday, when I collected their work, one kid asked why they were going to have their stories edited. I told them that we were going to look at their stories and make them better. He said, “You mean I have to write it again!”

For kids, the idea of the rewrite is strange, until you have them tell their story out loud. A five sentence story can turn into a five minute story.

As an aspiring or published author, we tend to have the same reaction. We know how to write. right? Our story is good. Why edit?

The problem is that it is difficult to edit your own work. You have the backstory in your head. You don’t see the holes, because to you, the details are there.

To help students in the past to understand this, I gave some of them one minute to write about a picture of a house in the woods that I showed them while the rest waited out in the hall. Then we switched, but I gave the new kids ten pictures to choose from to match it to the writing.

The typical response is that most can not figure out which picture is the match. They can only guess. When the writers come back, their response is that they would have described the house with color better or some other detail.

When someone else reads your work, you never know what perspective they are going to use. You do not know what details are going to be important that you left out.

When they do it again, most kids complain that a minute is not enough time as they try to include more details to help the others pick the correct picture.

Editing does the same. It allows someone else to view your story and give feedback. If you can’t find a group or it is just to hear how a part of story is going, you can record yourself reading the story, then listen to it as you read it. This won’t fix little issues, but can often help you find the little ones.

When looking at editing, the focus you want should be expressed. Do you want someone looking for grammar and punctuation? Maybe the character arc or flow of the story? Maybe you need feedback on word choice or where you an cut?

When I am at this stage of editing, my biggest concern is if the story works. You don’t need a professional editor for this, you can use a good writing friend or critique group. Many writing organizations have critique groups you can join.

And just because I am having them look for gaps in the story flow does not mean they can’t edit grammar or spelling, it just isn’t a concern at the moment and I don’t need them to use our time to talk about it.

If I had spent time editing my students’ work for grammar and spelling, I would not have time to rest over Spring Break.

Target the purpose of your editing, whether you are editing someone else’s work or you are asking someone else to edit your work.

Take the edits for what they are. They are not a personal attack on you or your work. If someone asks a question, don’t feel you have to justify why you wrote something the way you did. Remember, they do not have the benefit of creating the story and holding the answers. It could truly be a gap in your story.

Often, as you reflect on those questions later, you can see where your story maybe isn’t clear enough or a gap you have.

Here is an example from one of my students: ….and they lost their cat. Then they found their cat. The end.

I asked her how they found the cat? They looked. Where? Outside. Where did they find the cat? In the tree. What tree? The one in their neighbor’s yard. (looks at me like I lost my mind) Why didn’t you write that down? I did, see, “Then they found their cat.”

And she thought I had lost my mind before…..

To her, the details were there. Just not on paper.

You may laugh at this gap or think it is outrageous, but since I have started on this writer’s road and critiqued online and in person, gaps as bad as these still happen to good writers. (points finger at self and hides middle grade manuscript)

When the kids come back, we are going to sit down and I will read aloud their story and edits with them so they can hear how to improve their stories. Then we redraft the story.


Writing With First Graders: Drafting

We have covered a lot in my class. We have written small stories. We have brainstormed. We have learned the parts of story. This week, we begin writing our final story for the year. We are going to put together our ideas, write out a story, revise and rewrite before publishing our stories.

Then, if the kids want, we will enter their stories in a nationwide writing contest! Pretty exciting stuff!

A goal that goes beyond yourself can be highly motivating, and highly frightening. If you only ever write for yourself, then the bar will be low and you will only do well enough to please yourself. When you write toward a deadline and/or a goal, you are more focused and seek to write at a higher level.

I encourage you all to create a goal. It may be for an upcoming conference, critique group, contest, submission opportunity, or so on.

I like to use the S.M.A.R.T. Goal system.                                                                                        Specific goal. I want to do _______ for _________.                                                               Measurable. If your goal is too general, you can sell yourself short. I want to have done _______ by _______. Critiques and Conferences give you a built in measure.            Attainable. Make sure your goal is attainable. Goals are meant to be steps in your career. If your goal is to have an editor buy your book at the conference, while not impossible, it is not the measure of your goal. Completing your manuscript and submitting might be your goal.                                                                                                                                 Relevant. This goes with attainable. Make sure your goal matches that step in your career. If you make a goal of submitting your work and your measure of success is that you will have five books published in the next 5 years, that goal and measure of success are too many steps apart.                                                                                                             Time Bound. Your specific goal should have a realistic time expectancy. They should be short term so you can see progress. Things with deadlines can help you set those timely goals. But don’t rush yourself. Don’t try to write a novel for a conference with a submission deadline 2 weeks away! On the other end, don’t plan to go to an exciting conference in two years to submit your picture book! We all know life throws us curveballs.

Okay, I am way off topic, but not really. Back to my students.

Over the week, we took some of our brainstorming ideas from last week and began to create stories. This week has been about writing a draft of our story. Many of the kids asked what the difference of a draft and brainstorming are?

Brainstorming is coming up with ideas. I explain it to them that it is like planting a seed.

Drafting is putting those ideas down, watering them and taking care of them. It is often messy as you try to make your story grow.

Drafting and Brainstorming are not separate from one another. Often, in drafting, you are still brainstorming. You are creating your story arc, developing your character and asking questions.

As they draft their ideas, they may use a chart or graph. I often have the kids use a five finger chart or a beginning/middle/end chart.

A five finger chart reminds the kids that a story has three main parts. The beginning (thumb) is short and the fattest of the fingers. It has to introduce the character and the problem (and setting) in short space (First three sentences in a picture book). The three middle fingers shows the meat of the story. We talk about the rule of threes (I did not use a specific mentor story, but looked at many of the old tales like the 3 Little Pigs) in which the character tries and fails before succeeding. Then we end with the pinky, which is also short and shows that the ending of the story is quick revealing the solution and the character build.

After drafting, we begin the critique. I start with their opening. We read the first 2-5 sentences and see if they have  accomplished the task. I help them identify what really needs to be there or what is missing and then they revise their opening.

I do not focus on grammar or spelling during this critique. If I have to ask the student about a word, I will make the correction, but this revision is about getting the best opening down.

Then we move on to the ending. We read the whole story again and make sure that we have a resolution for the problem we identified in our opening. Then I help them make sure that they have the resolution and ending down to 1-3 sentences.

There are two common mistakes I see in their writing:

A) ….and they saved the cat.        They solved the problem, but resolution is different than solution. They need to wrap up their beginning. If they were worried about their lost cat, then they need to show how they felt about finding their cat.

B) ….and they saved the cat. They were so happy they went out to dinner to celebrate. And they went to the movies and saw Frozen. And then they went to the store to buy cookies for breakfast.  And….     The story doesn’t end. This stuff is great, but it is irrelevant to the story.

Finding the right ending is tough. You want it to end just so, but finding that balance can be difficult. Word choice is so important, especially in a picture book or short story.

Once we have it trimmed down, they go and rewrite just the ending.

Then we get to look at the meat of the story. What three things did the character do to try to solve the problem before they were successful?

Most of the time, with kids, they jump all over the place. Only 25% of the story ever makes it to the paper. So I spend a lot of time asking questions. Mostly how and why questions.

It is not enough to say they tried and failed (or succeeded). What exactly did they do? How did they do it? Why did they do it? How did they feel? What did they do next? Who could help them?

We tackle each attempt on their own. We look to make sure it makes sense. Then we retell the story out loud from the beginning to make sure it makes sense. I reuse the finger chart to make sure we have covered everything.

Then they go back and redraft their story on a new piece of paper.

It is a long process and I did not get through all the kids in this four day week. Next week is Spring Break, so the kids will have the week off. Not me, I will take their stories home and edit them.

So next week’s blog will be about the editing process.

Writing With First Graders: Brainstorming

Every day we have ideas; thousands upon thousands of them. So how come when we sit down to write, we can’t always seem to come up with an idea?

This week, my class is exploring their own ideas. As a class, we came up with an idea, and worked on creating a story together. We have studied what a story needs, but how do we put that all together to create a story? What comes first: character or plot?

The truth is, ideas come from everywhere. Sometimes ideas come from experiences. Others come from our imagination. And sometimes we mash the two together.

For our mentor text this week, I used my own story, Pedro’s Pan. Pedro’s Pan originated as an idea based off of someone that I learned about as I grew up. He was a prospector, not unlike my own dad, and I wanted to share his story.

I wrote a biography and while it was okay, it was not the story I was looking for. After revising, then rewriting it, I came up with a new story to honor my family’s past as well as tell about prospecting. I brought the story to life using anecdotes from my own childhood panning for gold with my dad.

So, the story came out of my own experiences meshed with a real person and his talking gold pan.

I did not set out with the idea to include STEM data or be didactic to tell the lessons of perseverance, friendship or self identity, but those themes do pop up in the story.

It all started with an experience and an idea.

So we brainstormed ideas together. Everyone does this differently. I have heard of authors who carry a little notebook and squirrel away any idea. Others are very methodical and set aside time each day to stare at their computer until they come up with an idea. Some use devices or the internet to find ideas while yet others do research or participate in idea generation sessions like Tara Lazar’s Storystorm.

I like to think of characters, sometimes issues, events in my own life, or my favorite, a phrase. Who would say this? Why?

With my class, it was pretty straight forward. Each student thought of an idea, wrote it down on a piece of paper and we listed them on the board. We explored the ideas and looked at how some of them might be connected. We talked and laughed and asked questions.

Then we let them sit overnight and came back the next day and started forming a story. We blended ideas together, borrowing plot from here, a character from there until we had a start to our story.

Next, they had to decide how to solve the problem and where the story should take place. They wrote down their ideas and we shared. And let them sit once again overnight.

We came back and agreed on how to end our story and where it should take place. Then we popcorned out ideas of how to get from the beginning to end. “Our character did this….then that happened so he did this….”

On the last day, we had our story. It was still rough, but it was there.

Now, not all stories are created this way. After all, you don’t have a classroom full of first graders. You do, however, have those creative voices inside you that ask lots of questions.

Whenever you have an idea, write it down. You don’t have to flush out the story yet, but you don’t want to forget it either. When you do sit down and write your story, don’t worry about word count or perfect grammar (or spelling), but tell the story. Then go back through and feel out each part of your story by asking questions like:

-What will happen next?

-Why did they do that? OR How did they do that?

-How do they feel?

Then you look on to the next section of your story and see if it was answered. If not, you might want to write it out. Whenever writing a picture book, this may be where an illustrator answers the question, but you need to be aware of it.

Here is an example of asking a question from one of the kids I worked with this week:

Farmer Asher was playing tag with his friends. The animals got loose. He broke his foot. His friends found the animals for him.

Please remember, this is a first grader who wrote this…..and when they told their story out loud, it took them 5 minutes.

Questions for segment one: Why was Farmer Asher playing with his friends? What was he supposed to be doing? Where they at the farm?

Questions for segment two: How did the animals get loose? What kind of animals got loose? Did all the animals get loose? Where did they go? Why did the animals want to get free?

Questions for segment three: How did Farmer Asher break his foot? What did his friends do? Did he go to the hospital? How did he feel?

Questions for segment four: Why did his friends help? Where did they look? How did they find them? How did Farmer Asher feel?

And this is the next draft of their story:

Farmer Asher was feeding the animals when his friends came over to play. Asher really wanted to play and thought he could finish feeding the animals after he played. So he did. While he was playing, the chickens and cows snuck out of the gate that a hungry fox opened for them. Asher saw the animals were missing and asked his friends to help him find them. While looking, Asher slipped on the hill and tripped over a rock and broke his foot. He screamed because he broke his foot and his friends ran to help him. They carried him back to the farm and wanted to call the ambulance but Asher was worried about his animals. And then his friends went looking for them and heard a cowbell that was coming from a hole in the ground. One friend sounded like a chicken and the fox came out of his den to look for it. His friends rescued the animals and Asher was glad his animals were safe. His friends took him to the hospital where the doctor said his foot would be broken for 4 weeks.

Now that is a change in the story! We wrote this story in groups, so the kids were able to brainstorm and ask questions as they wrote.

As storytellers, we know there is a lot more in our head than we ever get on paper, but we need to stop and make sure our story is complete. Brainstorming does not end with the idea, but should continue through the process.

Next week, we are going to be talking about rereading a story with a character/story arc in mind.

Writing With First Graders: Voice

When I work with first graders, we do not talk much about voice. Many of these stories are “their” stories, so you will hear their voice. We do talk about first, second and third person point of view.’

In case you are not familiar, most stories are written in first or third person. First person is the character telling their story (I did this). You know what the character knows and see what the character sees. Third person is told with a narrator who may give you a broader glimpse of the character’s world (He did this). There are different perspectives in these views, but they are pretty straight forward.

Second Person View is very rare. It is hard to write in this mindset because it is an introspective narrator that is talking to the reader/character indirectly. (You do this).  Great examples of this are “Your Alien” by Tammi Sauer and “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie” by Laura Numeroff.

But when I talk about voices, I am talking more than perspective. Every author is said to have a writing style. Phrases, humor, diction and so on all create an author’s voice. When you think of Stephen King, you think of horror/suspense. When you think of Tom Clancy, you think of thriller/espionage. When you think of Dr. Seuss, you think of goofy/rhyming children’s stories.

These are their voices. The more you read them, the quicker you pick out their writing. Even over a long period of time, you can pick up their voice, even as their writing changes and improves.

Your writing will change and improve too, but your voice, the way you write and what you have to say, typically won’t, even if the topic does. It is hardwired into you.

Different kinds of stories have voices too. Fantasy, especially high fantasy, is all about overcoming the impossible in impossible ways. Thrillers have to be fast passed. Suspense has to give you enough without giving you all so even though you know, you don’t know how it is going to end.

Voice can also be influenced by age. A Young Adult novel is meant to tackle young adult issues that need to be handled in a way a young adult would. Same goes for middle grade or children’s books and other genres.

This is all pretty straight forward. This is the formula for building a story. But when it comes to your story, does your character have their own voice?

This is what troubles most writers when it comes to voice. We have all of these other voices, but is my characters voice distinctively its own?

I have been power housing through the Harry Dresden series by Jim Butcher. A film noir fantasy set in  the modern world where a detective magician has to save his clients and the world from things that most people won’t admit exist. What could be better!

So, to break it down, I need to know if Harry Dresden has a voice. So I strip away the film noir, the fantasy, and writing style and see what is left. Harry Dresden is a narrow minded individual who fails to see the greater picture. He is egocentric, but is compassionate. He is powerful, but does not use it for his own gain. He is a bit of a smart ass and copes with fear and danger through humor.

Now some of these might be direct insights into the author, but as I read it, I know who Harry Dresden is, I understand why he says what he says and does what he does. It is expected. It also does not go against the formula for all the other voices and perspectives.

In my story, Pedro’s Pan, Pan tells their story. He is childlike (picture book for kids), who deals with a kid like problem (who am I) and speaks like a kid.

When I wrote the story, I had to be aware that though I wanted to use mining terms, I needed to make sure that the terms I used were approachable to kids. I didn’t use the word “placers”, instead I used the words “gravel from the stream bank.” I also added in my own experiences as a child to help establish his character’s voice.

Voice then becomes the experiences of your character and how they share them. Whether it is Harry Dresden dealing with fear and pain by focusing on “demon donuts of darkness” or Pan worried that he is broken, you identify with each because of their voice.

We will begin again next week by reviewing the steps of writing as the kids write their own versions of a story we will write in class. Next week we will dig deeper into brainstorming not only the story, but setting, characters, and phrases that will help build your story.

Writing With First Graders: Setting

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.

Empty Valentine

Here is an entry for Susanna Leonard Hills annual Valentiny contest. Our goal, write a story that is 214 words or less. The theme of the story is something guilty.

Empty Valentine

            I ran into class and snatched my paper mailbox off of my desk. I had spent all morning decorating it with pink and red hearts in anticipation of the class party.


Not one Valentine.

I slumped into my seat and put my head down to hide the disappointment.

It is tough being the new kid. I had only started yesterday and the class list had already gone home and I had not been on it. Mom warned me this could happen, but it still hurt.

Not even one?

Plunk. My mailbox rattled.

My classmates had all stopped and stared as Jessica, the smallest kid in the class, reached up on her tippy-toes to place a Valentine in my box.

Each child looked at their pile as Jessica walked back to her desk with a smile on her face.

I pulled out the card. “You’re Awesome!” said the dancing heart picture on the front. On the back, I could see the erased name of Jessica replaced with mine.

One after another, my classmates hurriedly scribbled my name on a card or two and dropped them in my box until it was bursting at the seams.

It is tough being the new kid, but with friends like these, it can be a bit easier.

Writing With First Graders: Plot

Kids identify plot as the problem. Plot is the journey the character takes to solve the problem.

After studying character arc last week, we jumped into plot. For the kids, the plot is simply the problem the character faces.

While in its simplest form, this is true, it is also more complex than that. Plot, like the character can come in many shapes and forms and adapt as the story moves along. It can be an inside or outside force on your character. Your character can cause the problem or simply be affected by it in an uncontrolled way.

For out mentor text this week, we used Tammi Sauer’s Your Alien. This story provides an interesting perspective as it is told in second person which is done very rarely, and even more rarely, done well.

With most picture books, the plot (problem) is often revealed on the first page. In this story, the problem is that a little boy feels lonely. An alien crashes and the little boy “wants” to keep him.

So a) the little boy is lonely and b) he wants to keep the alien, which hints that he will not.

As the character develops, you see that his parents are too busy to pay attention to him. He takes his alien with him to school where his friends think it is cool, but after school, only the alien and little boy go on an adventure; none of his school friends join him, revealing he is lonely at school too. His friends are not truly friends.

The alien misses its family, so the little boy, who understands, does what he can to help his alien friend find his family. And the little alien leaves and our character is back to where he started, looking out his window feeling lonely.

But this time, his family is there to give him a hug.

Beautifully, Tammi Sauer takes us on a journey of empathy. We understand the boy is lonely and it makes us sad. The boy finds happiness and becomes empathetic himself. This makes you feel even more for him and even more happy his family is there for him, and validates Ms. Sauer’s word choice (I am not giving it all away, you have to read it for yourself!).

I like to go back and reread the first page of the story and then the last page of the story. It essentially reads like this (paraphrasing), One night you will be looking out the window and your family will give you a hug.

Same plot, different story. The little boy faces the same problem and gets the same result, but you have not grown with the character. The plot (and character) are weak.

When dealing with plot, I tell my class to think about why. Why is this a problem? Why should you care? Why does the character care?

Then ask yourself how questions. How will the character solve the problem? How long will it take? How many times will they fail? How will the reader know it is a problem? How will they know how the character feels about the problem? How will the reader feel when they hear the solution?

I want them to think about the journey. The journey does not need to be long or arduous, but it does need to be satisfying. I tell the class to think of it as a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. There is a promise there; bread, peanut butter and jelly. If any of it is missing, you are not satisfied. If any of the ingredients are changed, you may be surprised, but not satisfied.

For example: a peanut butter and honey sandwich might be good to some people, but few (if any) want a peanut butter with tuna fish sandwich. You choice of peanut butter or jelly also makes a difference. The amount you use of each ingredient. The kind of bread. Each ingredient plays into the story.

Also, the placement. If you put the peanut butter on the outside of the sandwich, it is less appealing and many would argue that it tastes differently though the ingredients are the same.

Understanding how the plot and the character interact and grow together, you get a more satisfying outcome. A lonely kid wanting and getting a hug is a pretty unsatisfying story.

What I hope the class takes from this story is that plot can be (and should be) the way you show your character growing allowing you to like them more. Do not feel the need to rush and solve your character’s problem(s), but let them struggle a bit, let the problem change with them. In the end, when your character solves the problem, you and the reader will be happier.

Next week we will talk about setting. We will be looking to how important it is to both character and plot development in some cases.

Writing With First Graders: Character Development

As my class looked at creating their own stories, we discussed characters. As our mentor text, we used Ryan T. Higgins’ We Don’t Eat Our Classmates because it shows a clear character arc.

A good character needs to be relatable in some way. They need to have a problem to solve, struggle and fail to do so, then achieve their goal.

Penelope Rex is a young dinosaur who is worried about her first day of school. She is described as “nervous” and the kids can empathize with that. This sets a good foundation for building the character arc because our character is relatable and has a problem.

Her problem is elevated when she finds out her classmates are children, and children are delicious….and she eats them. Her original problem has now grown more complex. She is a hungry little dinosaur surrounded by delicious children.

After spitting out the children, she notices that none of them really like her. So she tries harder to be their friend.

I like to read the next section without showing the class the pictures. In it, Penelope tries to play with the other kids at recess, does her best finger painting, and saves a seat for a classmate at lunch. These are all great and wonderful things. She is trying to make friends.

Another step in building our character. The reader is even more empathetic to Penelope.

Then I show them the pictures of all the things she is doing to make friends because she is actually trying to eat them.

Our character is doing what our character does. To her, eating children is natural. To the children (and the class), this is wrong. You want to feel bad for Penelope, but you understand why the kids don’t want to be around her.

Penelope reaches what you might consider the high point (or low point) of our character arc. She is lonely and this makes her question why the kids don’t like her.

She gets some advice and thinks hard on it. She is obviously troubled and makes a conscious decision to change her ways so the kids will like her.

And she tries hard. This is the struggle. Before, she was doing what is natural. Now she must find a way to overcome.

Again, this makes the character relatable. Nothing magically happens to solve the problems. Penelope is still a hungry little dinosaur surrounded by delicious children. And no matter how hard she tries, she stumbles and succumbs to her nature and eats a child, reinforcing the fear of her classmates.

Now comes the final step in the character arc: resolution. The character needs to solve their problem in some way. The can persevere, learn a lesson, or become innovative.

Penelope learns a lesson from an unlikely antagonist, the class pet, a gold fish who thinks dinosaurs are delicious. She now knows what it is like to be afraid of being eaten and she turns around her ways. When she begins to falter, all she has to do is look at the gold fish and remember what it was like to be “eaten,” and eventually, she makes friends.

We can not all be as talented as Ryan T. Higgins, but we should be able to understand how to build better characters.

With my first graders, I am not expecting to see a character arc, but I want them to be able to see one when they read. Hopefully that will in turn impact their writing and make their characters involved in telling the story.

As the rest of us practice writing, we need to understand that our current picture book market is all about character driven stories. That means you need a solid character arc. In order to have one, you need to know what they are and practice building them.

This does not mean you can’t write a story without one, but as you go through your revisions, think about your character(s). Are they static (can be easily swapped) or dynamic (this character active in the story and would not easily make sense if swapped out with a different character). Does the story stay true to the character’s nature, whether good or flawed?

Next week, I plan to tackle plot. Coming up with plot is easy, developing a strong plot is hard, especially in picture books.


Writing With First Graders: Sam and Dave Dig a Hole

I teach first grade and I have a group of first graders that I work with every day that are very proficient readers. To encourage their skills, we have been focusing on the creativity of writing.

I have decided to share the journey, as I feel it is a valid process for first graders, new writers, or even seasoned writers, to remember the journey. Each week, we will explore with a mentor text and I reveal what we learned.

This week’s mentor text was, Sam and Dave Dig a Hole by Mac Barnett and illustrated by Jon Klassen.a1gbsdt-o1l

The foundation for any story is identifying the character(s), the setting, and the problem. Our focus this week was on character.

Sam and Dave are obvious characters since they are in the title. As we read the story, I believe it was around page 10, that one of the students noted that the dog was also a character. This brought up the cat as well and we restarted the story.

In books, there are various characters. You have main characters who drive the story, antagonists who oppose the main character, secondary or supporting characters who help the main character, and background characters who are in the story but really don’t affect the story or the main characters.

The students made a list: no antagonist, the cat was a background character, Sam and Dave were the main characters as was the dog (after much debate).

After the story, we went over the character list and discussed again the characters and what they did. We looked to see if they solved the problem we first thought they had, or if we had in fact misunderstood the problem.

One of the students had an amazing insight: Could the diamonds be a character? He thought they could be the antagonist since they were part of the problem.

A majority of the class said no, because the diamonds were not alive, so they could not be  a character.

So that brought up the interesting question of whether characters had to be alive and how do we define in a make believe story what is alive.

The discussion turned back to the term antagonist, and we quickly determined that the diamonds were not an antagonist as they did nothing to oppose Sam and Dave. While most students believe the diamonds were merely “things” (props) in the story, some felt that, like the dog and the cat, they were characters. And if they were, that made them secondary characters.

This brought up another debate because the story never mentions the diamonds, so they could not be characters. I went back and reread parts of the story to show that Mac Barnett never writes about the dog or the cat.

The discussion that day set the groundwork for us brainstorming ideas the rest of the week. The students had a greater understanding of a character, not simply as a name, but how they interact with their setting and resolve problems.

We ran out of time before the students could make a final decision on diamonds being a character, but it did bring up a couple of interesting points: It showed the importance of how images can tell a story. It also raised the question, can “things” be characters?

What do you think?