Part Two: How to Develop a Creative Writing Program (Includes Examples of How to Publish/Display Students’ Work)
Story Day: A Theoretical Model for Teaching Creative Writing in the Elementary Grades
I love Story Day; the kids also seem to love it. They know from experience that the day will end with their posting, if they wish to, their stories on the hallway display boards at Pinecrest Elementary School (Quesnel, British Columbia, Canada) for students and staff to read and savour. I encourage this posting because I know “students must develop a sense of purpose and audience and come to view writing as a meaningful act” (Vacca & Linek, 1992, p. 147).
Stapled-to-the-display-boards stories validate the whole day of writing and polishing (rewriting). This validation sails on one of the principles for writing by Tchudi and Huerta: “Provide audiences for student writing, …so that students have a sense of writing for someone other than the teacher” (Vacca & Linek, 1992, p. 156). To that end, “display or otherwise publicize [and validate, really,] student writing through shows, demonstrations, book publishings, and oral readings. Don’t be the only reader of your students’ work” (p. 156).
This publication ends Story Day, which I describe in a step-by-step process that draws on my experience, on the experience of others, and on Vygotskian, social-constructivist, and other theoretical premises. The process, divided into three stages, engagement, exploration, and reflection, provides significant direction for elementary teachers interested in teaching creative writing.
I call the direction significant because of its “thick” theoretical basis. But theoretical bases look spaghetti thin in most creative writing programs for children. Brian S. Powell wrote a book called Making Poetry, which exposes teacher and student to many different poetry forms; however, the theoretical premise for the 180-page book rests in one Chinese proverb: “I hear and I forget; I see and I remember; I do and I understand.” Also theoretically thin is Peter Elbow’s Writing Without Teachers. He develops a method of teaching creative writing based on this theory: “Two heads are better than one” (Elbow, 1973, p. 49). Do I oversimplify? Not much. He does say “two people, if they let their ideas interact, can produce ideas or points of view that neither could singly have produced” (Elbow, 1973, p. 50), which does contain echoes of social-constructivism. Yet the book weighs heavy on opinion. Light on theory.
The same for the book Stop, Look and Write! written by Hart Day Leavitt and David A. Sohn (1964). They develop a creative writing program that fills 222 pages, “based on the principle [theory] that all effective writing depends primarily on accurate, insightful observation” (Editorial note for the 1976 Bantam edition). Neither this book nor the other two I mentioned contain bibliographies or reference lists. They contain, essentially, the authors’ thoughts outside of much theoretical direction. The English Teachers’ Online Network of South Africa (http://www.geocities.com/CollegePark/Campus/2159/index.htm), a Web site for teachers, edited by Dorian Love, presents many ideas for teaching creative writing, but offers no theoretical direction.
Writing the Natural Way, by Gabriele Lusser Rico, stands almost alone as a method to help people learn to write that is based on deep theoretical premises. She draws on right brain-left brain research, basing her methods on the work of Joseph Bogen, Anton Ehrenzweig, Tony Buzan, and her own doctoral dissertation in English and the Creative Arts.
Teachers need this kind of support that Rico has from her own work and from the work of others. Teachers need to base creative writing lessons on sound theoretical direction that shows why these lessons will or do work for students. If you teach creative writing, don’t you sometimes wonder if the theory-devoid creative writing lessons you come across in teachers’ guidebooks for readers, in other reading and writing programs, and on educational Web sites really make sense? Don’t you sometimes wonder if they actually teach kids how to write stories or poems? This essay goes far beyond my own experience as a teacher of creative writing; it offers a sound theoretical foundation for something that I call Story Day–a method for teaching creative writing.
To start, perhaps you will agree that this foundation should address the cultural diversity we find in our classrooms.
Celebrate Cultural Diversity
These stories the students write are part of our classroom culture.
This culture, thick with words, words, and especially entertaining words and stories, creates “a framework for [writing]…and understanding…Culture is the framework in which communication [such as writing]…becomes meaningful” (Schiffrin, 1994, p. 408). In this classroom culture “a rich variety of language can flow with ease” (Connie and Harold Rosen as cited in Sainsbury, 1992, p. 123). That flow happens means my classroom is “successful” (p. 123). “For that to happen speakers must share a past, must share meanings, must have knowledge in common, must be able to make assumptions about each other and must have built their own network of conventions [such as what makes a story]” (Connie and Harold Rosen as cited in Sainsbury, p. 123).
The Rosens “make the point very strongly that it is the teacher’s acceptance of each child as an individual that underlies this success” (Sainsbury, 1992, p. 123). That acceptance creates cultural force in the classroom. That force encourages “students…to help one another without put-downs, harmful competition, or unnecessary criticism. They should applaud the writing efforts that individuals choose to share” (Vacca & Linek, 1992, p. 157).
Given the context of the classroom culture I try to establish, you can understand my agreement with Ruddell and Unrau: Teachers should be “warm, caring, and flexible, while having high expectations of themselves and their students. Furthermore, they are concerned about their students as individuals in the social context [culture] of the classroom” (1994, p. 1023). In that culture, the “teacher[ ] [should] consistently use clearly formulated instructional strategies that embody focused goals, plans, and monitoring” (p. 1023). I will discuss those strategies soon, but first I want to say more about classroom culture.
We live in a multicultural extravaganza, in diverse continents, here on earth. Students “have diverse characteristics, such as race or ethnicity, language, income levels, gender, and special needs, and in unique combinations. In addition to their previous learning in and out of school, they bring unique knowledge, strategies, and attitudes to [the] classroom” (Allan & Miller, 2000, p. 10).
That diversity affects language in the classroom. Because “language learning is cultural learning” (Heath, 1986, p. 85), the language children and teacher bring to the classroom affects classroom culture. Here is a perfect example:
A brand-new black teacher is delivering her first reading lesson to a group of first-grade students in inner-city Philadelphia. She has almost memorized the entire basal-provided lesson dialogue while practicing in front of a mirror the night before.
“Good morning, boys and girls. Today we’re going to read a story about where we live–in the city.”
A small brown hand rises.
Marti and his teacher are special friends, for she was a kindergartner in the informal classroom where her new teacher-student taught.
“Teacher, how come you talkin’ like a white person? You talkin’ just like my momma talk when she get on the phone!”
I was that first-year teacher many years ago, and Marti was among the first to teach me the role of language diversity in the classroom. Marti let me know that children–even young children–are often aware of the different codes we all use in our everyday lives. (Delpit, 1990, p. 247)
How do I deal with language diversity as part of the classroom culture? This is Story Day, and the students are going to spend the day writing, so what should I do, tell them that standard English is the only English, or imply by my words and gestures that all other forms of English are inferior? I know that “the linguistic form a student brings to school is intimately connected with loved ones, community, and personal identity. To suggest that this form is ‘wrong’…is to suggest that something is wrong with the student and his or her family” (Delpit, 1990, p. 251). Would that be the mark of a “warm, caring, and flexible” teacher?
I don’t think so.
Although it’s true that “students who do not have access to the politically popular dialect form in this country, i.e., standard English, are less likely to succeed economically than their peers who do” (Delpit, 1990, p. 251), a standard versus non-standard reconciliation exists. “Martha Demientieff, a native Alaskan teacher of Athabaskan Indian middle school students, finds that her students, who live in a small, isolated village, are not fully aware that there are different codes of English” (p. 251). What does she do about that? She validates the non-standard while informing students about the standard.
About those who speak only standard English, she tells her students:
We have to feel a little sorry for them because they have only one way to talk. We’re going to learn two ways to say things. Isn’t that better? One way will be our Heritage way. The other will be Formal English. Then, when we go to get jobs, we’ll be able to talk like those people who only know and can only really listen to one way. (Martha Demientieff cited in Delpit, 1990, p. 252).
I try to approach cultural diversity in the classroom similarly, thereby validating who students are, and who their families are, and thereby infusing our classroom culture with a celebration of diversity. Instead of saying, “Darlene, you really need to fix up some of these words. They’re slang, you know,” I’d much rather say, “Darlene, this story has adventure, and it’s even kind of scary. The others kids will love reading it.” I’d rather encourage than criticize. I’ll address the subject of standard versus non-standard English with the class in the same spirit and logic as Martha Demientieff’s words. But I won’t follow the public road of criticism of non-standard English found in this example:
A black second grader wrote a story which she volunteered to share with the class.
She began: “Once upon a time there was an old lady, and this old lady ain’t had nosense….” At this point the teacher interrupted her. “Doris, that sounds like it’s going to be a wonderful story, but can you put the beginning in standard English?”
Doris looked at her paper for a moment, and then proffered, “There was an old lady who didn’t have any sense.” She paused, put her hand on her hip, and said emphatically, “But this old lady ain’t had no sense!” (Delpit, 1990, p. 259)
I would have simply enjoyed Doris’ story, enjoyed the diversity of language.
But I want my classroom’s culture to celebrate more than diversity in language; I want it to celebrate different styles of storytelling. Consider the following by Gail Martin, a teacher-researcher who is speaking about Arapaho students:
One of our major concerns was that many of the stories children wrote didn’t seem to “go anywhere.” The stories just ambled along with no definite start or finish, no climaxes or conclusions. I decided to ask Pius Moss [the school elder] about these stories, since he is a master Arapaho storyteller…[He] explained that Arapaho stories…[are] told in what we might call serial form, continued night after night….My colleagues and I…decided that we would encourage our students to choose whichever type of story they wished to write. (Gail Martin in Delpit, 1990, pp. 259-260)
Just as one shows wisdom in not “replying to a matter before…hear[ing it]” (New World Translation, Proverbs 18:13), Gail Martin showed wisdom in not simply rejecting the Arapaho stories, but in gathering relevant information about them. Simply put, classroom culture should make room for cultural forces kids bring to school. Len Vygotsky would have agreed. “Vygotsky describes…learning as occurring first on an interpsychological plane–or between people[, which certainly includes people at home]–and then on an intrapsychological plane–within the individual” (McCarthey & Raphael, 1992, p. 17). Gail didn’t criticize the types of stories Arapaho children wrote; she didn’t ignore that “through speech and social interaction[, which includes the speech and social interaction children experience outside the classroom,]…the learner acquires new abilities [and insights]” (p. 17).
The language of that last sentence labels Vygotsky, in some ways, a social-constructivist. In the words of McCarthey and Raphael:
social-constructivist theory accounts for variations among cultures in language practices and in the ways children learn to read and write in different settings. The theory highlights the role of social context and brings our attention to the need to be sensitive to the values and practices of different cultural groups in schools. (McCarthey & Raphael, 1992, p. 20)
That said, I salute Gail Martin.
Now let’s start this Story Day. I’m soon going to introduce a subject, for those who want to use it. The students sit on the rug, clumped and eager. They’ve had these Story Days before. Even the sloooow writers get to produce something of note because time really isn’t an issue. This Day is a whole school day. I whet their appetite for our adventure as I usually do, by focussing on the magic, the entertainment value, the emotional impact, of words. We’re going to sing a song, I tell them. They know I’m a writer, and that I have written a number of songs. They’re used to my work, and I’m used to their requests.
“Sing ‘A Beast Beneath my Bed,'” one boy says.
I agree to sing if they agree to sing along. Agreement made. I grab my Yamaha classical from a corner, and then the words and melody unite (you’re welcome to hum along):
There’s a creepy-crawly monster
Underneath my bed;
It’s a horribly hairy beastie
With an ugly purple head.
I know it’s there;
I know it is;
I hear it in the night.
It’ll groan and spit and even hiss,
And maybe take a bite.
Yes, maybe take a bite
And eat up both my feet,
So never do I let them hang
Outside my cotton sheet.
I worry much
About this thing,
This thing that lurks below.
I chew my nails
And try to sleep
And utter not a peep.
But down below
That toothy nest
Of jaws and paws and claws
Is waiting just to eat me
While I try to get some rest.
If only I could teach it
Not to treat me so.
Just how do I do that?
Does anybody know?
(Lukiv, 1999, pp. 20-21)
I take every opportunity I can to focus on the wonder of words, and, therein, to expand sudents’ vocabulary. “Estimates indicate that children expand their vocabulary at the rate of 2700 to 3000 words per year–or about 7 words a day” (Ruddell & Unrau, 1994, p. 1012). Stories and poems need words, so our classroom, a springboard for writing stories and poems, is full of them–in song, in print, on the board and on charts or posters, and in conversation. And there are bonuses here. “Oral and written language development, which affect[s] the thinking process, contribute[s] directly to the development of reading ability” (p. 997).
“Pretend you’re a kite,” I tell them, “flying so high, so very, very high. The world below is filled with little things, such tiny, little things. How would you feel if you were that kite?”
They know all about this brainstorming stuff. The words pour from their lips, and I write them on the board. The list starts with
happy scared excited
“Brainstorming, or compiling a list of all the words associated with or related to a topic, is a common activity for exploring what [words] students already know” (Allan & Miller, 2000, p. 101). But brainstorming, in formalistic school settings, wasn’t common at all when I was a child living in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.
One day in grade four, in 1962/63 still in the clutches of a century of formalism, learning briefly changed for me. Our usually-stern, aloof, precisely-accurate teacher surprisingly said, “We’re going to do something different today. We’re going to talk about the universe. I’m going to ask you a question, but there is no right or wrong answer. Now then: How big is the universe? Does it go on forever, or does it stop? And if it does stop, how does it stop? Remember, now, there are no wrong answers.”
Our teacher worked hard to encourage us to allow our imaginations no limits. I (and my fellow classmates) slowly recovered from the shock of being invited to participate in such an unorthodox assignment. I believe I felt my brain turning on. Perhaps new-found numbers of neurotransmitters had jumped to life. My brain seemed to soar across a chasm filled with 5 x 4 = 20 and other apparently-for-the-moment, unimportant facts to an expanse, a landscape, on which any thinking would do.
What a day! Fifteen years later I learned in UBC [the University of British Columbia, Canada]-teacher training classes that my fellow students and I were brainstorming, creatively dreaming up ideas, and about ten years after that I learned that some people call it lateral thinking. Comments leapt from our grade four-mouths:
“Maybe it never ends” / “How can something never end?” / “Maybe it starts all over again” / “Maybe it ends at a brick wall” / “Could the universe be a circle? So wherever you go, like in a spaceship, you end up back where you started?”
Our teacher, who I remember looked delighted, continued encouraging us to dream up as many possible answers to her “How big is the universe?”-question, until we literally ran out of ideas. (Lukiv, 2001a, pp. 16-17)
Sometimes I think that experience encouraged me to become a teacher, intent on creating classroom scenarios that bubble with enthusiasm and creativity. I look at the kids, and I’m happy to see them engaged. “The dominance of one person [the teacher] over all of the others” (Onore, 1990, p. 58), such as I generally experienced every day of my elementary and high school classes, simply doesn’t exist on Story Day. At least I certainly hope it doesn’t! Especially in terms of brainstorming, “knowledge is [not] a commodity consisting of single, correct answers, and the teacher [shouldn’t be] the sole transmitter and evaluator of learning” (p. 59).
Brainstorming would die a quick death if I adopted a “you’d better give me the right words” demeanor. “Teachers must reconceptualize the kinds of control they assert if students are to be encouraged to negotiate and explore their own lines of reasoning” (Onore, 1990, p. 60). Hence, the kids know from experience that if they don’t like my chosen subject for brainstorming–in this case they can pretend they’re a kite high in the sky, and then the string breaks–that they’re welcome to write about something else. This whole Story Day could boil down to the following: “Learners learn best when they are engaged, when they are supported through collaboration with peers and teachers to explore, and when they have the opportunity to reflect [on their achievements]” (p. 61).
The brainstorming helps engage the kids. Further brainstorming springs from these questions that I’ve formulated:
“What are some of the sights you might see from way, way, way up there?”
“How would you feel if the string broke?”
“What are some of the places you could end up at if the wind swept you away?”
Brainstorming adds colour to our classroom culture because “children’s perspectives are accepted and validated” (Sainsbury, 1992, p. 125). Clearly, my stance affects the culture of my classroom, where I aim to show “a genuine interest in what…pupils have to say” (p. 122). I could formulate a creative writing period by using different strategies:
“Children, settle down, settle down! We’re going to write a story. You’re a kite. You’re way up high, and your string breaks. Settle down! We have 30 minutes before lunch, and I want all the stories finished before then. I’m going to mark papers as you write, so if you’re really stumped, come and talk to me.” I look at my watch. “Get out your story writing books…and…go!”
Did you feel the culture of the classroom changing (for the worse) as you read my words? I think the formalistic teaching methods of my teachers of yore are now anthropomorphically singing a “nationalistic” song of victory.
Let’s close their mouths. Enter Sainsbury:
[The teacher] has to see herself as a partner, albeit a more knowledgeable partner, in a conversation….She must see [students] as active appliers of meaning, using their present understanding to grapple with new material and bring it within their grasp. She must acknowledge and respect this understanding and these attempts, rather than regarding it as irrelevant interference in her own projects. The emphasis must shift from the adult as teacher to the child as learner, and the teacher must redefine her position accordingly. (1992, p. 124)
At the end of this paper, you will be in a position to decide if my Story Day complements that quote, which, it seems to me, implies that a positive classroom culture is one of acceptance and dignity–one that embraces diversity.
Sometimes honouring diversity, dignifying a student, showing that I accept who he or she is, means showing that person a little more than the usual understanding. For example, brainstorming might work well for students eager to belch out ideas, but might not work well for others. In some cases “American Indian children [are] hesitant to talk in classrooms [or participate in brainstorming sessions] because their culturally shaped language use acceptable in home learning situations [is] markedly different from that expected in learning situations in school” (Ruddell & Unrau, 1994, p. 1007). What does that mean for me? What does that mean for me when a student is taught at home that speaking out is rude? I should be “concerned about…students as individuals in the social context of the classroom” (p. 1023), and therefore I can only expect what a child is prepared to give.
Furthermore, I shouldn’t automatically interpret a child’s silence as non-participation. The child might be able to write words on paper and hand them to me. Some will offer their thoughts if I simply say in non-threatening tones, “Your eyes tell me you have an idea. Would you like to share it with us?” Some will simply not offer any thoughts. So be it. Perhaps some day they will–or they won’t. Either way, I must let them know by my body language and manner of speaking that they are valued. I must be “warm, caring, and flexible.”
In the spirit of Ogbu, I must honour diversity: “Ogbu (1990) explained why some minority groups experience more success at becoming literate in American schools than do others. He categorizes minorities into two groups: voluntary and involuntary” (Ruddell & Unrau, 1994, p. 1007).
This has significance for teachers. “Voluntary minority people (for example, some Europeans and Central Americans) have come to the United States to be more successful than they could be in their homeland” (Allan & Miller, 2000, p. 31). Often these students, prompted by encouragement at home, try very, very hard to benefit from whatever mode of schooling they face. “In contrast, involuntary minority people (for example, Native Americans and African Americans) create their identity in opposition to the white American identity. When they view school success as part of the white identity but not part of their own minority identity, they may decide not to excel in school” (Allan & Miller, 2000, p. 32).
My caution here, in referring to Ogbu, rests in this: To stereotype students could create body language and modes of speech that alienate students. Allan and Miller “caution against automatically [italics added] applying [Ogbu’s ideas] to groups, and especially to individuals. Voluntary minority students can struggle in school, and involuntary minority students can thrive there” (2000, p. 32). Aboriginal students, in other words, might bellow forth as foghorns of thought in brainstorming sessions.
Which would certainly suite me fine.
The board is full of words and phrases. I’m getting pretty excited at this point. Experience and research literature tell me “that in general…better writers tend to be better readers and that better readers tend to produce more syntactically mature writing than poorer readers” (McCarthey & Raphael, 1992, p. 7). Within a few hours, the students will fill the hallway display boards with stories, reading material. I’m trying to feed the positive correlation between reading and writing. I’m trying to fire up zeal over not just writing entertaining stories, but also fire up the zeal for reading, for reading books. These stories, many of them illustrated, will eventually become spine-stapled no-budget books for the classroom. They become real books, and as we know, “real books are wonderful[,]…brought to life [through our] reading….Each real book has its own voice…and each speaks words that move us toward increased consciousness” (Peterson & Eeds as cited in Anders & Gozzetti, 1996, p. 115).
I’m fighting the grim reality that “motivation to read changes as children progress through the grades, usually resulting in less independent pleasure reading in older children” (Ruddell & Unrau, 1994, pp. 1043-1044). Sad. My favourite aunt passed away two years ago, and one of the echoes of her very being that often fills my thoughts comes from when she said, “When I learned to read, it opened up another world. I wanted to read everything. I haven’t stopped since.” I love to read too. And I agree with my aunt. There is another world, there is another universe, out there, and books, even stories the kids write, are doors that open into it.
I’m fighting the grim reality I spoke about because I don’t want my students to bypass experiencing that universe.
Almost 50 percent of all 12th graders in the United States spend 3 hours or more watching television each day. [A] survey…reports that nearly 25 percent of 12th graders never or hardly ever read for fun on their own time and that nearly 20 percent never or hardly ever discuss reading with friends or family. Less than 25 percent of the 12th graders surveyed participate in pleasure reading daily, even for short periods. These findings suggest that personal reading is not a frequent or highly valued activity for many high school students. (Ruddell & Unrau, 1994, p. 1003)
Sad. Sad. Sad.
Peterson and Eeds say that books have “voice[s].” I want my students to grow up hearing those voices. I want them to “participate in [the] pleasure [of] reading daily” (Ruddell & Unrau, 1994, pp. 1003). But do I overreach the children’s ability as writers by quoting Peterson and Eeds (three paragraphs ago) as saying “each real book has its own voice…and each speaks words that move us toward increased consciousness”? Yes, in some cases I do, but many primary children, given some direction about the craft of story writing, can produce amazing stuff, can produce “real books.” If you don’t believe me, then you aren’t a primary teacher. Or perhaps you shouldn’t be. Anyway, if you don’t believe me, then by all means ask a few primary teachers if it’s true: Some kids can produce amazing stuff.
As for those open-ended questions–“What are some of the sights you might see from way, way, way up there?”; “How would you feel if the string broke?”; and “What are some of the places you could end up at if the wind swept you away?”–they have done their job. The board, as I wrote four paragraphs ago, is full of words and phrases. I’ve “provide[d] opportunities for students to learn by encouraging them to explore language, asking open-ended questions and promoting opportunities for writing” (McCarthey & Raphael, 1992, p. 22). Things are going well.
But there is more I need to do. I need to provide a structure for the story, an optional structure that students, if they aren’t culturally slotted into a particular type of story or storytelling structure, can pump creativity into. Today I’m going to focus on the concept of chapters in books. I know many students can write cliff-hanger chapters. They simply need to learn how. Why do I want to teach them the concept of chapters? To encourage them to inject suspense, adventure, and some volume into their works. Why? Because suspense and adventure will keep classmates reeeeeeedin’ through that voooolume. I’m keeping the positive reading-writing correlation alive.
This business of providing structure is kind of logical, anyway–aye? “There is now a considerable amount of research to indicate that children do from an early age begin to have theories about how to write” (Sainsbury, 1992, p. 129). That implies that they create their own structure to work with. Why not help them? Guide them, as they develop their theories. “Though we know the rudiments [and some sort of theoretical basis] of narrative from a tender age…, there is a long way to go to reach adult narrative maturity” (Bruner, 1996, p. 94).
An adult might say “a ‘story’…involves an Agent who Acts to achieve a Goal in a recognizable Setting by the use of certain Means. What drives [and makes] the story…worth telling…is Trouble: some misfit between Agents, Acts, Goals, Settings, and Means” (Bruner, 1996, p. 94). But a seven-year-old might say “a story is…fun. It’s fun to read.” Both of these definitions, or theoretical premises, define structure.
Why not add to students’ structural premise? “Stories often are shaped by organizational [structural] features that guide writers and readers through an imaginary journey” (Langer, 1992, p. 33). I model how the students can use chapters to enhance the journey, to enhance the reading appeal of their work. This helps keep them engaged in more than the wonder of words, but in the wonder of story writing too. “Teachers [can] model by thinking aloud, but students gradually assume control of the processes. The teacher’s role is to provide assistance through dialogue so that students gradually take control” (McCarthey & Raphael, 1992, p. 23). That social-constructivist perspective makes sense to me.
I read them a story I have written that contains many hooks (cliff-hangers) that grab the reader and encourage him to read on, just as many writers use hooks at the end of chapters to keep the reader reading. I artificially divide the story into chapters to make my point.
JOE THE CLIFF-HANGER (Lukiv, 1998, p. 4)
The day Joe climbed up towering Canyon Cliff, he slipped and fell:
CHAPTER TWO [All “AHHHH”‘s are written on the board thusly (see below) for dramatic effect]:
A H H H H H H
But his safety rope saved him–and while he trembled, and his teeth chattered, he climbed carefully to the top.
“There’s a gooseberry bush,” he said, feeling better, “and I love gooseberries.”
But then Joe saw a hairy beast tramping amongst a clump of leafy trees. Out walked a grizzly bear, standing up on two legs. He was enormous. His eyes looked fiery. His claws shone.
“RRAAARROOOOOO,” growled the ferocious bear.
“Raroo,” Joe said, in a squeaky voice.
The bear opened his huge mouth wide. He had jaws like a steel trap. Teeth gleamed like butcher knives.
Joe wasted no time. He scurried up a jack pine.
“Na, na,” Joe said, gazing down at the grumpy bear. “I’m the king of the castle.”
Around and around the tree lumbered the angry bear. Finally, he became dizzy and left, thrashing fiercely through the forest as he walked.
Joe waited until the thrashing sounds had disappeared, and then he started to climb down the tree.
“Mountain climbing is for mountain goats,” he said. “I’m going home.”
But a gust of wind swooped down from the sky. Joe then discovered he’d scaled a rotten tree. It snapped and fell over:
A H H H H
CRASH! Joe hung alongside Canyon Cliff, clutching a spiny limb. His feet dangled in deep, deep mountain air.
“Help!” he cried.
But no help came; the limb snapped. Down he fell:
A H H H H H H H H H H H H H H H
SPLASH! An eddy of wind had pushed Joe away from the deadly rocks below. Instead of plunging to his death, he’d landed in Thunder Lake.
“I’m alive!” Joe exclaimed, and he blew bubbles.
But he wasn’t safe. A monstrous fish, with too many teeth, was about to chew Joe to bits. He kicked his feet and swam with all his strength.
Fortunately, the fish was too fat to catch up.
Joe, dragging himself up a sandy beach, had escaped, but he felt too tired to stand.
“This is the worst day of my life!” he said.
Then, because he was too weary to do much else, he fell asleep. Then he woke up. His mother was knocking on his bedroom door.
“Time to wake up, sleepyhead,” she said.
“Is it really morning?” Joe asked, from beneath his crumpled blankets.
“Of course it’s morning,” she said, sticking her head inside his room to look at him. “Do you think I’d wake you up in the middle of the night?”
Joe peeked out at her and the green walls that surrounded him. “No,” he said, feeling foolish. “I guess not.”
“What do you plan to do today?” his mother asked.
“I thought about mountain climbing,” Joe said, trying to remember what Canyon Cliff and Thunder Lake had looked like.
She frowned. “Isn’t that dangerous?”
“That’s what I was thinking,” Joe said.
“I’m glad you were,” she said.
“Can I stay home and bake cookies?” Joe asked.
“Suit yourself,” she said.
“Thank you,” Joe said. “Thank you very much.”
They enjoy the story, which makes me happy. But that’s an aside, really. I lock this review up in my mind for future recall when I try to sell the story to a picture book publisher. The point here is, do they understand the structural principal of using cliff-hangers, or hooks, at the end of chapters to enhance the suspense, excitement, and sense of adventure?
To address that last question, I “engage[ ] the students[s] in a cooperative process of inquiry” through student-student interaction (Ruddell & Unrau, 1994, 1023). I ask the kids to form groups of two or three, for the purpose of exploring nifty story ideas about the lost kite, or another subject of their choosing, and for the purpose of discussing the use of cliff-hangers.
I’m wary of allowing any groupings of two or three because I know some kids can dominate the discussions. Sometimes boys dominate girls. “Males have a tendency to dominate whole-class discussion…whatever the grade level or the content….Even in small-group discussion…males may dominate both the activity and the talk about that activity” (Anders & Gozzetti, 1996, p. 128). “Why do males dominate instructional conversations? Lafrance (1991) cites three reasons. First, ‘there is a cultural proclivity for seeing any talk by women as too much talk'” (p. 128). I’ve been married for 27 years, and my wife and I have four daughters. If I find a publisher for this essay, they’ll likely read it. I probably shouldn’t consider Lafrances’ other two reasons–aye?
The groups are set, and the kids are jabbering lots. Good. They’re exploring story and cliff-hanger ideas. I hear many using words we brainstormed, which I wrote on the board. Good. This exploring is step two of the day. Step one was up to our making groups, designed to engage the kids. Remember Onore? “Learners learn best when they are engaged [Stage 1], when they are supported through collaboration with peers and teachers to explore [Stage 2], and when they have the opportunity to reflect [on their achievements (Stage 3)]” (Onore, 1990, p. 61).
I hope the kids explore topics, or scenarios, through their student-student discussions, that turn into hot topics. “What distinguishes a ‘hot topic’ from a ‘cold’ one is that a hot topic addresses the learner’s purposes and intentions rather than only those of the teacher. Hot topics do not require that learners be externally motivated to learn [or to write]” (Onore, 1990, p. 65). I’m trying to capitalize on their intrinsic motivation.
“Humans are predisposed to derive [intrinsic] pleasure from activities [such as writing]…that provide some level of [novelty:] surprise, incongruity, complexity, or discrepancy from their expectations or beliefs” (Stipek, 1998, p. 122). In addition, “competence [in writing]…engenders a positive emotional experience,…[and] this positive emotional experience…makes mastery behavior self-reinforcing” (p. 119). Therefore, I’m trying to provide my students activities that address their appetite for competence and novelty. And autonomy is important too (pp. 117-135). Student-student (and, as I’ll comment on later, student-teacher) discussions and a great log of brainstormed words and phrases on the board should encourage competence. The open-ended nature of students’ brainstorming and choosing story scenarios should provide novelty and autonomy.
I understand students’ need for intrinsic motivation, and I understand their need for discussion. “In Vygotsky’s developmental theory [of learning], the movement inward of social forms of communication [that expose the learner to knowledge and interpersonal juggling of ideas] was the child’s means of reorganizing her thinking [at the intrapersonal level of thinking and thinking about one’s thinking (metacognition)]” (Hicks, 1996, p. 6). If you accept this “movement” from a social constructivist perspective, then you simply can’t ignore the need for student-student interaction.
This interaction at this stage of exploration focuses on thinking, not on the product of writing. Students relate their story ideas to each other in a kind of revelry. I love this part of the process. The excitement in their eyes tells me they’re motivated to think, to reformulate story scenarios, to give and take (share) ideas. In this
low-risk environment…[students are] free of pressure to turn in a polished performance in the initial stages. When teachers and peers respond to expressive writing [or story ideas] they should focus on thinking, not on the mechanics of writing. A low-risk environment is one in which students feel free to express their thinking. In the expressive [exploratory] stages, thinking should be accepted, valued, questioned, and explored further–not criticized or evaluated. This means that the teacher and other students must act as a supportive learning community. (Vacca & Linek, 1992, p. 157)
This interactive process helps young authors appreciate the fluidity of writing. How many rewrites (this is a first-draft sentence) will it take before I call this essay complete? Collaboration helps kids formulate, reformulate, and re-reformulate. Just as “qualitative research depends heavily on [the fluidity of] ongoing analysis” that can actually affect the questions researchers will ask informants, writing depends on the fluidity of abandoning one idea for a better one (Miles & Huberman, 1994, p. 66).
The social-constructivist perspective, for my student-writers, perfectly allows for this fluidity of thought. See that for yourself as you consider these tenets of social-constructivism:
- The fundamental capacity to understand and generate language is innate (Chomsky, 1959, 1965) but requires a social support system for development. (Ruddell & Unrau, 1994, p. 1011)
- The teacher creates a learning environment that engages the reader in active comprehension through confronting and solving authentic [or, in terms of creative writing, fictional] problems in a social context. (Ruddell & Unrau, 1994, p. 1030)
- [The student’s] motivation to achieve is enhanced if social goals [such as helping each other come up with story ideas] and a constructivist view of learning have been integrated into the learning environment (Blumenfeld, 1992). (Ruddell & Unrau, 1994, p. 1031)
Notice how rigidity of thought doesn’t have much place in those tenets.
The next stage could still be called exploratory, as kids sit at their desks and write their own stories, in the sense that writing = exploration. Or discovery.
Graves concluded that writers discover [italics added] meaning as they write and that there is a strong link between the emerging text and thought. He and Hansen (1984) both found that students’…talk with peers [such as in the groups they formed] facilitated their learning. Calkins found that children could become increasingly sophisticated at revising their texts through continual writing and talking about writing. (McCarthey & Raphael, 1992, p. 13)
Clearly, they need time to work uninterrupted from each other, so I offer my services, in the Vygotskian student-teacher tradition, as I try to fulfil Calkins’ findings, and as I try to address students’ need for competence. This requires some skill. I must help students apply the concepts of cliff-hangers without writing the stories for them by supplying them with ideas. I wander about the classroom, stopping to speak individually to kids. I might ask, “How could you end this chapter with lots of excitement, so much excitement that the reader has to keep reading?” As students talk to me, I keep clearly in mind that “what [a student] can…achieve[ ] alone is different from [and often inferior to] what can be achieved with the help of a knowledgeable adult or peer” (McCarthey & Raphael, 1992, p. 17). I had a profound experience of exactly that quote, which greatly helped me mature as a writer:
Consider “the zone of proximal development” (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 86) and social- constructivism. Professor Harlow at the University of British Columbia applied them, although he didn’t employ any education-based terminology, to help me in 1976 to improve in my Creative Writing 497 course.
I’d handed in my first short story for the tutorial course, in which Professor Harlow met privately with me for about an hour each week to discuss my latest efforts. I sat before his cluttered desk, and he looked over his black-rimmed glasses, somewhat apprehensively, at me:
“Dan,” he said, “I read your story…It’s awful, Dan. I only marked up the first three pages, because after that I couldn’t stand it any longer. I mean, I read it all, but…it was just awful.”
I didn’t shrink like Alice. I didn’t die of humiliation, although my heart sank like a millstone in the sea. But I knew that expression of his. He was trying to help me. He was trying hard. “Awful?”
“Yes. This isn’t a story, Dan.” He looked at me over the upheld story-pages as if they were a chasm between us that he was trying to eliminate.
Not a story. I was certainly thinking about that. But I had lots of knowledge about the elements of fiction! Plot. Scene. Transition. Theme. Protagonist. Antagonist. Conflict. I could even write clear prose, or so my English 303 composition teacher had told me. But, somehow, according to Professor Harlow, I had not written a story.
In terms of social-constructivism, I had “prior knowledge.” But, “constructivists emphasise the importance of relating new content to the knowledge that students already possess, as well as providing opportunities for students to process and apply [in a social setting, such as I was in] the new learning” (Good & Brophy, 1998, p. 415). I needed to apply what I had learned about the elements of fiction. Isn’t wisdom the application of knowledge? I needed fiction-writing wisdom. “Not a story?”
“No. A story is about somebody with a problem that gets worse and worse, until some sort of resolution takes place. What you have written is not a story.” Again, he was looking over his glasses at me. He was looking for a spark of understanding. Then he made sure I understood what he meant. He provided examples of stories we both knew. He spent a lot of time reasoning with me, helping me understand those examples.
That event was like a revelation, silly as that might sound until one reads the often-inept products of neophyte writers who don’t understand what Harlow was helping me “construct” as knowledge. That discussion enabled me to leap ahead in my progress as a writer. On my own, I might have taken a looooong time to gain the same understanding.
Vygotsky could have related that event to “the zone of proximal development. It is the distance between the actual development level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance [as in Harlow’s helping me] or in collaboration with more capable peers” (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 86).
My “actual development” related to my textbook description of story elements, but my “potential development,” realized, thereafter enabled me to become the published author of many stories and narrative poems, and of, so far, one novel. (Lukiv, 2001b, paragraphs 2-11)
Do I need to say I’m sold on Vygotskian and social-constructivist forums for teaching writing?
The kids have settled into thoughtful, independent writing. I sit at my desk now. I need a bit of a rest. All this classroom fervour has left me a little tired.
Soon, however, the pace quickens. Kids speed to my desk, asking questions about spelling, capitals, periods, story plot. The flurry always warms my heart. The first time I tried a Story Day, the general motivation of the students startled me. Although some kids with reading and writing problems write very slowly, and although some don’t share the enthusiasm of the bulk of the students, all are producing something to willingly place on the hallway display boards for all to read. Perhaps because the students know I won’t “be the only reader of [their] work” (Vacca & Linek, 1992, p. 156), they try to present themselves to the world, or at least to the world of Pinecrest Elementary.
I help the students at a frenzied pace. No time now for the zone-of-proximal- development tongue-wags. I want to keep the line up short. I don’t want enthusiasm to wane as the students wait for my assistance, for fear they’ll forget what ideas are actually inspiring their writing spurts.
Diagnosis for Remediation
As I give suggestions, I note weaknesses in the work they are showing me–weaknesses in phonics skills, capitalization, reversals, sentence construction. I’m receiving a truckload of examples fit for diagnosis, which, quite simply, will launch me into thinking about remediation. Here is a sample of a six-year-old’s writing:
My bast fiand
Louis is a good boy and a good drawer. so that’s why I am hes fiand.
Ywan he came to my haus he siad can I play wivf your halecptar and I
[(Annotation by M. Sainsbury) My best friend
Louis is a good boy and a good drawer [ ]. So that’s why I am his
friend. When he came to my house he said ‘Can I play with your
helicopter?’ And I said ‘Yes’.]
This child has mastered many of the necessary conventions. He writes separate words and many of these are correctly spelt. He writes in sentences, remembering full stops but not capital letters. He has even written the relatively complicated ‘that’s’ correctly. The mistakes he makes are consistent, indicating to the teacher points that could be learned in discussion. He consistently writes ‘a’ for ‘e’ and ‘e’ for ‘i’, as in ‘bast’ for ‘best’, ‘fiand’ for ‘friend’, ‘hes’ for ‘his’ and ‘halecptar’ for ‘helicopter’. This indicates that some teaching on the vowel sounds would be helpful. His mastery of consonants, on the other hand, is very well developed, except for the ‘wh’ of ‘when’ and the ‘th’ of ‘with’, so he is also ready for discussion of digraphs. The reversal of ‘i’ and ‘a’ in ‘said’ could probably be grasped simply by being pointed out. (Sainsbury, 1992, pp. 130-131).
Kids’ writing, in other words, provides an excellent road map of their language strengths and deficits.
The remediation, I hope, will improve students’ ability to write without their spinning their wheels over “slippery” deficits. Ruddell and Unrau explain this way: “For the less-skilled [writer] whose attention and purpose are focussed primarily on [spelling and other conventions], the time spent [writing] frequently exceeds expectations. As a result the [writer] tends to become discouraged, shift intention, and stop [writing]” (Ruddell & Unrau, 1994, p. 1005). McCarthey and Raphael explain the same by using an illustration:
You may notice that while [your computer] is printing one file, it takes longer for the typed letters in your new file to appear on the screen. Or, if you save a document during printing, the printer may pause. This is because computers, though capable of performing multiple activities simultaneously and quickly, must divide their “attention” among different tasks. Information processing theorists use the computer metaphor to describe the limited capacity of …writers, who must often juggle several subprocesses at once. (McCarthey & Raphael, 1992, p. 5).
I use Story Day, in part, to find out what my students’ deficits are. Hello again to diagnosis and remediation. I want to help students read and spell better, and to write clearer sentences; I want students to write more effortlessly. More important, I want my students to have the ability and energy and focus to think about their writing, to employ metacognition. That’s a lot better than their stumbling over spelling, word recognition from the brainstormed lists, punctuation, and sentence and story structure.
Efficient word recognition and spelling are critical to the higher order cognitive processes of comprehension and composition. Stated simply, if children are having trouble reading and writing individual words, it is likely that they will also encounter difficulty in thinking about what they are reading and writing. (Tunmer, 1991, p. 105).
Efficient word recognition, spelling, sentence writing skills, then, should allow students energy and time to focus on story structure. When I teach a concept like chapters and their cliff-hangers, good writers don’t spin tires on slippery deficits. They get moving, writing stories with cliff-hangers that keep the story interesting.
More on Modelling
During another Story Day, I might focus on characterization as a fictional element of story structure. I might discuss how characters in stories often reveal what they’re like by the things they say and do. To model what I mean, I might read something appropriate from one of my own works (kids like to know their writing teachers are actual writers). For example, I might read the following excerpt, from my children’s novel called Quibils and Quirks (1997/1998/1999, chapters 5 and 6 [division between chapters excluded]), which introduces Porksville’s only teacher, Miss Snapdragon:
Hooper [the new student] quietly settled into a cold, empty desk. He sniffed the air. It smelled like sweat. He noted sagging shelves of books that towered up dark walls. A paper air plane soared across the room, landing in his ear.
Miss Snapdragon entered. She used the same red door that Hooper had used, but she slammed it shut.
The students, including a boy munching a daddy-long-legs, swung around in their desks, facing her.
“My word,” Hooper thought. “She’s as skinny as a Zulu warrior, and she has a lump of brown hair like an upside-down hornet’s nest.”
“Good morning!” she exclaimed.
“Good morning, Miss Snapdragon,” many droned.
“Where’s my new student?” She spied the rows. “Aha! There you are. You look awfully old to be in grade one, Hooper Quirk.”
He tried to swallow; he couldn’t.
“You’re as orange as a carrot,” she said. “And you have cauliflower ears.”
Hooper felt them. How hot they’d become!
“I’ll bet they call you Hooper the Pooper,” said a boy with a square face.
“What’s that?” Miss Snapdragon said, scanning the children, like a Roman general scanning slaves. “Children who get out-of-hand write LINES.” And she glared at Hooper as if he were the cause of all her problems.
“Hooper the Pooper,” the square-faced boy said again, but quietly.
Many stifled giggles.
“People and vegetables should be separate!” announced Miss Snapdragon. “Why are you here?”
“I–I want to be a martian,” Hooper replied.
The class roared with laughter.
“Quiet!” Miss Snapdragon stepped forward. “That’s BETTER. Now–why do you want to be a martian?”
“I want to be green.”
The next rock-slide of laughter was too much. Out of the school Hooper ran.
“Come back here!” she ordered.
But he kept on running.
Miss Snapdragon demanded quiet; the children laughed harder.
“One hundred LINES for EVERYBODY!” she yelled. “You BRATS!”
Such a focus (excerpt) encourages kids to think about what their characters say and do. But that exercise would be hard for students with poor reading and writing skills. As I mentioned, they’d tend to spin their tires on their own deficits.
One point I’m still making, then: skilled writers have a a perfect circumstance for thinking about what they are writing. Such writers can digest more and more learning about story elements and structure.
For beginning readers, the development of a concept of story structure evolves from unorganized lists of events to full narrative forms. (Applebee, 1978). This progression culminates in the understanding that the printed text is the critical source of meaning and that stories follow an organizational pattern. (Ruddell & Unrau, 1994, p. 1015)
Therein that “organizational pattern” lies all the elements of fiction, and given time, kids, especially skilled readers and writers, can learn what they are and use them in their stories.
Time to Polish
The day progresses. I find some kids want everything spelled perfectly, others want some words spelled right, and others are happy to simply write something. My point of view is to not overload anybody with so many corrections that I destroy his or her sense of accomplishment, or self-worth, so I tend to correct work according to what students want corrected and according to what I think they can withstand.
Covington (1992) posits that perceived self-worth strongly affects the degree to which the student becomes an effective learner in the instructional setting. Our extension of Covington’s self-worth theory to reading [and writing] predicts that students who have high self-esteem…are more likely to engage in learning to read [and write] and in self-directed reading [and writing]. (Ruddell & Unrau, 1994, p. 1004)
I conclude this short section by saying: Help students “polish” stories. But don’t overdo it. Don’t destroy students’ sense of accomplishment.
Reflection on Achievements (Includes Publication)
Corrections made, they illustrate their stories, if they wish to, and most do. The afternoon is filled with final copies–many polished examples of rewriting–and many zappy illustrations. Students staple together their stories page after page, creating scrolls. Experience has taught me that for hallway display, scroll-like stories generate greater reader appeal than booklets. (After they come off the walls, in a few weeks, students and I will unstaple the pages. Then we’ll re-staple the stories into booklets for our classroom library.)
Staples affix the often-colourful scrolls to the hallway display boards. The longest stories spill down below the display boards, requiring Scotch tape to affix them to bare walls. Long or short, the stories provide a public spectacle, really, and provide “the opportunity [for students] to reflect [on their achievements]” (Onore, 1990, p. 61).
I call this Stage 3: Reflection on Achievements. And Stage 1? I call it Engagement (singing a song or otherwise focussing on the magic of words, and brainstorming words and phrases appropriate for a base story-line). Then there is modelling of writing. In this essay, there is modelling of writing cliff-hangers (a writing concept, a structural element). I call this Stage 1.1. Really, it’s still part of Engagement. Students are engaged in the process of thinking about a writing concept. What is my Stage 2? Exploration (groups of two or three explore story ideas, and individuals explore story ideas with the teacher).
Story Day’s done! Almost!
I tell one boy, “Why don’t you go down to Miss Snapdragon’s class to invite them to come and read our stories.” Kidding. Miss Snapdragon doesn’t really exist (are you surprised?), although she’s the fictional compilation of every nightmare teacher I’ve ever had or heard about. Anyway, no invitation seems necessary. Our own students read and enjoy each other’s work, for now, but soon, after school, students from other classes will arrive in groups and stay to read the many works. Tomorrow at recess and lunch many will remain indoors to read our hallway-exhibition , gladly missing out on fresh air.
A Story Day Model
Here is a model of Story Day, for quick reference:
As the teacher, you should:
- Celebrate cultural diversity. (This should be a yearlong event.)
- Focus on the wonder of words; and
- Brainstorm words and phrases useful for a base story-line.
- Model writing. Highlight some aspect of what makes a story entertaining.
- Encourage students to explore story ideas in groups of two or three; and
- Encourage students to explore story ideas with you. In Vygotskian tradition, help them excel.
- Use the story-writing event to determine students’ remediation needs in reading and writing.
- Help students “polish” stories. But don’t overdo it. Don’t destroy students’ sense of accomplishment.
- Publish stories; and
- Revel in the students’ successes, and encourage them to stand back and reflect on their achievements.
I have taken this essay beyond my own experience as a teacher of creative writing. I’ve wanted to present a sound theoretical foundation for my Story Day. This presentation should instil confidence in elementary teachers who use my model that Story Day isn’t simply another idea for teaching creative writing. Ideas based on no more than opinions fill up too many pages in teachers’ guidebooks for reading programs, in books about creative writing for children, and on educational Web sites. Story Day is more than an opinion/idea.
One two-part question about Story Day, from a teacher’s point of view, could be: How worthwhile and how simple is this to use? Issues for teachers logically arise from their investing time in trying out teaching methods that turn out to be worthless and complicated–worthless in that they aren’t any better than methods the teachers already use, complicated in that they require too much effort for teachers to implement. My own experience has convinced me of Story Day’s worth and simplicity, but research would take the answer to the question that began this paragraph to an empirical level.
I propose that research could evaluate my Story Day against other direction for teaching creative writing. Other direction often amounts to no more than ideas for lessons, as found in The English Teachers’ Online Network of South Africa. Surveys or qualitative interviews or both could establish the level of teacher satisfaction and student satisfaction over stories or poems produced out of Story Day versus stories or poems produced out of other teaching methods (which might amount to simply ideas for lessons). “Outside” evaluators could compare the art and craft of stories and poems produced out of Story Day versus stories or poems produced out of, again, other teaching methods.
My Story Day focuses on teaching creative writing to elementary students. And yet, scholarly inquiry could help establish theoretically sound methods for teaching creative writing to high school students. In view of the general absence of such methods, this inquiry certainly seems logical. And the establishment of these methods would lead to further research into their worth and simplicity. *
I’m going to almost end by saying, “That was another successful Story Day.” I encourage you to apply the theory and practice herein for your own students’ Story Day at any elementary grade level. You might make a few changes given the circumstances or abilities of your students. Do they need you to model writing cliff-hangers, or something else? Once you’ve determined what they need, and once you’ve invented a story idea, like the kite whose string breaks, then you’re in business, buster.