Incidentally, the cast works in my favor with the 5th, 6th, and 7th graders at this McDowell County elementary school. They’re quite impressed with the bright blue pump and the fact that I broke my foot while “mountain climbing” and “doing martial arts.”
[This boy works from a photo prompt of a surfer about to ride a shark-infested wave off the coast of California. He’s decided to write from the perspective of the shark.]
Today is short stories day and I begin by asking them if they have any family stories they know that are told over and over again as time goes by. Hands shoot into the air, as they tell stories of the time dad shot the 8-point buck, or that one year Bell-Bell the 200-pound golden retriever landed on Cindy’s leg and broke it, or once when a girl and her grandmother got lost on the beach and had to get a ride from a cop all the way back to the hotel. “I’ll never forget the look on my paw-paw’s face when he looked out the hotel window and saw me and mee-maw gettin’ out of the back of a cop’s car like we had done something wrong,” the young girl laughed.
[After a few prompts, I have the students read their stories out loud to a partner, and in turn each partner offers one suggestion for improvement. These boys finished sharing early and the one on the right—who is a very strong writer, miles ahead of the others—settled in to watch his friend finish the rest of a story. “I just want to see what he’s going to write next,” the boy said. “I can’t wait to find out!”]
It turns out, I tell them, that they all already know how to write a good story because they’ve been hearing good stories most of their lives. But what makes a good story even better? (Humor, a moment of uncertainty, and realistic detail). We write from photo prompts—my favorite teaching tool—and I offer first lines to those students who need help getting started. Some struggle to write a complete sentence on the page while others easily fill 2 pages in less than seven minutes. Some obsess over proper spelling while others scribble in barely legible handwriting. But by and large, 90% of them are writing, and I tell them in “free-writes” that’s what counts the most.
[This was the #1 photo prompt choice of the day. For some reason all of the students were drawn to it. I asked them to imagine what happened right before the photo was taken. Then I invited them to use this first sentence: “I’d never seen anything like it before. The birds…”]