Listen Like a Writer: A Guest Blog Post by Annie Campbell

Annie Campbell is pictured, above, with her some of her third grade students.

Annie Campbell is a third grade teacher in Richmond, Virginia.  She keeps a blog, Write Now in Room 204, which is a place for her to share her class’s daily experiences along with her reflections about teaching.

“Tell us a story,” my sister and I would say to my father at bedtime.

“And make it when you were bad,” she would add.

“Real bad,” we’d say together.

And so it was that a small mountain town on the railroad in West Virginia came to life for us.  There were circus tents and hobos and horse drawn fire brigades.  The stories always came out right: my father would return home from his adventures, tattered and torn, and dinner was still hot with huge helpings of forgiveness all around. My father ended these stories by telling us that he was not sent to reform school after all; he told us he’d learned from his mistakes and he hoped we had too.

What we really learned was how to tell a story. Everybody has a story to tell, and I was lucky enough to learn it early.

Our students have to hear stories from us again and again—they have to be immersed in stories– before they know how to tell and write their own story effectively. Because oral storytelling helps children understand how narrative works, it plays a starring role in my writing workshop. I have developed several workshop routines to celebrate story in our class and in our lives.

1.  Just Enough for a Story: My children are asked to bring photos or brochures or ticket stubs or postcards or maps that are meaningful to them and can be used in a class project (I include this on the supply list). After telling (as opposed to reading) Something From Nothing by Phoebe Gilman and reading The Keeping Quilt by Patricia Pollaco, we look at the “scraps and souvenirs” and see that we have “just enough” for a story.  (Stretching the Moment)

2.  Pack a Story in a Sentence: We sit in a circle for this routine. Students are invited to share any experience they’d like, but they can only use one sentence. Early on we practice with a shoulder partner. I often choose one sentence to “unpack” into a personal narrative or “slice of life” in a shared writing exercise. (Focus)

3.  Circle Tell: I tell a story from a folktale anthology (I like Joanna Cole’s Best Loved Folktales the World).  The child on my right begins the retelling with a sentence or two, and the next child continues. We go around the circle until the story is complete. (Focus, Summary, Organization)

4.  Hold Up!  I Was There! I tell a story to the class. When I finish a child will begin the routine by saying “Hold up!  I was there!”  The child describes the setting in vivid detail. When he/she is done another child continues.  (Vivid Language, “Show, Don’t Tell”)

5.  Say Something: In this routine we “circle-up” after the story and each child says a sentence about the story.  This often involves a connection with another text or personal experience. This is very low risk and inclusive. (Elaboration)

6.  No Answers, Just Questions: This is another low-risk and inclusive routine—we move around the circle and share questions.  No answers allowed! This takes us deeper into the plot.  (Focus, Theme, Elaboration)

7.  Writer, Writer, Who Did You See? After a story the class chants, “Writer, Writer, Who Did You See?”  A student will describe a character by discussing facial expression, stance, and action.  We guess (infer) who the character is and continue with the chant:  “Writer, writer, who did you see?” (“Show Don’t Tell,” Character Development)

8.  Just One Word: This routine is deceptively simple.  After a story, we go around the circle and say what we think the story is really about using just one word.  (Theme)

9.  Story Share: Once in a while, after they have written a draft and done some revision, my students can opt to “tell” their final draft (instead of write it).   After some practice, they approach the Author’s Chair empty-handed. The only notebook is the heart. (Organization)

In these next hot summer weeks, escape to your public library.  Go hide in the 398’s in the children’s section and learn how to tell a story. There you will find several folktales that lend themselves to telling.  Try your hand at proven crowd pleasers such as Anansi and the Moss Covered Rock by Eric Kimmel, or Bony Legs by Joanna Cole, or Sleeping Ugly by Jane Yolen, or Wiley and the Hairy Man by Molly Bang.  When children hear what storytelling sounds like, they learn how to tell their lives like Donald Crews does in Shortcut, or like Cynthia Rylant does in When the Relatives Came.

Consider telling a story on the first day of school.  It is a great way to connect with a new group of students.  Story is an engine that fuels critical reading and literary analysis.  Story sparks a celebration of the writing life.  Every one has a story to tell. I was lucky to learn that early. I want to make sure my students learn it, too.