Developing Storytellers

As many of you know, I was teaching kindergarten for many years and this year I was moved to third grade. The change has been a breath of fresh air and one I really wanted. I have learned many things about my new students in these four short weeks. One big takeaway I’ve had is that they struggle to plan. Talking has not been an integral part of their planning process. If you know me and some of my past posts, you know that I find talk to be a huge part of the workshop. A few examples are here, here and here. I don’t just feel this way when it comes to kindergarten, but every level of a writer, into adulthood. Do I talk before every piece I write? No. However, I do find time to talk about my projects and find that talking through ideas offers clarity and detail that would otherwise be absent. Sometimes my talking is through email with editors or friends, sometimes my husband. I need feedback. I need the dialogue. Unfortunately, what I have found from my students is that talking has not been infused into their process. Earlier this year I asked students to model how to talk through their story. This is what I observed from many students.

Well, first I will write my lead, then I will write some details and then I will finish with my ending.

Can you tell us your story using your storytellers voice? I want you to tell us what happened, you can include your lead and details while telling it [insert a longing smile from me desperate for storytellers].

They couldn’t do it. This was after I had already modeled many of my own stories for them and how I have a storytellers voice when I talk. They looked at me puzzled. There were even more puzzled looks when I discussed talking in the middle of a piece. Keep in mind, I had some of these students in both kindergarten and first grade! I taught this to them before. I told them the first five minutes of workshop would always be noisy and that I expected them to discuss what they were working on with their partners or groups. Writing has clearly been a silent endeavor for them in the past. I explained that we would have partner check-in times when they were stuck or I would help them work through the tough parts. Again, they were puzzled.

So, where do I go from here? Keep modeling. Use conferring as a time to talk and work on storytelling voices for students to model for their peers. Create a workshop that is full of partnerships and conversation as well as moments of quiet humming.

The other half of my takeaway was that students haven’t been free to draw and sketch. I realize that this can be hard to manage. I realize some students would sketch and draw the entire workshop, but if it helps them to process through all the parts of their story, create scenes, and develop ideas, I think it is worth it! I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard students ask, even though I’ve already given permission, “Can I really draw?” These students are at a point in their writerly lives where they may not need as much time to do these tasks, but abandoning them all together seems unnecessary. Certain stories need a plan. Certain kids need a choice. Some people work better going directly to the writing and then going back to plan and change. They need to spill all their thoughts on the page and then go back to fix the mess. However, some need lots of processing time. The words just aren’t there for them and planning helps the words escape.

Planning Menu

I decided we needed a menu of options. A planning menu. For a few days we talked through the best ways to plan. Students offered ideas based on all the different styles of planning I had modeled and we developed a chart. Students now determine their planning method before going to the workshop and the room is buzzing. After about seven minutes I give a signal to let them know voices need to quiet to a hum so those already drafting or revising have a quiet space to work. The last seven minutes of our workshop is devoted to writer’s notebooks for play, sketching, personal stories or any genre if they choose. When we share at the end it is often from our personal narratives, but occasionally students share from their notebooks as well. Another opportunity to talk and evolve as a community of writers.