For Teachers

The (Almost) No-Rules Storytelling Project for Middle Graders: “Tell Me a Story”

For those of you starting to compile ideas for the new school year, here’s a storytelling project that promotes creativity, engages interest, and can be readily differentiated.

Early fall is a great time for a storytelling activity for middle graders in your ELA classes, library or author workshop, or homeschool sessions. Learners might be eager to employ creativity after summer break, and seeing evidence of student work through storytelling early on can guide your personalized instruction moving forward. Students’ topics might connect with middle grade titles you plan to introduce. And as these early-in-the-year projects might be a little more loosely structured than formal writing assignments later, it’s a nice way to ease into the workload of a new year.

So for an (almost) no-rules storytelling project, consider saying to your Language Arts, homeschool, or library students, “Just tell me a story…”  Then stand back for the flood of questions! “Real, or made up?” “Does it have to have me in it?” And of course, “How long does it have to be?”  For an open-ended storytelling project like this, almost anything goes—fiction or creative non-fiction; almost any genre; set in current times, recent or long-ago past, or the future. Really, once the most basic of guidelines (appropriateness, length or time involved, etc.) are established, set storytellers free to compose and create.

What’s more, an open-ended storytelling project has great flexibility for differentiation. Some, most, or all of a story might be told visually, told aloud, told through song or drama, told with or through a partner or group… and even if the student utilizes minimal or no written words, you can still assess their story sense with categories that might feed your rubric creation:

  • their ability to perceive and comprehend conflict and characters/key figures;
  • their ability to convey setting and passage of time; and
  • their ability to communicate messages, lessons, and themes to others.

Here are some ideas to get your assignment wheels turning in preparation for an (Almost) No-Rules Storytelling project:

1. Try timed brainstorming by categories for idea generation (books read, places visited, fun family times, cool facts, weird tales), then narrow down to potential story topics.

2. Once a writer has an idea, they can think about all the ways in which the story might be told:

  • Graphic/comics-style story – Show some great graphic novel or memoir examples to get storytellers’ wheels going (When Stars Are Scattered, New Kid, El Deafo).
  • Map story – The writer draws a map that includes all the locations important to their story, then briefly summarizes the story’s events in brief phrases or images associated with those micro-settings.
  • PTD story – Story events are summarized or sketched on a traditional Plot Triangle Diagram (or create a plot diagram that is not so traditional!).
  • Drama performance – Write the story in “sides” like Shakespeare used: Each performer holds a list of their lines, each with a bit of the previous line to serve as the cue. A great exercise in listening, reacting, and communication!
  • Musically – Tell the story set to original music or to a known song reset to the student’s story in lyric form; add movement (dance, statues, interpretive movement, etc.) if the storyteller would like.
  • Art series – Tell the story in a series of sketches, paintings, drawings.
  • Photography – Show examples of photo essays or photojournalism; storytellers use a camera and a series of images they photograph to tell a story. (Or, offer class members a series of abstract, unrelated images taken with your camera and challenge each learner to tell a story based on the images.)
  • Oral storytelling – Storytellers use whatever notes they want to suit their comfort level as they tell the story aloud.
  • Group storytelling – Group members add on lines or plot spontaneously to keep a story going; or, group members can generate a story in pieces while working independently, then compile the events in a way that tells a cohesive story.

3. Encourage students to think outside the box, and to feel free to experiment with form, structure, and style. Combine two or more methods of storytelling or invent an original way to tell the story.

4. Ready some resources for inspiration:

Secrets of Storytelling by MUF’s own contributor Natalie Rompella offers ready-made activity sheets, writer tips, and fun story prompts.

Writing Magic by Gail Carson Levine – Chapter One is online here and includes starters and advice.

Story cubes are fun for everyone and might especially benefit visual learners and English language learners in the idea generation process.

5. Finally, for inspiration, share some MG titles with learners in which characters’ storytelling is part of the plot:

Anything But Typical by Nora Raleigh Baskin – Twelve-year-old Jason is autistic and often struggles with relationships in a neurotypical world. Thanks to a site where Jason posts original stories, he has the chance to make a friend in a fellow writer named Rebecca—if he can just work up the courage to meet her.

Isaiah Dunn Is My Hero by Kelly J. Baptist – To get by in tough times, young Isaiah looks to his late father’s stories about Isaiah’s inspirational superhero self.

Welcome Back, Maple Mehta-Cohen by Kate McGovern – Eleven-year-old Maple loves dictating stories into her recorder—but reading words on the page is difficult due to her dyslexia. When Maple must repeat fifth grade, she uses her storytelling skills to hide the truth from classmates.

Good luck to all educators as you ready your stellar assignments for fall, and thank you for the invaluable work you do for middle graders and all learners.

Books of Hope for Uvalde’s Kids

Today’s post features e.E. Charlton-Trujillo and Never Counted Out’s  project to provide “600 Books of Hope” for Uvalde children. All of us felt sick to hear of the mass slaughter of children at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas in May. We wished we could do

something for that traumatized community. San Antonio children’s author, filmmaker, and youth activist e.E. Charlton-Trujillo (www.eecharlton-trujillo.com) felt much the same, but found inspiration after reading about Uvalde public librarian Martha Carreon who decided to continue with story hour scheduled for the day after the shooting.

When Trujillo shared this with children’s author and fellow literacy activist G. Neri, the two discussed how to convert their feelings of hopelessness into something productive. “We could give money, sign petitions, and vent our outrage, but it didn’t feel like enough,” Neri said. “We needed to focus on the kids.”

The IDEA

Through Trujillo’s nonprofit Never Counted Out, they put out an appeal to the children’s book world called #600BooksOfHope. The original goal was to give every child in Robb Elementary School a new book, so they would know others supported them. Soon the goal expanded to an additional 1,300 books, one for every elementary school child in town. As books began to arrive, Never Counted Out expanded their request to included middle grade, YA, board books and graphic novels, hoping to gift every child in the city with at least one book of hope. Because there wasn’t one child who wasn’t impacted by the horrors of that day.

“What you see here is a Wall of Hope!”

THEN. . .

The response has been tremendous! Authors, illustrators, educators, and book lovers from all over the U.S., from Canada, from the UK, and from France have sent children’s books—their own or favorites by others. “This experience has reminded me of the power of what we can do collectively when we might feel we can do so little on our own,” Trujillo said. “Story allows us to seek refuge, to feel seen, to feel inspired – it also provides a way to reclaim our own narrative.” (I hope e.E. included their own children’s books in the collection: her just released picture book LUPE LOPEZ, ROCK STAR RULES; her middle grade novel, prizefighter en mi casa; and her FAT ANGIE Young Adult novels. )

Trujillo’s belief in the power of story and young people was the focus of the award-winning documentary At-Risk Summer which acted as the launching point for founding Never Counted Out. An organization dedicated to access to books and creative mentorship.

There has also been a great response from publishers.  BiblioKids, Candlewick Press, Charlesbridge, Chronicle, Cameron-Kids Abrams, Little Brown, MacMillan Publishers, Penguin Random House, Pesi Publishing, Simon & Schuster, and others have sent numerous cartons of their books for free.

Gia Gordon, COO for Never Counted Out says, “From publishers to partnerships with nonprofits Family Service, Reading Is Fundamental, the educational group Edmentum and others, we are witnessing in real-time the power of what people believe story can do. It’s remarkable.”

AND NOW. . .

Never Counted Out hopes to work with the Uvalde school district and public library to host a day of free author and illustrator visits for school age kids followed by a day for book distribution and author meet and greets. While there are a lot of moving parts, the 600 Books of Hope team is offering, as Trujillo says, “their time in service of the young people. To honor those that were lost at Robb Elementary School and empower those who remain through literacy and tools of storytelling.”

Because children’s books can create hope and healing in the face of all kinds of injustices and disasters. 600 Books of Hope has shown us there is something we can do. If you want to support the efforts of #600BooksOf Hope or would like more information, visit: https://www.eecharlton-trujillo.com/600booksofhope

———————————————-

e.E. Charlton-Trujillo and Gia Gordon are authors and the cofounders of  Never Counted Out, which seeks to empower at-risk youth through  book access and the arts. Never Counted Out has conducted other book donation projects in response to need or disaster such as #KidLitForCampFire in the wake of one of the deadliest fires in California history and Project Pulse after the tragic shooting at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida. To learn more about them go to https://belatina.com/combats-pain-through-expression-voice/ Instagram: @nevercountedout_nonprofit
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/nevercountedoutnonprofit

G. Neri is the Artist Program Coordinator for #600BooksOfHope. He is the Coretta Scott King honor-winner for his  YUMMY:THE LAST DAYS OF A SOUTHSIDE SHORTY and GHETTO COWBOY. GHETTO COWBOY, adapted as “Concrete Cowboy” starring Idris Elba, debuted at #1 on Netflix in 2021.  In 2017, he was awarded the first of two National Science Foundation grants that sent him to Antarctica which has inspired two forth coming books for middle graders.

                                                                –e.E. Charlton-Trujillo

 

Under the Mike-roscope: Sisters of the Neversea by Cynthia Leitich Smith

If I were a book reviewer, I’d be the world’s worst book reviewer. Honestly, I stink at it. That said, I’m not a book reviewer; I’m a microbiologist. A scientist. I like to read and write middle-grade books not only for enjoyment but study them and learn from them as well. 

  • What techniques and skills do the author incorporate into their work?
  • What kept me turning pages?
  • Why did I forget to do my chores when reading this book?

And any additional questions as to why a book takes over my brain.

Today, I’m sharing Sisters of the Neverseas by Cynthia Leitich Smith, a book that has taken over my brain.

I’ll spare you my version of a summary of the book because it’ll sound a lot like my almost 4-year-old grandson describing the fireworks display on the Fourth of July. All over the place and delivered with terrific, over-the-top, and breathless enthusiasm. Instead, I’ll sum up my take on Sisters of the Neversea in three words.  

READ THIS BOOK!

As a fan of Cynthia Leitich Smith’s work, I admit I had high expectations for Sisters of the Neversea. It was on my reader radar for quite a while before its release. When I finally got my hands on a copy and read it, it did not disappoint. If fact, I’m currently listening to the audiobook immediately following a listen of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. 

One of the many things that blew my socks off with Sisters of the Neversea is in the Author’s Note at the end of the book. Being a middle-grade writer with an interest in how authors put together their books, I’ll often read the author’s notes or acknowledgments before I read the book. This time I was so stoked to start reading, that the thought to read anything but the book itself never crossed my mind. When I finished and read the Author’s Note, here’s that bit that caught my eye and hooked my storyteller radar.

“One of the most interesting and powerful things about Story is that it invites future storytellers to build on it, to reinvent, and to talk back. Like any other kind of magic, stories can harm or offer hope, even healing.”  

                                             – Cynthia Leitich Smith, Sisters of the Neversea Author’s Note

That’s money. Bulletin board material to post above the writing desk. I’m still bouncing it around in my brain.

Sisters of the Neversea is a masterclass on reinventing a classic story, especially a classic wrought with questionable representation. Cynthia Leitich Smith tells a better story than the traditional Peter Pan story. She expands the story world, and its characters, adding depth to both. The setting of Neverland itself becomes a player in the tale. Best of all, she “talks back” to the original work in a way that’s believable and imaginative.

She doesn’t hide, bury, or run from the questionable representation of the original. She addressed it and attacks it head-on. Her answer to the “redskins” and “injuns” and to the role of girls and women in Barrie’s creation, is to create fully-fleshed Native characters from different Nations and backgrounds and strong female characters throughout. 

She seamlessly weaves the reinvented narrative into the existing framework of Barrie’s work. It has this amazing way of feeling like Barrie’s original Peter Pan yet tells its own unique and contemporary story.  

One of the parts of Sisters of the Neversea I particularly enjoyed was the family dynamic. The weight and burden of the blended Roberts-Darling family’s problems seem insurmountable to Lily and Wendy. This leads to a lot of anger between them and a growing rift. Their home in Oklahoma, their parent’s marriage, and their future as sisters are all on the line. 

However, when they get separated and enter Neverland, Lily and Wendy begin to see each other and their family’s problems in a new light. By taking a step back from the day-to-day struggles at home, the step-sisters realize their problems, no matter how large, can be dealt with as a family. Talk about story magic bringing hope and healing!

Good literature makes the world a little brighter. Great literature transforms it. With Sisters of the Neversea, Cynthia Leitich Smith completely transforms the world we’ve come to associate with Peter Pan and Neverland with luminosity and truth. Under her skilled hand, the Neverland story becomes something entirely different. Something better. Much, much better.

I hope the Sister of the Neversea finds its way into the hands of young readers. I also hope it sparks them to read Barrie’s original and realize the attitudes and mindsets of yesteryear don’t have to be the attitudes and mindsets of today. Things can, and should, change as knowledge changes.

Finally, I can’t wind up this look at Sisters of the Neversea without admitting there’s a wide smile on my face. No, it’s not the amazing cover art by the late Floyd Cooper.* The smile is because I ran across a recent social media post from Cynthia about how she’s drafting a new middle-grade novel. This makes me happy for young readers. The potential for a new, transformative Cynthia Leitich Smith book has this reader on Cloud Nine.

*Judge a book by its cover, please! Floyd Cooper’s artwork captures the characters and the story in perfect fashion. No need for Peter Pan here! Lily, Wendy, and Michael beckon you to the adventure. Come on in for the ride, my friends! We are going to miss Floyd Cooper.

Note: In case you can’t tell,  I am a fan of Cynthia Leitich Smith. In the work she does on the page. In the work she does with and for the Native writing community. In the work she does for the We Need Diverse Books community and leading the Heartdrum Imprint at Harper Collins. She is a force in the kidlit industry while being one of the nicest people in the business. (Perhaps the most remarkable example of how skilled she is as a writer is the fact she had me riveted to her Tantalize YA vampire series back before I was even aware of her other work. Me! Reading YA vampire fantasy! Now that’s writing talent!)