Posts Tagged fiction

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.

Placeholders in the First Draft

When I was in my early twenties a psychologist told me that I had dysthymia, which is low-grade depression occurring for at least two years. Kind of like a low-grade cold all of the time. Not big enough to really stop me, but never abating either. It was a relief to hear this because before that point I didn’t have a name for how I felt.

Finding the right word to describe something is important when it comes to your health. Ditto with writing.

At the same time you don’t want to get so perfectionistic that you lose your flow, especially during a first draft.  After all, you likely are going to cut your first few chapters anyway. At least if you are me. My plots never really get going until chapter three or four or even five or six. With my current WIP, I just chopped off sixty pages! Ouch and also—so satisfying.

Anyway, if you get too attached to your word-smithing during the first draft, it can be especially daunting to cut your “darlings” later, even when it doesn’t serve your story.

During a first draft, my advice would be to plow on, but if you’d like to mark words or phrases that appear tired or generic as placeholders, you can go back and change them later. Here are some examples of typical placeholders verbs:

Nod—sure sometimes people nod but not all of the time. Sometimes when I read my WIP my characters are acting like those little bobble headed dolls people stick on their dashboards. Try to find other physical actions that are more specific and reveal more about motivation.

Smile—yes, characters need to smile. But usually you’re just trying to show that they’re happy. What are other ways that a character can reveal their happiness? But if you absolutely must have your character smile, just what kind of smile? A smirk? Are they beaming? Grinning? Leering? Try to be specific and add some details. I bet you can!

Frown–this is the flip side to smile. And everything I would say about smile, I would say about frowning.

Laugh–this is obviously related to the smile issue. And my advice is the same. And whatever you do, don’t use laugh as a dialogue tag.  For example, avoid this: “Do you really mean that,” laughed Hillary. Instead: “Yes, I do.” She laughed.

Walk—okay, it’s true. Your characters need to move from one room to another, but how do they walk? Do they shuffle? lollygag? Slink? Lope? Bounce? Clonk? There is so much you can say about a subject via the verb you select.

During the writing process of a first draft, you might feel agitated seeing all those spots that you have circled. But don’t despair. If you put the manuscript down for a few weeks or more, you’ll forget about some of the sweat and toil.

And you’ll also be able to appreciate all of those wonderful sentences.

Meanwhile, keep writing!

Yours,

Hillary

Hillary Homzie is the author of the Ellie May chapter book series (Charlesbridge, 2018), Apple Pie Promises (Sky Pony/Swirl, 2018), Pumpkin Spice Secrets (Sky Pony/Swirl, 2017), Queen of Likes (Simon & Schuster MIX 2016), The Hot List (Simon & Schuster MIX 2011) and Things Are Gonna Be Ugly (Simon & Schuster, 2009) as well as the Alien Clones From Outer Space (Simon & Schuster Aladdin 2002) chapter book series. She’s also a contributor to the Kate the Chemist middle grade series (Philomel Books/Penguin Random House). And her nonfiction picture book, If You Were a Princess: True Stories of Brave Leaders From Around the World is a look at historical and current princesses from many diverse lands who have made their mark (Simon & Schuster, August 2022). During the year, Hillary teaches at Sonoma State University. In the summer, she teaches in the graduate program in children’s literature, writing and illustration at Hollins University. She also is an instructor for the Children’s Book Academy.

She can be found at hillaryhomzie.com and on her Facebook page as well as on Twitter.

 

Road Trip Roundup: Adventurous Reads for Your Summer List

trunk was a little full, but the views were killer!

Six years ago my wife and I went on a babymoon. We didn’t call it that. We still don’t call it that. But I’m pretty sure that’s what it was. We packed up our little car with snacks and camping supplies and a dog, then made for the West Coast. It was a pretty epic adventure to sneak in just before the birth of our first son. 

Fast forward and we’re now getting ready to welcome #3 into the world. No babymoon this time, unless you count a clandestine trip to IKEA while the grandparents watch our kids. We still talk about the road trip, though. We’d both love to take our littles across the country when they’re slightly less little. There’s just something about the roads out west — how the guardrails converge into pinpoints on those impossibly long, straight highways. Or the way every town has a story — usually recorded on some miniscule placard in the center of town, bronze letters boiling hot from the summer sun.

So maybe I won’t be loading up the car for an epic cross-country voyage this summer, but that doesn’t mean I can’t live vicariously through the adventures of someone else. Listed below are my favorite road trip-themed middle grade books. Whether you’re skipping town or waiting for gas prices to come back down to earth, I think there will be something here to take you into that vast, beautiful, mysterious open space of our incredible country. Enjoy!

 

See You In The Cosmos by Jack Cheng

When space enthusiast Alex Petroski sets out to find the truth about his family, he discovers a menagerie of interesting characters and locations spanning from his hometown of Rockview, Colorado all the way to Los Angeles. Told entirely through recordings on an iPod, it’s a refreshingly original take on the road trip concept, and Alex’s revelations about love and family mirror the complexities of the landscape.

 

 

We’re Not From Here by Jeff Rodkey

What road trip could be more epic than a journey to an entirely new planet? When Earth is rendered  uninhabitable, a small envoy of survivors travel for 20 years only to wake up from hypersleep and find that the arrangement with their new alien hosts has fallen apart. It’s up to Lan Mifune’s family to prove that humanity is still worth saving in this high-concept exploration of immigration and cultural acceptance. 

 

 

Doll Bones by Holly Black

Calling this a “road trip” book may be a stretch, but the theme of journey is so strong in this story that I couldn’t resist adding it to the list. The characters embark on a quest to return a haunted doll to its proper grave site, and while the trip only takes them to a neighboring town, the adventure manages to include bus rides, boat trips, and a secret overnight stay in a library. But Zach, Alice, and Poppy take more than just a physical journey — they explore the depths of their friendship, the ways it’s changing before their eyes, and the uncertain road that lies ahead.

 

The Honest Truth by Dan Gameinhart

In this clever and twisty adventure story, Dan Gameinhart takes us across Washington state with a main character bent on fulfilling a lifelong dream before it’s too late. Mark’s journey is not just an exploration of some of the most breathtaking parts of that region, it’s also an exploration of terminal illness, dreams, and the line between determination and foolishness. 

 

 

Are We There Yet? By Dan Santat

Okay, so this one’s not technically a middle grade book, but I still think it belongs on this list. Dan Santat’s vivid illustrations and clever formatting make this a picture book that I consistently come back to with my kiddos. Add in the hidden Easter eggs (including embedded QR codes!) and it’s a book with enough layers to entertain even the most bored car trip voyagers.

 

 

So how about you? Will you be taking any epic adventures this summer? Or maybe you’ll be road tripping from your couch like me. Either way, feel free to drop a comment with your favorite road trip-themed books so those of us who are staying local this summer can still look forward to a few adventures. Happy travels!