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.

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Jenn Brisendine
Along with her MUF posts, Jenn can be found at jennbrisendine.com, where she offers free teaching printables for great MG novels along with profiles of excellent craft books for writers.
1 Comment
  1. What a fun post. It almost makes me wish I hadn’t retired all those years ago. Thanks for the ideas.

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