Today a friend of mine asked for advice about creative writing with third graders. Here are my suggestions, most of which hold true for most ages and grades: (Note: Be the “secretary” for very little kids and/or let them use “invented” spelling.)
STEP 1: Find something to write about. Here are some great ideas:
• Find out the children’s favorites (activities, animals, stories, music, places, meals, etc.) and write about that.
• Bring them something concrete and interesting to explore(a real rabbit, an interesting object in a bag, a weird-looking plant, a beautiful piece of art) and write about that.
• Go on a mini-excursion (around the yard, house, school, playground, block, city park) and write about that.
• Have an engaging experience (fly a kite, mix vinegar and baking soda, fingerpaint with shaving cream dotted with tempera, read “Bear in There” or another Shel Silverstein poem, dress up like monsters, bake cookies) and write about that.
• Talk about, draw, or act out (happy, sad, scary, angry, silly) memories and write about that.
• Make random connections. Example: (1) Write a noun on a slip of paper. Repeat 10-12 times and put these in a can. Write verbs (or adjectives or prepositional phrases) on other slips of paper and put them in another can. Draw one from each can and use as the title of a poem or story. (2) Make a long, long list of words that begin with the same sound (or that rhyme or that have 3 syllables or that have the same root) and use as many as possible in a poem or story. (3) Cut out words and phrases in large print from magazines. Arrange and re-arrange to make poems.
STEP 2: Put ideas into words. Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation or grammar at this stage of the game. The idea is to practice over and over going from something in the head to something on a piece of paper. Here are some of my favorite strategies:
• Keep a diary and write something in it everyday. (Variation: Keep a portfolio or even a tub of writing drafts.)
• Make a conceptual map (word web): Write down the subject; e.g., Fritz. Make a circle around the subject and draw lines like spider legs from the circle. At the end of each leg, write something about the subject; e.g., loyal, dachshund, black and brown, playful, smart, long ears, short legs, protective, fierce bark, etc.
• Write down the Sensory Alphabet and use each element to describe the subject: lines, colors, shapes, textures, movement, rhythms, sounds, space, light.
• Use interesting writing materials: a new color or texture of paper, very skinny or very fat markers, a piece of paper folded into thirds, an index card (upon which to write a tiny story about a tiny subject), stationary or postcards, adding machine tape, a white board and dry-erase markers, magnetic letters or words, sidewalk chalk, a computer, etc.
• Draw the shape of the subject; e.g. a tree or person, and write inside the shape.
• Write together. Examples: Take turns writing a sentence about a subject; write a song with a partner or in a small group.
• Give children a structure to write within: an acrostic, a haiku, a Cloze paragraph (like “Mad-Libs”), diamante or cinquain, or read The Important Book by Margaret Wise Brown and copy her format.
• Before writing, put the idea into a different medium: act it out with props, costumes and/or puppets or use little action figures; draw it as a cartoon or series of illustrations; make up a song, rap or motto about the main idea; make a little movie; make an interesting (creepy, funny, mysterious) environment and tell the story out loud to a group of peers or younger children; etc.
• Write first person; e.g., “I am a lake…” “I am justice…” “I am the most powerful being in the world…”
• Re-write a favorite story from the point of view of a minor character.
• Begin with one of these phrases, “What would happen if…” “I wonder…” “I wish…” “This was the best (or worst or silliest or scariest) day of my life…” “You will never believe this, but…”
STEP 3: (Optional) Publish. Pick out a favorite piece of writing and polish it. Correct all the grammar, punctuation and spelling. Divide it into pages. Make illustrations. Self-publish or make a homemade book.