Saturday, April 10, 2010

Writer's Workshop: Starting a Story from Scratch

On Friday we had YA author Neal Shusterman as a guest at our school. He did a large-group presentation to 375 eighth graders, met separately with three grade eight classes, and then hosted a question-and-answer session with about 40 guests at the high school library after school. I had been given to understand that he was a very good speaker and worked well with kids; that impression was certainly confirmed on Friday.

In this post I mostly want to walk through a Writer's Workshop activity he led with one of the grade eight classes. It was a fun activity, it worked well with the kids, it conveyed some valuable notions about the writing process, and it strikes me as being highly portable. It's the kind of activity any English teacher might want to try as a change of pace, and it would be easily customizable to highlight whatever other topic or theme you might be working on at a given time. I like activities like this, structurally simple but conceptually rich. I'm writing it down partly to capture it for my own benefit, and partly so that if any of you want to play with it, you will have a place to begin.

Step One

Neal began by telling the students that we were going to write the beginning of a story together, but that we would start by doing a brainstorming activity. The idea was to try to pull the idea for a story "out of the clear blue sky." He explained that we'd start by brainstorming some titles, and that there would be only three rules: 1) it can't be connected to a title or story idea that already exists, 2) that it can have no names of real people, and that 3) it doesn't have to make sense.

So he began calling on kids, and writing their suggestions down on the board as they came up with them: "Aquarius Island," "Angry Rabbits," "Goats of Glory," "The Innocent Apple," "Writing in Mexican," "The Boy in a Dress," "The Girl Who Talks Too Much," "The Pig Lady," and so on. He kept encouraging kids to come up with more, and told them that the trick was not to think too hard.

Step Two

Once he had a list of about 40 titles on the board, he said, "Okay, these are good titles. But here's the deal, we're not going to use any of them. Instead, we're going to take words and phrases from what's here, look for random connections, and come up with a new set of titles." So he took a different color marker and began studying the list of words on the board, circling certain words in one title and certain words in another title, asking the students to help him find interesting or odd combinations. (He also told the kids, "Don't shout out. I won't use your suggestion if you do. Just raise your hand and I'll call on you." That was a subtle but very effective move, I think. It immediately established an expectation of how the exercise would play out.)

He kept working through the list of titles on the board until the kids had juxtaposed pretty much every word that was in every title with words from some other title or titles. Then he looked over the board and wrote down five of the "new" titles, which turned out to be "The Yawning Book," "iPod Dress," "Skater Monkeys," "The Angry Hand," and "Sinking Up." Then he asked the kids, "Why do you think I picked these five titles?" and the kids were quick to pick up on the fact that these titles all basically raise a question in your mind, they "make you think."

Then he had the kids vote on which title they thought they would want to work with, and the vote turned out to be heavily in favor of "Sinking Up."

Step Three

Neal erased the board and writing the title "Sinking Up" in the middle, and led the students through another brainstorming exercise. "When you think of the word "sinking," what comes to mind? What sort of things sink?" He drew a circle around the word "Sinking," called on kids to answer and generated a thought map of their responses (Titanic, submarine, water) on the board in blue marker. If the kids began to slow down, he'd re-frame the question or come at it from a different angle: "What else sinks?" "What things have to sink?" "What things never sink?" "What are things where it's critical, where it's a matter of life and death, that they don't sink?" "What about metaphorical kinds of sinking?"

Once he got done with "sinking," he, he took a red marker and then went through the same questioning process with the word "Up." At one point he asked when going up,  which is usually thought of as being a good thing, would be a negative. ("You want to play against the obvious.")

Step Four

The final step was to begin translating the conceptual frame provided by the title into the specific events of a story. He began by noting that some of the symptoms of being underwater and being too high up, like on a mountain, would be similar: heart rate up, difficulty breathing, coldness, oxygen deprivation. Then he began thinking out loud, modelling the process of coming up with a story. "So let's say we have two characters. They're best friends. One is a mountain climber, one is a diver. And something goes wrong. What could the problem be? They could be stuck in a vessel. So what if we fool the reader? We get them to think they're underwater, but they're really on mountaintop."

So he takes a marker and writes a sentence:

"When we found the fuselage, we thought we had enough oxygen to get back."

Then he led the students in a brief discussion about that first sentence. "What information is given? What do we know? What do we want to know?" He continued adding sentences, and talking them over as he went along:

"Jim and I climbed in. Everything seemed exactly the same as the moment it crashed here. "This kind of cold preserves everything," Joe said. He'd done this kind of recon before. The bodies didn't bother him any more. Thinking back, I wondered if the guys who found our bodies would be bothered either.

And that's pretty much where we were when the period came to an end. Over a period of about half an hour we had gone from nothing at all to a story starter with characters, setting, action, dialogue, and questions to be explored. Along the way there was a lot of useful, thought-provoking discussion, and a lot of laughs as well. I liked how Neal modelled the act of writing, complete with the secondguessing and the crossouts and the wondering out loud. The students were left with a story they had helped to create, and they were invited by their teacher to try their hands at moving it forward and seeing where it would lead. Not bad for a half hour cold call with kids he had never worked with before.

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