Using Myself As A Prompt: Learning To Write With My Students

by Irene Keliher, BF Day Elementary School

I’ve used many prompts to kick off and inspire WITS lessons, from odes to art postcards to flash fiction to graphic novel selections. I’ve occasionally written alongside my students, even sharing my work afterwards. But I’ve never used my own writing as an actual prompt – until now.

It started out as a happy accident. I’m wrapping up twelve wonderful weeks with my fourth and fifth graders at the B.F. Day School. Our goal? To write and revise an adventure story that takes place on a magical island. Students started with a “message in a bottle,” writing a distress call to jumpstart the plot. The story follows from there, as creatures magnificent and terrifying swoop, crawl, and swirl their way into the stories to help – or hinder – the main character(s).

I’d never taught a single project like this, and I quickly discovered its challenges. While it offers students a great, visceral experience of the writing process, it’s also daunting for less-confident writers. And, despite the infusion of games and other activities (verbs charades, anyone?) it was sometimes hard to keep up momentum. Like all writers, everywhere, my students didn’t always feel like sitting down and making the story work after the initial excitement faded.

I discovered that joining them in this task provided the best motivation of all. At first, I used examples from well-loved young adult novels, like A Wrinkle In Time and Harry Potter, but I wanted something more targeted. To create a real message in a bottle, I wrote a mysterious letter set in a misty valley, doctoring the paper with mint tea and blueberry juice so that it appeared stained and worn. I let it dry and rolled it into an antique glass bottle. Voila: magic. The students couldn’t wait to touch the letter and examine its details, which I expected, and to find out what happened next, which surprised me.

I didn’t plan to continue the story I’d started. I had focused on what I wanted to model for the students, including a strong first-person voice, sensory details, good pacing, and rising tension.

“Who’s coming? What’s making that sound?” Students asked me after I read the message.

“I have no idea,” I answered.

They were amazed at this. Wasn’t it my story? We talked about how most writers rarely know where they’re going, how stories offer surprises to their creators, and I promised, by the end of it, to keep going.

From there, I wrote the story in pieces. I brought in the handwritten pages, my messy ideas scrawled across the page, and the students loved each new installment. It helped that I could strategize with them, modeling brainstorming and talking through possible ideas before settling on the most exciting ones. For instance, when sketching a six-panel comic to plan their stories (thanks to Greg Stump for that idea), students first helped me puzzle through my own comic.

“Who should come and help?” I asked them.

“A white gorilla!”

“A talking cloud!”

We discussed possibilities: would this new character be friendly, or frightening? What did they have to offer the narrator? How might they behave in unexpected ways? Afterwards students invented their own remarkably entertaining characters, from a financially-savvy lobster, to an opinionated magic carpet, a sassy talking book, and a pair of sinister goats.

I began writing a draft of my own story, dashing off pages during my ferry commute. I settled on a warrior butterfly as a secondary character and wrote about a magical cave with a legendary tree. I kept modeling voice, sensory detail, and pacing, as well as new concepts I’d introduced, like action verbs, or ending on an intriguing image. We talked about my various writing decisions. I didn’t share pages every session, but when I did, the silence and attention was palpable.

It was a win-win, frankly. I felt uninhibited by my usual doubts as I wrote. I had a concrete goal and I wasn’t worried about being derivative or hackneyed: I simply enjoyed the humor and the magic. I don’t usually write anything fantastical, much less for a younger audience, and I felt enormously liberated doing both. I borrowed liberally from stories I’d loved growing up.

“Ms. Irene, you could write a trilogy!” One student exclaimed when I finished.

I laughed. “So could you!”

The truth is, I have no plans for a trilogy or even for finishing that story. What I loved most of all was sharing the process with the students. As they embarked on revision, I showed them an original scene and a revised version from my story, pointing out everything I’d added and subtracted. They were to choose their favorite scene and rewrite it; enthusiastic students could rewrite as much as they had time for. I faced the usual resistance, but not as much as I expected. Students had become deeply invested in my story and in their own work, their dragons and phantom horses and dark swamps and fairies. They brought in details from their own lives, fears, and beloved stories, and turned these into something new.

We are finishing these projects by attaching the rewritten scene to a larger

piece of paper and including an illustration opposite. For our most recent session, I took out a bag of markers, sat down at my kitchen tab

le, and – for the first time perhaps since my own fifth grade year – embarked on a drawing.

Twelve weeks is a relatively short period of time, and not all students completed their stories. Yet everyone produced at least one scene they’re proud of, and everyone experienced a slice of the writing process: laborious, mysterious, and rewarding by turns. I’m impressed with the work the students have put in, and hope they take with them not only memories of their fantastical worlds, but also of the way their stories took shape, slowly and deliberately, over a period of time.


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