Archive for 3rd Grade

Nature Narratives: Teaching Story Structure to Third Grade Classes at Whittier Elementary

Posted in Writer Posts with tags , , , on May 14, 2015 by writersintheschools

By Clare Hodgson Meeker, WITS Writer-in-Residence

Creating a story from idea to finished book sounds like an ambitious undertaking for an eight-year-old. But I am always amazed at how quickly these young writers take a character and run with it when they are given a simple three-problem approach to creating a story. Asked to write a fictional story with an animal as the main character, each student picked an animal and had to find three facts about it that could be turned into an opening problem for their story. For example, having to find food, shelter, raise a family or deal with predators or humans interfering with their world. Then they prepared outlines of their stories using this worksheet.

In my mini-lesson on beginning a story, I asked them to emphasize a problem or event that grabs the reader’s attention right away and pulls us into the story – either something the character wants (a goal) or an inciting event that propels the character to take action and do something. Here is a great example from Kian Graham in Ms. McGrath’s class who picked an endangered animal, the Pangolin, for his main character. Note how the sound effects help create a sense of urgency and add energy to the story:

           Pangey the Pangolin lived in the South African forest. He was as happy as can be, when, “chop, chop, chop!” Some construction workers were cutting down the South American forest. “Chop!” The tree Pangey was sitting on was being cut down.

           Luckily for Pangey, it was only with an axe, so he had time to jump to a different tree. He realized that he should get out of there. He leaped from tree to tree for hours until he grew very sleepy.

From then on, we focus on story development – the steps the main character takes to reach his or her goal and the problems (at least two) they face along the way. We talk about how every action or inaction causes some effect on the character or their situation, good or bad. The idea is to make the character struggle until he finally figures out how to solve the story problem. My favorite part of story development is “the darkest moment,” just before the story’s climax. Renowned children’s author Jane Yolen describes this as getting your character up a tree with no idea how he or she will get down. It can be a situation that is life threatening or an emotionally low moment in the character’s journey. But from this low point, the character somehow summons the courage and figures out how to solve the problem (the climax) and reach his or her goal (the end).

A surprise twist is a great way to end a story, and Kian surprised us all with this ending. After Pangey bravely breaks out of a cage he’s imprisoned in, he is captured by a nasty crook who says,”This one’ll sell for millions!” and puts him in the back of a car in Washington D.C:

          They passed by nine black limousines. “Wait, what? That means the president was in one of them,” the cooks thought. Suddenly, one of the limos pulled out of the group. The other limos followed. The limo window opened and Barack Obama’s face appeared.

          “What are you guys doing?”

          “Ummmmmm,” the crooks stammered. “We were giving this pet away for a national yard sale,” one of the crooks lied. “We’ll give it to you if you want it?” the crook said.

          “Okay, I will take it,” said Barack Obama.

           As soon as the president took him, Pangey felt a wave of calmness come over him. Pangey and Barack Obama drove back to the White House and Barack Obama gave Pangey the leftovers of his lunch, which was chicken, potatoes, and gravy with a side of salad. Pangey ate very slowly.

          When Pangey finished, Barack Obama played with Pangey until they both tired each other out.

          Next Barack went and told one of his men to go to Petco and get a drinking bowl and a very nice dog bed for Pangey. Pangey ran around in circles, jumped up on his hind legs, and hugged Barack Obama, so Barack hugged him back.


Teaching the Early Grades

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on April 2, 2014 by writersintheschools

Teaching the Early Grades

by Aaron Counts

Recently, I made the move from teaching writing to the seasoned veterans of high school for a group of third-grade classes in North Seattle. I can admit now that even after a long career working in high school re-entry programs and correctional facilities, the thought of facing down a gang of 8-year-olds had me a little shook. What kid-friendly poems do I have in my arsenal? How can I get at those higher-level ideas that I was used to discussing in classes with students twice the age of these not-quite-tweens? In building day-one lesson on the elusive definition of poetry, I called back to the words of the sage and legendary rapper, KRS-One. “Poetry is the language of imagination.” I had found my guiding principle.

In the era of high-stakes testing and curriculum aligned to national standards, there is an increasingly-small window in which students are free to exercise their imagination. Writing can be fun, and learning about writing can (and should) be fun, too. No matter how sharp a lesson we plan, and whatever great mentor texts we bring in to instruct and inspire students, one of the most important is making it something our students can look forward to. And like most things, we can get more excited about participating when we’re doing so in a relaxed, supportive environment. In that realization, it makes sense to me that the work of a teaching artist is much about building a community around words and imagination.

Before we even met, I set about to get to know this new group of students. I came early on my first day and scoured the schoolwork hanging in the hallways outside their classrooms for examples of their own writing. I saw essays about the life of groundhogs, plot summaries from book reports, and captioned drawings of the number 100 (from the 100th day of school art project). From those I pulled examples of sensory details, onomatopoeia and strong imagery—things like the grizzly fur of the groundhog, or the 100-shaped robot that smelled like marshmallows. But more importantly, I got to call the names of students I’d never met and use their writing as our first mentor texts. In the first minutes of our workshop series, we’re already building that community.

Not to be forgotten, though, is the students desire to connect with you, the teaching artist. To many of them, our visits to their classroom are still be a big deal. This is evidenced by how many questions they have about our lives and our writing, how high their hands shoot in the air when we’re looking for volunteers to read, or how they crowd around the stack of publications, looking for our pictures on the back of book jackets. They want to know as much about us as we’re willing to share.

Take for example, Larissa (not her real name) asked almost every day if she could touch my head. “I’d rather you didn’t,” I said. Then added, “but you can write about it.” There is a writing lesson in there, right? Well, there is for at least one poem, which included exactly what intrigued her about my shaved head:

I wonder.

it squishy?

Is it smooth?


In another class, I read a poem, called “Grind” that I had written for younger audiences, sort of an ode to skateboarding. Before I read, Pablo (again, a pseudonym) explained to the class in detail all the types of grinding tricks one can execute on a skateboard. Afterwards, he asked for a copy of the poem. The next day I walked into class with a freshly printed copy of the poem, with a new epigraph “for Pablo” under the title. Before I left for the day, he made a point to walk me to the door. “Mr. Aaron, thank you for bringing that poem for me. I really like it.”

But the best reminder of how younger students view our class visits comes from Christopher, who asks every day to read “The Jail Book”—his name for my non-fiction publication Reclaiming Black Manhood. He calls it that since I told them the bulk of the work in that book was conceived in a weekly class I taught at King County Jail. The book, despite its subject and title, had captured his interest. But one day, he decided he needed my autograph as well. The conversation went like this:

“Can you sign this for me?”

“Sure, but it isn’t valuable. I promise”.

“Well, can you like misspell something on purpose, that way it will be worth more.”

“Um, sure.”

“And write, ‘To my biggest fan’, but remember to make some kind of mistake.”

So I wrote, ‘Two my biggest fan’ and signed my name. In reply, I got a whispered “Yes!” and a small fist pump.


So despite my trepidations of working with early grades, I’m having a blast. The writing is fun, everyone wants to share what they’re working on, and I don’t have to compete with cell phones for attention. In fact, teaching young kids is a great reminder of what it means to be a writer. To put it the most simply, our job is Imagining, and imagination is as real as it gets.