Using Picture Books to Spark Personal Narratives
I love my local writing project -- PAWLP. I completed the writing fellowship in 2000, and have taken numerous excellent classes with them over the years.
Last year, PAWLP ran a teen writer's festival which was very well attended. This year, they decided to add special sessions for elementary students. When I was asked to run a one, I knew I wanted to use some of my favorite new picture books to help spark their ideas.
There would be two elementary workshops, and we planned to have the students split into primary and upper elementary groups. I needed a topic that would fit with a realistic fiction theme, and that could be nudged up or down in difficulty as the students required.
After a bit of perusing through my picture book stash, I knew I had just the right idea. Several of my favorite recent biographies had wonderful childhood stories at the start, helping kids get to know the famous figure as a real person who was once a kid like them. I also grabbed my copy of Small Beauties. This isn't a biography, but it's a nice example of how personality traits and names can go hand-in-hand.
I began each session by talking about "family legend" style stories. You know, the stories your mom and dad tell about when you were little? These are the stories we don't REALLY remember happening to us, but we feel like we do because the story has been told so many times.
As an example, I shared one of the stories my own parents used to always tell about me, hamming it up with my own storytelling style. After making sure that none of the kids in my group knew my older son, I also shared a (not super embarrassing) story about him. It turned out that I couldn't do that part during the second group, because kids from my sons' school were in the crowd.
Moving to the picture books, I shared snippets from the beginnings. I focused on On a Beam of Light and Who Says Women Can't Be Doctors, because the childhood tales in those two were clearly designed to shed light on the personalities of the famous figures. I did quicker shares for the others, showing a few pages from each.
My writing invitation was simple -
Share a story that your family tells over and over about you!
Since my first group was the upper elementary crew, I was able to sit down and do my own writing piece as they worked. Some students finished up earlier than others, of course, but they eagerly snatched up my books to read while they waited for others to finish. I was especially excited to see kids cross the gender line, with boys and girls equally tearing into the biographies about Einstein, Elizabeth Cade Stanton, Elizabeth Blackwell, and Paul Erdos.
One student modeled closely after the biography format and wrote about Leonardo da Vinci. Older kids tend to be more reluctant to share their writing with strangers, so I only had a few willing to take the author's chair. I really wished more of them would have taken the plunge, but I also didn't have them long enough to build a sense of community in the group.
Up next was the younger bunch - grades 1-3. They were bursting with energy and enthusiasm for language. As I went through the same set of steps I had done before, they all wiggled and waved their hands around with ideas they couldn't wait to share. Their energy was contagious, and my storytelling performance was better than the first time through.
This group also had a lot of creative ideas for how to attack the writing. Some wanted to tell family stories about siblings or uncles. Another wanted to share silly stories about a parakeet her parents used to own. Is that a problem? Not at all. The real point of the day was to get them writing, so even made up story ideas received and enthusiastic "yes!".
My favorite piece involved a student who "photobombed" her brother's videotaping by twirling in front of the camera and saying, "Do you want to see me ballet?". She giggled as she read her story, and declared that her whole family uses that phrase as a silly in-joke on a regular basis. She got exactly what I meant!
Teaching these two short sessions was a energizing part of my weekend. Now I can't wait to try it in my classroom!
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