I recently took an instagram live writing class with poet Rupi Kaur. One of the prompts that she gave us was to imagine ourselves as a house, then describe that house in detail. What would you look like as a house from the outside? Stately? Squat? Handsome? Ornate? Comfortable? Cozy? I loved this activity, both for the self-reflection that it evoked and for the potential to develop setting as character. It reminds me of an activity that we did at a Super Saturday at San Jose State this fall in which we asked students to imagine an exchange between two animals, and then write the exchange as though the animals are people. This allows students to begin to think through power dynamics and how they influence communication that is spoken as well as acted out in non-verbal cues. How would a lion speak and act toward a gazelle and vice versa? What about a shark to an octopus? A bunny to a wolf? How about two creatures vying for power who assert themselves in different ways? What would a tiger say to a snake? What wouldn't a snake say to a tiger? For lower grades this could simply be played as a fun imaginative game in which two animals have a quick conversation. As students get older the power dynamics can and should be brought into the conversation. This is an activity that is engaging for all age levels, but definitely becomes a more rich experience for older writers who can begin to think of each exchange in terms of power and how this yields conflict both on and under the surface.
Animal Writing for All Grades
Objective: Students will be able to craft scenes in which animals interact, then re-write these scenes with human characters who embody the qualities of the original animals interacting.
Purpose: This activity is similar to a popular acting game by which people have to play characters who embody the qualities of specific animals. So students will think about how a snake-like person might interact with a person who is like a caged bird. This is designed to get students thinking about power dynamics in human interactions as they write.
DIRECTIONS FOR GRADES K-12
Step 1: Students Write Animal Interaction Scenes - 10 Minutes
Students will pick 2 animals who exert their power (or lack thereof) in different ways. Explain that students are going to write a scene in which the two animals that they pick are interacting. As they write they might think about which animal in the scene has more power and how they will show this power through their bodies and movements. For instance, they may choose to write an interaction between a snake and tiger hunting one another. Or they might choose to write about a house cat's encounter with a mouse. The choice is theirs, but they should have two DIFFERENT animals in their scene.
Step 2: Students Re-write the Scene To Turn Animals Into Humans – 10 Minutes
Students are going to re-write the scene so that their characters are now human. However, each character should embody the qualities of the original animals (so they will now have a person with snake-like qualities and person with cat-like qualities hunting one another). For younger writers you might instead use this time for students to illustrate their work.
Step 3: Students share their stories
Encourage students to share their work with others. Ask them to read it to their parents or give an opportunity for an open mic at the end of your class period.
This week I'd like to share a shortened version of my TwitLit lesson. You might not know it, but writers have all but taken over Twitter and tweeting short stories has very much become a thing with the advent of TwitLit, or Twitterature. Twitter forces writers to consider every character carefully, which is an important skill we can impart to young writers. The practice of writing very short pieces forces students to examine every word choice and gives them an opportunity to play with language in a low stakes way, which I am all about in first draft writing. Before I go into details in the lesson I should note that I have used this lesson with all ages, so really this works K-Adult (and adults I do encourage you to give this one a try too).
Since this is such a short exercise I always have students write at least 4 short stories using the parameters below.
Students can pair the columns any way they'd like (they can write a 20 word ghost adventure story, a 280 character pirate adventure story, a 1 sentence Easter adventure story, etc). Since we are counting characters (characters in the twitter-speak sense, or individual letters and spaces) I have older students type their work and use the character and word count functions to help them with this. Younger students should replace the word and/or character count with drawing a picture because if Common Core has taught us anything it should be that pictures count as text as much as words do and students need to learn to "read" (and write) all forms of text. As such I have included a handout that I use with K-3 graders below. Have fun with this one, and parents go ahead and give this a try too! You might surprise yourself with what you come up with! And if you want you can catch the Twitterature craze by following hashtags #onelinewed, #flashfiction, #shortstories, or of course, #twitlit.
I think it's safe to say that many of us are re-examining what it means to be a hero in light of our current world-wide crisis. There are so many everyday heroes working the front lines and risking exposure on a daily basis (doctors, nurses, grocery store workers); sometimes it even feels like a heroic act to support 3 kids through digital learning while my husband and I run our own classes from home. This is actually a topic I've thought about a lot in recent years, especially when I was in active breast cancer treatment. I can't tell you how many times I heard, "You're so brave," simply because they saw me out and about with a bald head. This always gave me pause. I didn't feel brave. I felt like I was forced to deal with something. It's not like I chose to run into a burning building and save the lives of a litter of puppies. No, my body over-produced cells for a period of time and I had to go through treatment to save myself. And really I didn't save myself, my team of doctors and nurses saved me. Which brings me back to the original point that these are the true heroes of the day. As such, I want to share my Writing Heroes lesson plan to do my very small part to help make life easier for the educators and parents teaching writing from home right now.
I've taught a variation of this lesson for probably ten+ years. When I first got involved with the writing project we had a Young Authors Institute at San Jose State and I taught a week of Hero Writing to 4th-7th graders (note that we still offer this program, though it's now called Writing Workshop). Now keep in mind, when we teach our summer programs we have the same group of students for HOURS every day and we are focused only on teaching writing. You know we have to keep things interesting! I usually pair these activities with a study of excerpts of Percy Jackson & The Olympians that I read aloud to students (truth: I remembered I had this lesson sequence because I recently purchased the box set of this book series for my own 9 and 10 year old kiddos - they're a bit young for the series but they listen and read along with audible and they are LOVING it so far). This is a parred down version of this unit in which I've selected some of my favorite activities. I've kept these lessons around 30-40 minutes apiece.
Day 1: What Makes a Hero?
I always begin this lesson sequence by asking students, "What makes a hero?" In fact, I often start units by posing an essential question to students BEFORE we have studied anything. I like to get them thinking about the questions we will be exploring on their own first because you know they all come into our classrooms with oceans of ideas!
ACTIVITY 1: What Makes A Hero? Quickwrite
Students will write for 5 minutes on the essential question, what makes a hero? In a traditional classroom I always have students pair or group share their ideas before we move into a whole class discussion. In a digital classroom I would have students write on the idea and either ask that each student comment on the ideas of 1-2 classmates or if you are using zoom or google hangouts you could try for a class discussion whole group. That said, I would limit the class discussion to 5-10 minutes in order to fit the rest of the lesson into the 30-40 minute time frame.
ACTIVITY 2 : Heroic Acts Ranking Sheet
After students have had a chance to think about the qualities of a hero on their own, I give them a Heroic Acts Ranking Sheet. This handout has 10 heroic acts listed and I ask students to rank the acts from most to least heroic. This is a very difficult task designed to get them thinking about the different ways people can behave heroically. We always follow this activity with another class discussion. Typically students will argue that if an act is at all self-serving it is less heroic than the acts that involve personal sacrifice (for instance, they will often argue that it is less heroic to save your own child than to save a stranger...and that it is less heroic if someone is doing their job in the process of being a hero - but is it, though?). Again, this classroom discussion would need to be modified for digital learning. Perhaps you could have students pick their top 1-3 heroic acts and write a couple of sentences defending their selections, which would be a quick tie in to argumentative writing. That said, this is a great activity for whole class discussion so if you can zoom it go for it! Click below to download the Heroic Acts Ranking Sheet.
Day 2: Build A Half A Hero
Once we have talked about what makes a hero in a real life context I move this into a discussion of heroes in stories. First, I define hero as being an alternate term for protagonist, or character from whose perspective a story is told. In a traditional classroom I will do this as a call back exercise: "When I say hero, you say protagonist. Hero... Protagonist! Hero...Protagonist! Protagonist...Hero!" I'm not sure how to modify this for a digital classroom but I invite you to give it a try and share how it went in the comments below! Next, I tell students that we are going to begin to write heroes into existence through a partner activity I call Build A Half A Hero.
ACTIVITY 1: Build A Half A Hero Partner Writing
I've done this activity online with students in Once Upon A Novel, a class that I teach in the summers for the writing project, so I know it works digitally! I assign students a partner and give each partner different prompts so that they are each creating a half of a hero. They then put their notes together to form one whole hero, who often has complex (and sometimes contradictory) traits. Oh what it is to be human! Or not, sometimes one partner will decide that the hero lives on another planet and their partner has to find a way to work that surprise into their own writing. Here are the prompts for this exercise:
Day 3: Heroes vs. Villains
How can you talk about heroes without talking about villains? Especially when villains are SO MUCH FUN to write! I begin this day by asking students what a villain is. This is typically a quick write into a quick class discussion before I completely debunk most of their notions of good and evil. I say debunk because most teachers don't understand villains in the same way that writers do. Writers know that villains do not have to be bad. In fact, they can be better people than your hero. They simply have to be in competition with your hero over something. Here is how basic conflict works in a story.
THE HERO WANTS SOMETHING. THE VILLAIN ALSO WANTS SOMETHING. CONFLICT: For one to win...the other must lose!
Sometimes the hero and villain want the same thing (the same scholarship, the same romantic interest, the same diamond sword designed that makes people it stabs invincible). Other times, they want opposing things (the hero wants peace and the villain wants world domination, the hero wants freedom and the villain wants to control the hero). Either way, only one character can get what they want. Their respective journeys to go after what they want will fuel the plot of the story (sometimes the hero is taking action to get their desire, other times they are reacting to the antagonist's attempts to attain their desire).
Now that we've established the differences between a hero and a villain it's time to write! First, though, I ask students to identify something their hero wants more than anything else in the world. Next, I ask them to put an antagonist force in the way of this desire (in a full length unit we go into the different types of antagonistic forces because your villain doesn't actually have to be human).
ACTIVITY 1: WRITE WHAT YOUR HERO WANTS
What does your hero want? Write a scene describing your hero holding that thing in his or her hand. If it is a person the hero wants, write the hero holding that person's hand. If it is a virtue (like freedom), write the hero holding an object that represents that virtue in his or her hand.
Day 4: 3-2-1 Writing
By this point in the week we know significantly more about what it means to be a hero than we did at the start of the week so we are ready to kick our writing into high gear. We've talked a bit about what we're going to write (the conflict between the hero and villain), now we begin to explore how we're going to write it. For this activity I have students write three variations of the same scene. I call this 3-2-1 writing. Each of these scenes is going to center around an essential conflict between the hero and the villain.
THE PROMPT: Write a scene in which your hero is locked in a ferocious battle with the villain in an attempt to get that thing that (s)he wants more than anything else in the world. Give this battle to the villain (in other words let him be victorious). It's ok! We all know that your hero will win the whole thing, so let's knock our protagonists around a bit.
3 Write the first draft of this scene in third person (the shortest way to explain this to students is to say that you are going to write the scene so that all of the characters are referred to by name or third person pronouns like he/him)
2 Write another draft of the same scene so that the whole thing unfolds as dialogue between two people (the hero and the villain).
1 Re-write the scene so that it is told in first person from the hero's perspective. In this draft the hero will use the personal pronoun "I" to convey his or her version of events. As an added bonus you can try to rewrite the scene for a 4th time from the Villain's perspective. What fun! Who knows, they may end up being the true hero of the story.
Day 5: Writing In Scene
Now that we've covered essential elements of what it means to be a hero, it's time for students to write in scene so that action unfolds in real time. Now, how to write in scene could (and should) be a unit in and of itself but I would consider this a pre-assessment from which to design curriculum. At this point I would have students write for a solid block of time (20-30 minutes). Use the prompt below to write for that period.
PROMPT: WRITE YOUR HERO WINNING
Your last pieces of writing featured your hero losing (3 different times!). Now it's your hero's turn! Write your hero locked in another vicious battle with the villain. Only this time, let your hero be victorious! Go forth and have fun!
The Character Creation Game is one of my favorite games to play with students because it works for ALL AGES! I originally learned this game in a Stanford Continuing Studies writing class I took with Cheri and Teddy Steinkellner. The Steinkellners are an awesome family of writers (Cheri used to write for Cheers and her son, Teddy, currently writes for No Good Nick on Netflix). They had the BEST writing classes that combined improv games with writing activities. Needless to say, this has inspired much of the work I do with writing project students. They called this game the Betty Plumb game (I can't remember why), but I call it the Character Creation Game.
The Character Creation Game Lesson Plan
Objective: Students will work collaboratively to craft unique characters by playing a character creation game and will write scenes based upon the characters they create.
Purpose: This activity is fun for students of all ages (including adults!). We use this activity often because it is high-interest, encourages collaboration (students who laugh together are often more willing to work together), and gets creative juices flowing.
Playing The Game
This is a game that will help us to create unique characters. The rules of the game are simple. Players take turns making up “facts” about a character. Whatever anyone says about the character must be taken as truth and cannot be contradicted/changed. Players should try to build upon their group mates’ facts to craft a character into existence. Be as creative and wild as possible. Below is a model as to how this game is played.
Play will start with coming up with initials for the character’s name, then the group will go around clockwise making up facts about the character. Remember that the only rule is that players should never contradict one another’s facts (in the example below Xander cannot suddenly become a 13 year old girl because he is a 3000 year old fallen angel…unless of course someone curses him so that he has to inhabit the body of a 13 year old girl for a year).
Step 1: Player 1 asks for the other players to give 2 letters of the alphabet to serve as the character’s initials. Example players might shout out: XE
Player 1: give the character a first name
Ex: The character’s first name will be Xander.
Player 2: give the character a last name
Ex: Xander’s last name is Easy.
Player 3: state a fact about the character
Ex: Xander Easy is a 3000 year old fallen angel.
Player 1: state a fact about the character
Ex: Xander Easy fell from heaven for stealing apples from the Garden of Eden.
Player 2: state a fact about the character
Ex: When Zeus caught Xander stealing apples he chased him around the garden
shooting lightening bolts at him.
Player 3: state a fact about the character
Ex: One of the lightening bolts struck Xander in the back and now he has the
marking of a black lightening bolt where his wings used to be.
Player 1: state a fact about the character
Ex: Xander can never take off his shirt because if a human lays eyes on the
lightening bolt marking he or she will immediately go blind.
Player 2: state a fact about the character
Ex: Xander learned this during an unfortunate encounter with a ship captain 100
Warm-up Writing Activity: Terrible Things Happen to Great Characters
Now it is time to freewrite about the character for 10 minutes. The only rule for the freewrite is that players need to try to write about terrible things happening to the great character they just created. Here are some tips for writing:
If players need inspiration they should think about the worst possible thing that could happen to their character and then make that happen (in the example above Xander being stuck in the body of a 13 year old girl might just be the worst thing that could happen to him…at least until other even more horrible things start to happen). Putting the character in these bad situations is not just fun, it is also a great technique for building tension in a story.