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.