Unpick the structures of stories to see what makes them work
It can be tough to teach students what makes a great story, but I have found that the following lesson reaps great rewards with my 10- and 11-year-old students.
"Who thinks they know the difference between a great story, a good story and a poor story?" I ask the class.
Hands shoot into the air.
"All right," I say. "What makes a story great?"
They start brainstorming. Groups of children huddle around large pieces of paper and scratch out ideas. Some work as harmoniously as a hive of bees; others are typical kids, socially aware of who is in their group and what that means. But the distractions are overcome in the end.
Next, we collect the ideas on the whiteboard. The same words and ideas keep popping up but they belong to two distinct groups: concepts such as character and plot; and terms such as mystery, adventure and science.
I circle each of the ideas in one of two colours - blue and red - and ask the students to tell me the difference.
"One is a type of story," says one child, a reader who eats books for breakfast.
"Yeah," agrees another child, who has not shown much engagement with reading. "The blue words are all part of the stories in the red words. A mystery book needs characters, as does a fantasy book and so does a funny book."
"So what makes a story great?" I repeat, trying to keep my influence to a minimum.
"The blue words do." We got there eventually.
"This is an impressive list of words we have in the blue category: character, plot and so on," I say. "Let's have a vote on the top five."
Each student finds a quiet place in their own mind to reflect on what makes them connect to stories. A silent poll ensues; votes are gathered and counted. The brainstorm has become something else: it has become a structure. The students have voted for character, emotions, actions, details and problems.
"That is intriguing," I say. "I once read a book about stories and the author presented his own list: character, intent, action, details and struggles. Our list is pretty much the same. So, how can we use it to make our stories better?"
A rubric is drafted. Students debate word choice and how to differentiate between using character effectively and ineffectively. We go back and forth a couple of times, play with the wording of the rubric and finally accept that it is a work in progress that will never be perfect.
Like clouds, someone says.
We start writing 100-word stories. By limiting our words, we open up paths for creativity. The stories grow and evolve. We reflect. Sometimes we decide to focus on just one of our five elements - a clearly defined struggle, for example - and at other times we try to weave all five into one narrative, which is not easy to do in 100 words.
Then again, that is exactly why we are doing it.
Craig Dwyer is a Grade 5 teacher at the International School of UlmNeu-Ulm in Germany
The guide by your side – ensuring you are always up to date with the latest in education.
Get Tes magazine online and delivered to your door. Stay up to date with the latest research, teacher innovation and insight, plus classroom tips and techniques with a Tes magazine subscription.
With a Tes magazine subscription you get exclusive access to our CPD library. Including our New Teachers’ special for NQTS, Ed Tech, How to Get a Job, Trip Planner, Ed Biz Special and all Tes back issues.