I’ve discovered a great new way to learn about writing and the craft of storytelling: teach it to fourth graders.
I recently volunteered to lead an afterschool club at my son’s school, and when they learned I am a soon-to-be-published author, they asked me to run a “storytelling” club.
I jumped in with both feet, enthusiastic to share my love of writing with eager kids.
And then I realized I’d have to be organized, and detailed, submit a lesson plan each week, and find a way to keep a group of fourth graders occupied and engaged for an hour and a half, after a long day of school.
I started planning. Where to begin? What goes into storytelling? What are the fundamentals? I was all set to go with analyzing Harry Potter using Freytag’s five-part narrative structure. My husband (a few credits shy of his Master’s in education) felt I might have set my expectations a teensy bit too high.
So Aristotle’s beginning, middle, and end it would be. I was banking on all the kids being familiar with Harry Potter. I came up with games we could play, trying to discover ways to make my club as fun and relatable as possible. I had plenty of material to cover for my first session, I figured, so in I happily went in yesterday afternoon, ready to run my club like a pro!
Hitch in the road number one hit me before we even got started. All of the children gathered in the cafeteria for snack and recess before we were to go off to our clubs, and when my son (age five) realized he was not in my club…well, it got a bit ugly. Tears, wailing, begging to go home.
“But you’re in the Sports All-Stars Club!” I told him with great enthusiasm. “You get to play soccer!”
“Why don’t you want me in your club?” he wailed.
“We talked about this last night, and this morning, too,” I tried to explain. “My club is for older kids.”
“Don’t you want to be with me?” he sobbed.
Fortunately, his Kindergarten teacher is an absolute gem, and stayed with him until he calmed down, after I promised he only had to try his club just this once, and if he didn’t like it, he wouldn’t have to go again. “Because we made a commitment,” I told him as I left to sit across the cafeteria with my club.
Fast forward to club time. We get in our classroom, my eager students ready to go. And by eager, I mean…mostly. One boy was clearly there as a time-filler. “Do we have to do all this stuff?” he moaned as I asked them to circle up the chairs so we could have a group discussion. “This is dumb.”
I smiled and promised he’d have fun if he just gave it a try, and began to launch into my prepared speech about the fundamentals of storytelling. Not a complete sentence had passed my lips when four hands shot into the air.
“Are we going to be published?” asked one boy, beaming with excitement, practically bouncing out of his seat.
“Um, well, getting published is a long, complex process.” I told him. “We could self-publish our short stories in an anthology, if you’d like,” I offered.
“You mean we’re not going to get a publisher to put our stories in the bookstores?” he said.
“You got a publisher, right?” asked the girl sitting next to him.
“I did. But it took a very long time.”
“How long?” she asked.
I thought for a moment. “I started writing my book in 2008, and worked on it off and on for a few years before really committing to writing it. I got my publishing offer last year. So that was four years.”
“That’s a long time,” chimed in another girl.
“It is,” I said with a nod. “Since you guys were in Kindergarten, right?”
This back and forth went on for a good half-hour before I got us back on track. We talked about Harry Potter; we discussed protagonists (main characters!), we talked about antagonists (Voldemort!) And they loved it. Hooray! I gave them Paul Bunyan stories I had printed out and cut up, and had them try and put the stories back together in the right order.
We played seven-word sentence in which we picked seven random letters and formed sentences. My favorite? GWRHAFC: George Washington rides horses and fights crocodiles.
And guess what? Mister “this is dumb” had the most fun of all.
With the time we had left after games, I had the kids start to work on their short stories. I asked them to come up with their protagonist. Who is he or she? What do they like to do? Where do they live? What are their favorite foods? Who are their friends?
One of the girls asked me the name of my book, and the name of the anthology my short story is in. She ran off to a corner and began to work. When our time was up, she handed me this:
Yesterday I learned a lot, the most important point being this: if you can’t explain a subject to fourth graders, you probably don’t really understand it yourself. And if you talk to kids in a fun, relatable way, they will listen. What a great exercise in reflection and comprehension this was for me. I can safely say I got as much, probably more, out of our first club day as the kids did. I can’t wait for our next meeting.
You want to get better as a writer? Find an opportunity like this. You’ll learn so much.
And you might even get yourself a fan.