This year’s WITS school residencies have turned out to be challenging. Amazingly, fantastically awesome. But challenging. First, I took on an eighth-grade class, and these were kids I’d actually taught before, so I needed to come up with something new. Along with them, I have a group of sixth graders, and in the past, their reading teacher has had them write a “novel” as an end of the year project. So I decided to capitalize on this and teach story structure, character development, goal, motivation, and conflict. The issue was how to do that for sixth and eighth graders. I had to figure out how to bring the language of a critique group into a middle school classroom.

The first thing I did was bring in these wonderfully quirky photos I found by an artist named Jane Long. I used them to provoke their imaginations with a free write. Some were a little slow to let go of the “How much do I have to write?” “I don’t get it.” “Do I write a poem or a story?” mentality, but once they did they came up with some great pieces.

Then I moved on to the idea of short story/novel writing. I can’t say it’s been easy, but it’s not been as difficult as I’d anticipated. I started with premise sentences (which blew their minds) as a way of teaching them to nail down their plots and to keep the story from rambling. From there, I used a handout with questions to make them think about setting, main and secondary characters, and more. Since then, they’ve written simple I Am poems from their characters’ POVs, used setting as a way to “show” the character rather than tell, and even chosen a color/poem as symbolism to represent their characters.

Unfortunately, just before the Christmas holidays, I discovered some still didn’t have their plots figured out. So I took the Story Spine I got from fellow WITS writer Tria Wood and used it to help those finish mapping out their ideas.

This has been very different than my usual school residencies. It will make the anthology at the end of the year like one I’ve never done before. Rather than the published pieces being about the student, they will most likely be about their characters or maybe even excerpts from the novellas. We have a way to go, but I can’t wait to see how this turns out and read what they create.

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