A Lesson Plan for Elementary School Students: Story Essentials

I had my first official school visit this last week: I was an invited presenter at a university creative writing class. The presentation was a lot of fun–the students were smart, engaged, and asked great questions. Mostly, all I had to do was show up and talk about my forthcoming book and my road to publication. Easy peasy.

Next week, I’ve got a very different kind of school visit: I’ll be doing a series of creative writing classes for my 9-year-old’s third grade class. I’m already a little nervous: their attention span is much shorter, and they require a lot more interaction!

But, for the benefit of anyone else facing a similar school visit, I thought I’d share a few basic ideas.

Setting the groundwork

A long time ago when I first began teaching, I learned a trick to good teaching: introduce a concept, demonstrate it, and then let students apply it.

Since the class is starting a unit on narrative, there a couple of core principles I want to lay down.

1. Stories require conflict.

Most kids (and a lot of grown ups) think all you need to tell a story is have something happen. But that leads to stories that are variations on this happened and then this happened and then this happened and its hard for readers to care. Conflict happens when the main character is thwarted: in other words, as I saw recently on Facebook, if your character is running a race, make sure her shoe laces are tied before she starts.

2. This conflict needs to be character driven.

All good stories have interesting characters. They don’t have to be sympathetic characters, but they do have to be proactive–that is, they have to want something. And there needs to be something that gets in their way. Conflict unfolds naturally as the character tries to overcome their obstacle to get what they want.

Or, as Lincoln Pierce suggests in a recent Big Nate comic strip, writers need to focus on:

  • Somebody
  • Wanted something
  • But they couldn’t get it
  • So they . . .

Big Nate
*from http://www.gocomics.com/bignate/2015/03/08

3. The conflict unfolds in a distinct place

Arguably, there are a lot of elements that go into stories, but for our first unit, I want to focus on these three: character, conflict, and setting. The setting doesn’t have to be unique, but it does have to be clear, because where a story is set can dramatically affect what can happen in the story.

One of the easiest ways to introduce these ideas is to point them out in familiar stories. Since I’ll be teaching an elementary school classroom, I’ll probably focus on Disney movies that are familiar to most of the students. Take, for instance, Frozen: What does Anna want? (She wants to marry Hans, which her sister forbids). What does Elsa want? (To keep her secret, to be left alone). Since neither character can easily have what they want, their needs drive the story forward.

Demonstrate the Concept

Once students have the general idea of conflict, we’ll brainstorm a story as a group. I ask students to brainstorm a list of characters (one of the things I love about kids is how creative they are). And then we’ll pick one. Where does this character live? What does this character want? What might be keeping them from what they want?

Together, we’ll outline a story that has conflict, character, and setting.

Apply the Concept

Once we’ve worked through the story as a group, each student will have a chance to brainstorm their own story.

One of my favorite writing prompts involves putting a variety of characters and settings into a hat and having the students draw one from each hat. So, for this activity, a student might end up with a stinky ninja in a library . . . and they have to figure out what the ninja would want (to not get caught?) and what is keeping him from what he wants (his target can smell him?), and what the ninja does to try and overcome that obstacle.

A student
An amusement park
An ogre
A campground
A yeti
A library
A fairy
A secret laboratory
A unicorn
A cave
A super-hero
A beach
A baseball player
A graveyard
A ninja
On a boat
A pirate
On a plane

Honestly? Mostly I’m excited to talk about words with my son and his friends.

What writing exercises have you done with students?