It had been probably our best visit yet, full of up-close encounters, including the polar bear swimming right up to the glass where the seven-year-old had been standing, face full of wonder.
He looked at me funny. “What do you mean?”
“Tell her how cool the polar bear was.”
“But I don’t know what to say.”
The same thing happened during writing time with school. I’d ask him to write a story — just a one-page, second-grade-level story — and he’d be stumped for ages, even if he already had a prompt and knew what he wanted the story to be about.
I hated seeing him so tense about it. I wanted him to gush with excitement over both the real story of the polar bear and his own made-up stories.
And I realized that the skill we needed to foster was storytelling.
The usual protest of not knowing what to write didn’t persist long. Before I knew it, they were begging me to cut more slips. They’d filled out every single one and still had more ideas!
Once I finally said “enough,” the storytelling itself was just as fun. They took turns drawing slips from the jar and adding to an epic-level story with a cast as big as their imaginations.
When their contribution felt weak, I pressed for more details:
Me: “What did the monster look like?”
Me: “How come?”
7yo: “He had brown spots all over him, like dirt and mud.”
Gradually their descriptions became more generous, like when the four-year-old’s monster turned “brown with blue spots and huge horns and three green — no, I mean red — eyes.” They also improved at connections that gave the story a better arc. When a random object showed up, I’d ask how it got there and they’d say things like, “The clever princess gave it to him.” Characters had believable motivations, such as the mouse putting on a life jacket and jumping into the sea to get away from the monster who couldn’t swim. Most impressive of all, the ending circled back to the beginning: the monster had squashed the mouse’s house, and in the end the mouse found a treasure chest that he used to make a new house.
We’ve done it twice now, changing slips to create a completely new story, and it’s such a hit that I’m sure it’ll continue to be one of our favorite school activities.
It gets me thinking, too. Maybe I need more creative exercises for my own writing. Maybe I need to work on my storytelling. Maybe I need to find ways to have fun instead of feeling stumped as I stare at the screen. Maybe I need to stretch my imagination just a little more.
Funny how even elementary school can be for grown-ups too.
Maybe I need to put all my story elements in a jar and mix things up a bit.