Sunday, July 30, 2017

Writing Fun for Fourth Graders

Springfield, Illinois is fortunate to have a nonprofit organization called Compass, which hosts after- school homework help and activities at several local elementary schools. In the summer, Camp Compass brings together children from around the city -- part fun, part maintaining skills during the long break.

Compass Director Molly Berendt asked me to teach a couple of sessions on writing to kids roughly ages eight to ten. Hmmm. I lecture a fair bit to adults, but elementary school children?

It took a couple of weeks of thinking, because 'writing' is not always a favorite activity for children. Plus the difference between the skills of eight and ten-year olds is great. I finally decided to read a story, and then offer an exercise disguised as fun.

You probably read O. Henry's The Ransom of Red Chief in school. Bottom line, some industrious kidnappers are more than willing to return their red-headed victim. I had wanted something with humor and a surprise ending, and I abbreviated the story to accommodate the timeframe. You could have heard a pin drop as they listened.

Now, the writing part....

The adage of a picture being better than a thousand words is apt. What if we had a picture and the kids had to come up with the words, a.k.a., tell a story?

As an amateur photographer of sorts, I have thousands of photos  on my laptop.  First, I chose the construction scene at right. Actually, it's a destruction. These are the remains of the old DC Convention Center, taken from a (usually locked) porch on the 11th floor of a nearby building. Anything with heavy equipment would garner interest. Right? Sorry to say, several of the ideas dealt with burying bodies at the site.

Next, something peaceful. My River's Edge mystery series is set in a fictional town along the Des Moines River in Iowa, so I could load several albums with those photos. This bench faces the river in Keosauqua, Iowa. These stories were sometimes more cheerful -- two involved rescuing children who fell in the river.

The third photo was the first to come to mind. Years ago, a young niece and nephew visited me for a week in Iowa. Aside from the unusual aspects (for them) of visiting a farm and sitting at a  train station watching the Amtrak go by, we visited a playground. My then four-year-old nephew found shoes and socks encumbered his actions. When I noticed he wasn't wearing them, here's where they were. I promise, this is not a staged photo.Don't ask how he got over the fence. I must have had my back turned.

Stories about the playground tended to involve a child being kidnapped, but unable to take his shoes and socks. Vivid imaginations, these kids.

I had 5 by 7 inch copies of each photo, and sheets of paper for them to write or draw on. Plus pencils and crayons, of course. Each sheet had one of the pictures on top, so they'd remember the photo. No one had to talk about their work, but about half of the twenty or so kids in each group did.

Since I don't usually teach children, I found this invigorating and exhausting. I liked the idea of starting an exercise with a photo. Maybe I'll use it with adults...
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