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the storytellers

I did something in 2nd grade today that I have never done in all my 18 years of teaching. And it honestly came to me in the blink of an eye.

We were in writing class, and the kids--no matter how many ways I say this--tend to not see the link between speaking and writing. It seems I spend a lifetime teaching kids what they already know how to do--they just don't KNOW that they know how to do it.

People-and especially children- are natural storytellers. We can stretch out the writing process like an accordion, but it's a natural enough process even without teaching it. Good storytellers already have all the elements of a story when they speak. Nobody speaks and intends to be boring. But sometimes when they write they are unintentionally so. And it's all because they forgot one thing when they put pen to paper: their audience.

Every day in writing, I conference one-on-one with students. Sometimes there is a bit of a line to speak with me. Sometimes it's a lot of coming and going: a fresh piece of paper; how do you spell "crooked"? Can I sharpen my pencil?

But there was only one actual conference today at the table.


So, this boy. I could see that he was going to hand me his finished rough draft. I could also see with a quick glance that the first line was, "We were at Florida."

He walked closer and put his paper on the table. I looked at him--ready to read me his masterpiece--and I flipped it over. Face down.

Then I said, "Tell me this story without looking at your paper."


He glanced at the paper, then back at me and said, "We--" then he stopped himself and backtracked for my sake: "My family and I went to Florida and we left at two o'clock in the morning..."

After a slower start, he abandoned trying to remember what he wrote and just told the story. The story was about a span of maybe 12 hours. Sandcastles made with a bucket. Then trying the catch fish with the bucket. But then his dad took him to the surf shop and bought him a net. And then he used the net and was able to catch a small fish (a minnow, we thought). Then he tried to lower the net. But the fish wouldn't swim out, so his brother had to grab it out with his hand and "THROW IT BACK INTO THE OCEAN!" [This last bit he said with great excitement.]

And the whole time he talked, I listened and took notes. Keywords, half sentences, cursive. One Post it note after another. His story grew and lengthened. It marched from one end of that table to another one little yellow square step at a time.

And when he was finished. I told him, "Now, THAT, my friend, is a story." 

Then I said, "But, here is what you wrote on your paper." And I read to him his four original sentences. None of his writing was about about fish. Not the brother, the dad, the net or the ocean. Only Florida...and that it was fun. Twice. He wrote "It was fun"...twice.

Then I read the story off the Post its, just as he told it to me. And, let me tell you, friends--that smile! He was bedazzled by his own storytelling ability.

"Now. THIS is your story," I pointed to the page.
"And, this," I indicated the long line of Post-its, "is ALSO your story."

"This," I pointed to the page, "is a story that is shorter because you tried to tell the story of Florida in one big gulp and you can't do it. It's too big of a story."

"But, THIS," I indicated the long line of Post-its, "is a story that is much longer, and much better, because it is only one small moment."

"You can tell a better story in small moments than you can ever tell one in big gulps."

And, let me tell you--it was like I had performed a magic trick. I turned the work of four puny sentences into twelve different Post-it notes.

I told a colleague at the day's end, "That kid loved me more in that one moment than he liked me in the past eleven days all put together."

One moment. One to the next. THAT is the story.


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