Thursday, March 27, 2014

Can't Think of Anything to Write About? Picture Your Character in a Place!

During the month of March, I am participating in the Slice of Life Challenge, hosted by Most of my posts are at, but the ones that really have to do with education are here.

We are incredibly fortunate in our district because several times a year, we get to have a staff developer from the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project come and work with our teachers. I have yet to meet a staff developer who doesn't thoroughly, 100% inspire me. Kate Roberts, Emily Smith, and Christine Holley currently work with our district and if you know any of them or have been to any of their workshops, then you understand why these are always amazing days.

Yesterday, Christine Holley worked with out first-grade teachers, talking about our Realistic Fiction writing unit. One of the first-grade books in the Units of Study published last spring is From Scenes to Series. This unit contains twenty sessions and moves students through writing single stories to writing series of stories, a la Henry and Mudge,  and then even other series. How amazing is it for our teachers that Christine Holley wrote the book with Mary Ehrenworth?!?!

I wish that I had taken a picture of one of our most experienced teacher's book because it was so covered with highlighting and post-its before Christine even got started with the morning. This particular teacher had decided to venture away from our current curriculum and follow the launch and first couple of sessions from From Scenes to Series. Christine got a little teary to see the life emerging from her book, especially from a teacher who is one of the most effective first-grade writing teachers I have EVER seen! At the end of the day, her comments were "This was AWESOME, as usual. I will use everything I learned immediately! This book is excellent! My kids are much better writers of Realistic Fiction because of Christine!"

Through the work and research that went into developing this book, Christine and Mary moved away from having young writers spend so much time developing and getting to know their characters, a practice that I think could help older students, as well as our first-graders. Instead, right in the first lesson, they recommend having children:

  • Imagine a pretend character and give that character a name.
  • Think of a place where that character would be.
  • Think up some of the adventures that could happen in that place.
  • Tell the story to a partner, and...
  • Write!
Christine did a demonstration lesson right in one of the classrooms, launching the unit and creating this chart for the students, as she taught them the steps and had them practice. She didn't like her chart, thinking it was too messy, but I think that it's perfect and exactly what the teachers and students needed to see to feel comfortable getting going. 

One of the most important take-aways from this lesson for writers of any age is to imagine a place. I can't believe that I have nor thought of this strategy before, because it is SO effective. Go ahead and try it now. It is so powerful to imagine your character in a place when you are trying to think of stories! When you think of your character, and then you think of a setting, writers' block dissipates. My character is at the amusement park...tons of stories. In the woods...stories. Cafeteria...stories. Beach, soccer field, hockey rink, bus, elevator...stories and stories. This strategy solves so many problems including:
  • writers' block
  • the dreaded bed-to-bed stories
  • fantasy embedded into realistic fiction--out, out, out!
  • writing about unfamiliar topics...
I'm sure that there are more advantages to starting with a place, so please feel free to try this and share some! It was so awesome to watch teachers become so excited to teach a unit with new strategies and techniques. 

More to come about this session tomorrow!


  1. It's incredible that you're doing all this with your young students, and how exciting that you have such amazing mentors working with your district! I love the idea of thinking of a place in which to place your character. So much depends on the setting. I like when the setting is so strongly described that it becomes like another character. Wonderful post!

  2. I love it when you have staff development from Teachers College Reading and Writing Project because you so generously share your learning. What great ideas and more to come. Thank you!

  3. I love your enthusiasm, Melanie, & will pass these tips onto our primary teachers. It does sound as if it will be a good jumpstart into a story. Thanks-& you're lucky to have such great PD!

  4. Kate Roberts comes to your school? I. Am. Jealous!!! I have tried for years to get our curriculum director to invest in TC staff success. But, I can live vicariously through you!

  5. WOW! Thank you for sharing. I would LOVE to be in a school that had visits from TC staff developers. Your details in your slice though are so helpful. Thanks for sharing and I WILL be checking back tomorrow.

  6. Melanie - I have been thinking about kinder and first grade writing a lot recently. How do we best approach it and support it. Thanks for sharing. I plan to share your post with some of the first grade teachers I work with.

  7. What a wonderful opportunity your district has! I might have to take lesson from this post for my post in the next few days! Thanks for teaching us!

  8. This idea is always effective in getting young writers off to a flying start. I have heard it referred to as writing a 'flash draft.' I love that it incorporates the pre-writing essential of 'talking or telling' stories before we write. This enables the inexperienced writer to hear their words in action. This was a learning experience where the power of the demonstration was clearly transformative. Thank you Melanie for this enthusiastic sharing.