Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Guided story writing

Seems like when Darwin and I were in grade school, there was a craze to teach poetry by having youngsters jump write in and write a poem, regardless of the fact that the youngsters had been taught nothing about what a poem is or how to write one. ("It rhymes!") To my mind, the first step in learning to write is to listen to poems and stories in order to develop a taste for the mental flavor of prose and poetry. The next step is guided writing.

A child develops a skill first by watching someone perform a task, then by doing the task with help (while imitating what they've observed). Once the child has practiced the task with help and correction, he's ready to try it on his own. We're at the helping stage here. I have the girls narrate a story and provide plot elements, and then I write it down as a narrative, explaining how I'm crafting the ideas and dialogue into structured sentences, and developing the flow. For example, here is this morning's project, with our work in parentheses.

Rose Beauty

("What's the name of your character? Where does she live? What did her parents do?")

Once upon a time, there was a girl named Rose Beauty, because she was a beautiful as a rose. She lived in a house painted with blue and red and orange squigglezags. Her father died when she was eleven ("When did her father die," I asked. "When she was born?" "When she was eleven, " said Eleanor firmly.), and her mother was a scrubwoman.

One day she met an old witch woman. (We debated on how to describe this character -- a sorceress? An old hag? "Witch woman" was the preferred descriptor.)

"Good day, old granny," Rose greeted the woman. (At first Rose just said hello, but I suggested some alternate greetings, and Julia wanted the witch called "Granny" rather than "old mother". And instead of just writing "said Rose", I added the greeting.)

"Please give me a drink of water, my dear. If you don't, I will cast a spell on you."

"Here you are, granny," said Rose, fetching a cup of water.

"Now my must wash my dishes, or else I will cast a spell on you." (Julia liked the spell formulation.)

"Yes, granny," said Rose, and scrubbed the dishes clean.

"Now you must sweep the floor," said the witch, "or else I will eat you." (Eleanor got tired of the spells.)

"I'll make it shine, granny," said Rose, and she swept the floor clean. (I suggested this as a way of pepping up the usual "Yes, granny".)

"You're a good girl, Rose, and you deserve a reward," Granny told the girl. "If you go to the stable, you'll find a surprise."

In the stable, Rose found a red horse with wings.

"You're so beautiful!" exclaimed Rose. "I'll call you Scarlet." The horse nuzzled her hand. (Julia wanted to name the horse Black Beauty at first, but I pointed out that it was an odd name for a red horse, and suggested Scarlet.)

They flew off to seek their fortune. On a beach ("Where did they go?") they discovered a chest that was fastened with huge brass locks. (Description of the chest built up through discussion.) Next to the chest there was a hill of sand with a shovel stuck in it. Rose began to dig. Two feet down she found a rind of heavy golden keys. (The girls were all for the keys being buried, so I asked them how Rose would know the keys were buried. Eleanor liked the shovel, and Julia wanted two feet down.) The keys fit perfectly in the locks. Inside the chest were heaps of coins, precious jewels, and beautiful dresses. On top of everything sat a note on yellowing paper that read:
My dear, I give these riches to you because you have a kind heart. Be sure to use these riches to help the poor.
(Julia came up with the idea that the old witch had left the chest for Rose.)

Rose married a prince and they were always kind to the poor. They lived happily ever after.


Some of the story was direct transcription, but much of the final form was me crafting suggestions aloud as I wrote them down. The girls get a sense of the different ways a basic formula can be developed and structured. When they get older I'll let them write stories on their own and then edit them for grammar and flow. Hopefully by then they'll have had enough exposure to the way a writer can use the tools of the craft that any flaws in their writing will stem from exuberance, not ignorance.

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