How a Student Conference Gave This Teacher a Lesson in Storytelling 101

The surprising twist!

As a teacher, it’s important to be astute. When I was teaching a writing class once, I had a conference with a second grade student that illustrates this perfectly. During our first conference together, as I usually do, I asked this student about her essential story elements. “Do you know who your main character is?”

“An angry bird,” she told me.

“Wow,” I said, impressed. (Children don’t usually associate such a strong emotion with a main character this early on.) “That’s great. Why is this bird angry?”

I wrote the question down for her in the back of her journal so she could ponder. Before I could finish transcribing the question, she gave me an answer.

“She wants her eggs.”

“Wow,” I said, stunned again. This girl had such insight into character motivation. What an emotionally wrought story. I could hardly wait to see what she would write. I began to transcribe so I could go on to the next student. It would surely take at least a week for her to consider this next question.

“Why doesn’t she have her eggs? What happened to them?”

Again, she answered right away. “The pigs took them.”

I was flabbergasted. This kid was a creative genius. I stopped writing my questions at this point, caught up in her evolving story. “That’s an excellent choice because it’s such a surprise. I never would have expected pigs to take eggs from a bird. It brings up so many questions for me.”

She nodded seriously. She knew this was a problem. All good fiction has problems and surprises.

I continued, helpfully, “For instance, I want to know things like: Why do the pigs want the eggs? How do the pigs even get the eggs? I can’t imagine a pig climbing. Aren’t the nests up in trees? Do the pigs have plans for these eggs?”

“They just took the eggs.” She answered simply, shrugging.

“Hmmm,” I said. We would need a lesson or two on villain motivation. “You have no idea why?”

At last I was getting somewhere. Maybe we found something she could think about for a week and I could get on to my next conference. “Why do the pigs want the eggs?”

I waited for a few moments while she considered. When she volunteered nothing, I asked another question. “How will the bird get her eggs back?”

My student had an answer for this immediately.

“She won’t.”

“Oh,” I said, disappointed. Creative genius can turn dark. “That’s too bad. Why not?

“She just doesn’t.”

I was stymied. How could a second grader be so certain about this bleak outcome? She had barely begun to write. As a teacher, I didn’t want to guide her away from an unhappy ending. This was her story. So I asked, “So, the bird doesn’t get her eggs back, no matter what, or how hard she tries?”

“Nope.”

I pressed her, hoping, frankly, for hope. “There is absolutely no possible way she can get her eggs back from the pigs?”

Again, she nodded seriously. “Right.”

Desperately and shamefully, I floated a possible solution.  “Will they hatch?”

“Nope.” She said. I was relieved she didn’t accept my idea.

“Well,” I said, trying to be diplomatic, “Most readers like to have an ending to the story. They feel satisfied when the main character gets what she wants. But not every author writes a story that way.”

“Oh. It’s not a story,” she said astutely. “It’s a video game.”

In my own words-blog image

Posted by Kristin Howell

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