OK, I’m not sold on the name either, but I couldn’t think of a better one. Fortunately, the activity itself is infinitely better than the name. I got this idea from a gifted elementary class I once subbed. The teacher assigned the nameless activity, and it was obviously something the class enjoyed doing regularly. I liked it so much that I made a note about it in my idea-nabbing notebook. It works well for the particular needs of substitutes needing a Lifesaver, but it can work well for regular teachers for most grade levels (I’d say 1st-6th, roughly).
How to Do It:
- Go to the board, or ask a volunteer to write for you. Divide the board into three sections. First section: “Character.” Second section: “Setting.” Third section: “Problem.” Depending on the class’ ability, you may have to introduce or review what each of these things mean.
- For the first section, ask the class to brainstorm characters from anywhere. Books, TV, film, fairy tales, comics. They can even name people in the classroom. Encourage them to be as creative and random as possible. Call on volunteers sitting quietly with their hands raised, and write down their ideas. Call on more until you have a good list generated (5-10 ideas would be good for each section). You may have to get them going with a few examples.
- Do the same with the “Setting” section. Any place or time period, as random as possible.
- Do the same with the “Problem” section. Whether mundane or extraordinary, write down ideas for any type of problem.
- Once the class’ list is complete, it will look like this:
In Our Classroom
In a Haunted House
At a Pool Party
In a Forest
A Rhinoceros Escapes from the Zoo
Someone Stole Something
Someone Broke Their Leg
Someone Gets Grounded
A Dragon Destroys a Town
- Congratulate the class on a wonderful list. The more random it is, the better. Perform a random selection process to select one item in each category. You could call on well-behaved students to choose their favorite for each one; if the list is short, you could ask a student to give you a number less than ten, and then erase an item off the entire list as you count and land on that number; or, choose the items yourself. No matter how you do it, just pare the list down to one item in each category.
- . Now your list will look something like this:
At a Pool Party
A Dragon Destroys a Town
- Tell the students to take out a sheet of paper. They are now to write silently about a story that must involve three story elements remaining on the list. Encourage them to use their imaginations and think of a way to have the chosen character be in the selected setting encountering that particular problem. The implausible suddenly becomes an interesting challenge. The only rules are that they must be silent as they write, the story must be school-appropriate and they have to include the three story elements. I like to assign that they write to fill a page, but it’s your call. Many students will want to create such outlandish stories, they won’t even finish within one page.
Why This Works:
1. This fun assignment attracts even the students who don’t particularly enjoy writing. Notice the beginning of the activity is done as a class, promoting active learning. Students have a level of “ownership” over their stories because they are the ones who make suggestions about the story elements. Their brainstorm list is based on their own interests, which means this assignment seems less “restrictive” than most writing prompts. For instance, though most writing assignments fail with some of the more difficult boys in your class, writing about what happens when Wolverine is at a pool party and a dragon destroys a town is infinitely more inspiring to them.
2. This activity is also substantive. Even though the story can contain silly elements, students still get practice writing creatively. You can also help students focus on using voice for their characters (“think about what Wolverine would say in this situation”), using character traits, describing setting, creating dialogue, etc. Encourage them to use their imaginations and be as descriptive as possible. Even though this is a “time-filler” activity, there is no reason why they can’t actually benefit from it.
3. Writing a creative story requires concentration. An active, noisy class that writes silently for fifteen or twenty minutes is a blessing for any sub.
4. Writing assignments are always FTW when you have large chunks of time to fill. Why? Because they can almost always be extended! Nearly any writing assignment affords the opportunity for kids to write silently and then either (1) share their work to the class in a read-aloud, or (2) divide into pairs, read a partner’s work and help them edit it. Kids are usually pretty eager to share creative stories, especially fun ones, so you’ll probably have many volunteers to read. Also, editing means you could assign a “final draft” revision. Voila! A twenty-minute writing activity could be doubled, or possibly tripled, in length. (If you have no lesson plans that day, wisely use the time when students are working on their stories to see what you can pull together for their next assignment or activity.)
5. This gives you the benefit of an interesting “journal prompt” exercise without having to find or keep up with them yourself, or make copies for students. This is especially helpful if you sub for the same class again, or need this activity with the same group. Each time you assign it, the stories will be different because their brainstorm list will change. Their minds are the only limit to creating new stories. Even if you subbed the same class several times in a year and assigned this each time, there are a million possibilities for their stories.
6. As stated, this is also flexible for different grades and ability levels. Remember: flexibility is golden! I’d use it for elementary and possibly even middle school, gifted or struggling students, etc. As long as the students can write sentences on their own, they should be able to handle this activity. For younger grades, I like to take a piece of construction paper or blank printer paper, fold it in half, and tell them to write on one side and illustrate on the other. For older grades, they can just write one page.
On the Other Hand…:
1. When you’re leading the brainstorming process with the class, they may be too noisy. Be sure to facilitate firmly: only call on quiet people with their hand raised; ignore everyone else yelling out their ideas. Students will soon see that the quiet people are the only ones who get their ideas on the board. Once your louder ones get the picture, call on one of them for their suggestions. If students are still noisy, remind them that, unless their behavior changes, the fun activity will end and you will put a boring journal prompt to which they must silently respond.
2. The class may have some ideas on the board that aren’t too familiar with some students. Say you have a few who don’t know Wolverine, who happens to be the randomly chosen character for their stories. Try to minimize this during the brainstorming process by making sure each idea is familiar to all students. If students still aren’t comfortable with the character, encourage them to think about what they know about these unfamiliar characters, even if it’s just a little. They can also have the assigned character have a minor presence, if they want, and include other characters more familiar to them.
3. Related to this, a few students may have had their hearts set on a particular character or other element, and be resistant to writing about something else. Tell them their story can include the other elements the class suggested, but it still must include the other assigned elements. Maybe you have a stubborn boy in your class who’d rather write about Wolverine than Hannah Montana. There’s no reason they can’t both make appearances in the story! Let them know that the assigned elements are what make the activity a fun challenge. If someone is being particularly bitter about it, just allow them to write their story about whatever they’d like.
4. Some students may not like to write, even with this assignment. Even great assignments can fall just below a 100% positive rating. Just try the best you can to encourage the student to write as much as possible, and keep thinking of ideas.
5. Some students are too talkative when they’re supposed to be writing silently. I had this problem in the class that I originally saw this assignment done, even though they were generally a good group. They were just too excited about their stories to not talk about them! Again, be firm with the students. Let them know that we want to hear their great stories after they’re complete and not have it spoiled for us by talking about them. They only have a certain amount of time to write, and the more they talk, the less time they have to finish writing.
6. Some students may complain about not having any ideas for their stories. This happens inevitably when you assign a writing prompt. Certain students will stare at a blank page for hours, if you let them! Try to give a few random ideas to jumpstart their thinking. Ask a few questions like, “Now, why is Wolverine at this pool party in the first place? Why would he be there?” During brainstorming, a few classes may have trouble getting a list of suggestions on the board. Again, start them off with a few examples to get them going in each category. Stick to things you know they recognize and may find interesting so that they can get the hint that this is supposed to be a “fun” activity.
I hope some people find this helpful! Subs: this is made with you in mind. Regular teachers: it works for your classroom, too! If I were a regular teacher, I’d copy and paste the instructions in an emergency lesson plan. You never know when you may need an emergency activity.
There are probably a few ways to adapt this activity further if you put your mind to it (ie, creating a dialogue script in groups, perhaps, and perform them for the class). If you ever use it in class, let me know how it works out!