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Word up

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By Joe Quirk

Round robin

My first breakthrough with the kids occurred when I stumbled on this great ignition of creativity, and I've used it as a foolproof method ever since.

First I explained the difference between a story and a bunch of events. Story is conflict, composed of desires and obstacles, each obstacle surprising the reader and increasing the tension while challenging the strengths and flaws of the main character.

Then I explained that the whole class was going to create a story together, starting now. Before they could protest, I hit 'em with a scenario: "Story opens: A bunch of kids are sitting in front of a creative-writing teacher wondering if class is going to be boring."

Then I pointed at the most talkative smart aleck and put him on the spot: "What happens next, Nick?"

Nick offered an inciting incident involving a ninja and a banana. Fine. I pointed at the next most extroverted kid.

"How does the man character react to the next obstacle he faces, Amy?"

Amy managed to introduce a horse and a conversation about the ninja's feelings. OK.

"We have the ninja's motive. What's the next obstacle, Lakeesha?"

Each student was required to create the next plot beat — the protagonist's reaction to get around the obstacle — as well as introduce a new obstacle that surprises the reader.

"He gets the horse to eat the banana, but the horse chokes on the banana!"

By the end of the first round, sarcasm transformed into engagement with an emerging story. Kids surprised each other with their choices, forcing creativity. Soon the tykes were brainstorming, and shy kids were raising their hands, "Ooh! Ooh! Ooh!"

Round robins between a parent and child, or tutor and student, can be even more delightful because by putting the child on the same playing field as the adult, the child experiences a surge of imaginative (and sometime mischievous) power to move the plot one way or another.

So how do you get kids to write it down? Start with:

Joe Quirk is a novelist, science writer, and creative-writing teacher living in Berkeley, Calif. His bestselling book, The Ultimate Rush, is an action thriller about rollerblading.

Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

08/19/2010:
"Absolutely BEST article I have ever read on getting a kid to write! My son thought I was crazy when I told him to not worry about the spelling, etc. and just get the idea on paper.I ask a question and have him tell me the answer, then rough draft it, then worry about edits, then penmanship(or typing). I learned this when my oldest broke his arm in third grade, he had been labeled as 'unmotivated' aka lazy, when in reality he had not yet been diagnosed with dyslexia. Well, the truth came out when his classmates (bless them) volunteered to transcribe what he dictated, and amazing stories came through!! Needless to say, life has been much easier for him ever since, and essays are no longer to be feared and dreaded!! Great article, thank you. Donna"
08/16/2010:
"Great advice for every age!"
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