Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Creative Writing Class

Thursday morning I am going to speak to a sixth-grade class at a local school. The teacher is a good friend, and I have spoken to her classes before. She brings her students’ stories to me for comment. She is very aggressive on teaching writing, and the children consistently amaze me with their creativity and talent. Some of the current crop, in my opinion, would make fine writers.

The secret to getting them willing to do the work is to get them excited. Mrs. Smith is great at this, and she gets me excited about teaching them about writing mystery stories. I’m sure most of you can remember being dismayed at some of the writing assignments you were given in grade school. Even “What I Did on My Summer Vacation” took far fewer words than the teacher required. So getting to write about a burglar or a bank robber or a kidnapper or even a murderer is really exciting for them.

I have a game I play with beginners, a “teach by doing” exercise that gives the children some insight into plotting. It’s not hard, it’s fun, and I invite any of you reading this to try it.

For a handout for this class, go to my web site: and click on Resources. You will find a set of instructions on how to write a play-fair mystery. You can use it “as is,” or you can re-work it to make it shorter.

The students should be at least in fourth grade. Fifth and sixth graders are the best and most fun, in my never-humble opinion. They are literate and creative, an explosive combination.

They should have done some reading of mysteries before the class. Ask them about their reading. What stories did they like? Were any of them able to guess the solution before the end? Talk about crime: what is a crime? Name some crimes? (theft, robbery, burglary, kidnapping, murder, fraud, etc.)

Talk about “collaborations,” how two or more people can work together on a story. It can be difficult, say, but the story is often richer because many brains contributed. Tell them we are going to collaborate on a story.

Tell them that often a news report or a joke or an overheard conversation will give a writer an idea for a story. Offer an illustration: I once read an article about people who spin the hair they get from brushing their dogs or cats into yarn, and knit hats or scarves from it. I have a friend who is violently allergic to cats. I wrote a short story about a woman who murders her rich uncle by knitting him a sweater. She didn’t get away with it because I also read an article about how the medical examiner has a chart with photographs of all different kinds of hair under a microscope. Sheep’s wool does not look at all like cat hair.

If there is time, let the children brainstorm about various “what if’s.” But then say there isn’t time to really decide, so you have an idea you’d like to try out for them. Say a big, important rule of writing is “write what you know,” and since about the only thing every member of the class has in common is this classroom, you will use it for your setting. Define “setting:” where the story takes place.
Say, What If your teacher had a friend who worked at the zoo, or at The Children’s Theater, or at the locomotive museum, or some other really interesting place. And What If your teacher had lunch with this friend right around Halloween or maybe near Christmas, and this friend said to your teacher, “Our tiger is going to have cubs in the spring, how would you like to bring your class out to see them? I can arrange for the kids to stroke a baby tiger!” Or come to the backstage of The Children’s Theater and see the props and costumes and try on makeup. Or take a ride in a steam locomotive.

Let the children vote on which of these (or some other attraction) they would most like to see.

Then say, Great! So your teacher comes back from lunch, and she’s so excited she tells her class about it right away, and they get all excited, too!

She goes to the principal and says she’ll need a bus to take the class on this special field trip. But the principal says, “Did you put this in the budget?” And your teacher has to say she didn’t, because she didn’t know about it. And the principal, who perhaps doesn’t like your teacher, says, “Well, that’s too bad. I guess you can’t go.”

But your teacher is determined not to disappoint her students. She goes to the cafeteria and she gets this great big empty mayonaise jar.

(Ask the teacher how much it costs to rent a bus.)

She says to the children, We’ll just raise that money ourselves!

And they do. They rake leaves and they shovel snow and they sell cookies and they collect aluminum cans and they baby sit.

And they bring the money they earn in, and the teacher puts it into the big mayonaise jar.

But she makes a serious mistake. She keeps the jar in the classroom. She wants the children to see the jar get filled, but it's not a good idea to keep a lot of money where strangers can see it.

Well, time is rushing by, and it’s almost time for the trip – and there is almost enough money. But there is not one unraked leaf or unshoveled sidewalk or loose aluminum can in the whole county!

But Jody comes in Monday morning with a whole dollar for the jar. He found a lost puppy and returned it to its owner. Everyone cheers! The teacher gets the jar out: AND IT’S EMPTY.

Someone has stolen the money.

“Awwwwwww!” should be the children’s response.

But now, you say, is the time to write the mystery. And you write a mystery by figuring out the end first! So we must answer these questions: Who stole the money? How was it stolen? When was it stolen? Why was it stolen?

One immediate suspect the children will offer: The janitor. He works alone, at night, and he has keys to all the classrooms.

You might note that I once offered this puzzle to a police investigator who said the amount stolen was not enough to bring a real police detective to the scene. He said a patrol officer might tell the principal to look at his list of employees and a name would jump out at him. You might tell the class this, and use it in the following manner: Suppose there is a janitor working in the school who is on parole for theft. It was a stupid mistake and the janitor is very sorry about it. But he is a person with a key to every classroom, and he is there when no one else is around, and he was once a thief. So when "janitor" is suggested, leap on this with enthusiasm – then say, “But isn't that too easy? How about he didn't do it? In fact, how about somebody in the class was supposed to take the hamster (plant, turtle, whatever) home during spring break – but forgot about it. And she (he) was just sick and sorry and scared until school started up again – and found out the janitor did it for her! And maybe another student was getting bullied on the playground and the janitor came over and broke it up. Or maybe the janitor is a cousin of one of the students, and the student knows the janitor is a good person. So let’s say the principal picks the janitor out of the list of employees, calls him in and demands the money back. The janitor doesn’t have it, of course. And he gets fired.”

Now, you see how beautiful this is? You have one or more students in this classroom with a powerful motive to find out who really stole the money. Student or students as sleuth! A believable motive to snoop and the necessity as well, because the powers-that-be are sure they’ve solved it, and are no longer interested in an investigation.

Other possible suspects: The principal, a rival teacher, two or more students in the class.

Let the children figure out how the thief got into the classroom (use the actual classroom). Where was the jar kept? Who has keys? Are the windows locked? Are there students in the building after school hours?

I like to force in as a suspect a student whose behavior was so awful all year long that finally the teacher said, “All right, just for that, you’re not going on the trip!” And the student thinks that if he’s not going, no one’s going. You kind of have to wrangle that one so it’s at least halfway to being the students’ idea. The others come naturally – the poor student who wants whatever is hot that season (shoes, game, bike, skateboard); the principal, already set up as a pain; and hey, maybe the janitor really did do it.

And now you have to come up with the clues that point to the culprit. (One delightful clue a student came up with: the thief jingled as he tried to walk out of the school with his trouser legs full of loose change!) Whoever took the money should not have spent it yet, so the ending is that they get it back and can go on their trip.

I apologize for the length of this thing, but I hope it’s helpful. And it’s fun to watch the kids get excited. But what’s really, really special is when a child says thoughtfully, “You know, if it say it this way, the readers will think that way about it.” There, right in front of you, an author is born!


Meghna said...

This was really useful and highly exciting. You teach the class in such a wonderful manner, I feel sorry that I'm not able to attend it. But you have given many practical & useful tips for improving the creative writing. The 'solve mystery' part was a fun to do! Thanks for sharing.

Monica Ferris said...

You're welcome, Meghna! I'm hoping some teachers will read this and find something useful in it. I rushed the writing of it, and it shows, but I think it's clear enough.

Joanna Campbell Slan said...


I'm going to share this with my son's Creative Writing teacher. What a fabulous class. I only wish I'd had the chance to do this as a kid--and with you in the classroom! But this is the next best thing.

Camille Minichino said...

Thanks, Monica. I admire anyone who can work with people who aren't old enough to vote.

Writing exercises are always adaptable to any level, however, so I'm adding to my toolbox!

Jean said...

I teach seventh grade English in Huntsville, Alabama. We focus on writing all year long, but in the fall we work on mystery writing. Your ideas are extremely helpful. I appreciate how concrete your lesson is. I will have fun incorporating your suggestions into my unit. Thank you for taking the time to write in such detail.