“I can’t think of anything”, “I have nothing to write about”, “I can’t write”….
Sometimes it can be tough to motivate our students to write. Sometimes it can be tough to support low literacy students to ‘take a risk’ to see that they can write or they have stories that are worth telling. Sometimes our First Nations, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students feel like their stories won’t matter or ‘aren’t good’.
As teachers it can be challenging thinking of new ways to engage our disengaged students in story telling. As teachers it can be a juggle to think of ways to get your students generating unique, authentic story ideas.
The thing is that story telling doesn’t have to be written. Your students need to know that their lives may be mundane and everyday to them but to others their personal stories may be exciting and interesting. And if students can get their ideas out of their heads into the world that is the first step.
So how do we do this?
Get your students moving
Do some drama or brain break activities around the topic you are going to write about. For example if you want your students to write a story about a dog ask your students to do a Inside-Outside-Circle to discuss their favourite pets, or share a story about their dog. Or you might play Value-Line where students have to line up physically on a continuum to show where they stand on an issue such as ‘dogs are better than cats’, ‘dogs are the most loyal pet’ etc. Invite your students to do a roll play on a theme or topic- so for our dog example you could pair students up and they have to make a funny 1 minute act involving a dog. You might do an excursion around community creating a tally or a journal about the different dogs in town and the funny things you witness them doing. Moving, doing, laughing, sharing are all powerful story generators!
Ask your students to show their lives
This is a really powerful strategy that I was exposed to early in my university study at Victoria University and the Story Writing in Remote Locations (SWIRL) program. Imagine if you could empower your students to show you their world through their eyes? What interesting stories would this show? You might go on a excursion around community or out bush or to the local shops with students and your class/school set of iPads/cameras. Or you might fundraise or ask for donations of old digital cameras and provide these to students to take home to photograph their weekends with family- make sure that families are fully aware of the project so that you cover for ‘only appropriate’ images that they would be comfortable with a teacher seeing. These images could then be used for rich story writing.
Get your students talking
Sometimes you need to reflect on the purpose of your activity. If your purpose is to measure and assess handwriting, spelling, sentence structure or another written skill then you may need your students to physically write their story. If the purpose is for students to share a story, to feel success writing, demonstrate that they understand character and setting- then do they really need to demonstrate their spelling and handwriting or can you have them verbally dictate their story to a voice to text system or a partner to write? Either way, students writing themselves or just smashing out stories orally, getting your students talking and discussing ideas is a really powerful way for your students to see they actually do have stories to tell.
Give your students relevant prompts
If I ask you to write about living in a tent in the desert do you think you would be very eager to write a story? Or about looking for berries in the bush? Or about building a snowman? Herding the goats? Some of these would jump out to us as exciting and we might even have some great ideas- but chances are most would not, we’d have limited knowledge of the context, setting and what characters to use. Chances are most of us would feel a little overwhelmed with the prospect and doubt that we could write anything worthwhile. That is similar to the experience that many of our students may face when presented with writing topics that are Eurocentric, mainstream experiences. While they are great as extension tasks to stretch our thinking and get us using our imagination or learnt knowledge- they are not great to show our strengths as beginning writers. Setting appropriate writing tasks with appropriate writing prompts can be an important consideration that removes barriers to writing for First Nations students. Early writing experiences should be culturally appropriate, context relevant, scaffolded, modelled and engaging.
Build from what they know
Your students come to you with a wealth of knowledge and wealth experience. They are not empty cups waiting to be filled. At home they might be independent, autonomous little people with their own place and roles in their family. So use that to their advantage. Use their rich cultural knowledge, use their deadly stories of bush, use the funny stories of the pool on the weekend as your starting point. Let students see that they do have stories to tell- and build from there.
Provide opportunities for low literacy learners
We don’t want written literacy to be the barrier to low literacy students creating powerful and engaging stories. We don’t want our students to feel ‘dumb’ or ‘less than’ because they ‘can’t write’. So we can scaffold, differentiate and support all our students and meet them where they are at with literacy. This might mean: voice to text software, a writing buddy, a scribe, word sorts into stories, a scaffolded writing task, vocabulary words, extra time or video their story telling. Even Magabala Books doesn’t need their authors to be excellent spellers and fine tuned writers- if Aboriginal people have a deadly story to tell, they have deadly editors and staff to work with them to get the story to paper. Written literacy should never be a barrier to a good story.
Provide your students chances to do short bursts of writing and build their ‘writing muscles’. By starting small you are acknowledging and respecting your student’s cognitive load, attention spans, ability levels and novice writer status! We like to use Silent Sustained Writing regularly with students which starts as quick as one minute bursts of writing where students just write anything that comes to their head as long as they don’t stop. If that is ‘I don’t know what to write’ or ‘cat’ on repeat that is okay. If they want to continue yesterday’s writing piece that is okay. If they want to use the story prompt for that burst that is okay too. As long as students are practicing thinking, writing and building their ‘muscles’. The other ‘start small’ consideration is the sense of achievement your students will get from finishing a piece of writing- so expecting a 100 word story will give students instant gratification and encourage them to want to write more. It also allows you to pack so much teaching into a shorter amount of time- 100 word stories need idea generation, story arch, editing and publishing just like a 2000 word story would. Students could aim to ‘beat’ themselves by writing more than they did the last Silent Sustained Writing session or the last creative piece they did.
Write Two Way
Chances are if you are a rural or remote teacher in Australia that at least some of your students will be English as a Second Language or Dialect (ESLD). Language adds depth and authenticity to stories- and if all your students stories are written in perfect Standard Australian English (SAE) that is not a rich reflection of characters or experience. Allowing your students to write in their traditional language, Aboriginal English and/or Kriole for dialogue adds truth to the story.
Need some help? Check out our Outback Writing Prompts on our The Remote Teacher TPT Store. We also have the Outback Writing Bundle with all the resources that we have created to support creative writing so far. As published authors, an English teacher and Aboriginal mentor- we hope we have hit the mark with creating some deadly resources to encourage writing!
What tips do you have for other Remote Teachers?