Where Have All the Story-tellers Gone?

by Russ Goerend

The other day I tweeted:


In class, I said to my students, “How many of you feel like you write a lot in this class?” A good number of hands went up, so I asked, “And how many of you feel like you are writers?” I saw just a few hands that time.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, this idea of writers and writing, and storytellers and stories. I don’t think those roles — writer and storyteller — are mutually exclusive. There is much overlap. There are also times, in my classroom at least, where my students are writers, but not storytellers. It probably has a lot to do with the type of writing I ask them to do, and I’m sure it has something to do with the culture and mindset of the classroom.

Asking students to “Write a persuasive essay” isn’t the best way to ask them to tell a story.1 As a teacher, I found myself in a slump with the writing I was asking them to do. I was sitting fastball and swinging at everything coming past me.

I’m extremely grateful for Luke Neff’s writing prompts. Think about the difference between these two prompts, though:


While both prompts are gorgeous and thought-provoking,2 asking students to write a letter is an inappropriate prompt if I want them to tell a story.3

At the beginning of the year, we worked with Ralph Fletcher’s ideas for building a writer’s notebook. I like his ideas a lot, and with some personalization, I like where it takes our students. What I’m realizing, though, is that while we covered ideas like “Capturing Memories” and “Writing from the Heart,” I didn’t give adequate time or scaffolding for students to learn those skills.

So now, three months later, I’m miffed when my students aren’t telling stories, when all I’ve done this year is tell them what to write.

We started Thursday with this question on the board:

I had students free write on that question for three minutes. Some bullet-pointed, others wrote a few paragraphs. Then, in their groups, I had them summarize their group’s thoughts into one sentence: A story worth telling is/does/has/etc…

It was a good conversation. We talked about theme and moral, characters and growth.

When the conversation was over, I projected the astronaut prompt and we talked through some things: What story do you see here? What perspective do you see this story from? Are you a cab driver? Someone walking on the street? The astronaut? Is there a metaphor here? Have you ever felt like you were on fire with smoke coming off you to the point that no one wanted to get in your way?

Then, I set a timer4 for 10 minutes and we wrote.

Happy ending:

  1. Yes, storytelling is a great vehicle for persuading, but saying to a 6th grader, “Persuade me,” opens the door to lists of reasons, not stories that illustrate. []
  2. and please don’t misconstrue this as me saying that one prompt is “better” than the other []
  3. Again, it’s possible to tell a story in a letter, but the majority of my sixth graders couldn’t even get there with prodding []
  4. it is school, after all []

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