One of the reasons I became a teacher was how much I love the reading and writing process, and how excited I was to help young children develop as readers and writers. I had visions of a class full of busy writers, all with the same sense of excitement I’ve always had about writing and sharing stories.
But the first time I told my kindergarten students that they were all writers, I was met with skepticism and a few head shakes. One student said, “But I don’t know how!” I told the class that some writers tell stories in pictures, some in words, and others use both pictures and words, and I showed them examples of wordless books, books with no pictures, and picture books.
I wanted my students to imagine themselves as authors and to bring a sense of confidence into the writing process—a process that can often be intimidating to kindergarten students as they familiarize themselves with tricky letter sounds all while learning the mechanics of writing.
Taking the First Steps
Following this first writing lesson, I circulated around my classroom as my students wrote their first stories, looking for evidence that they felt a new sense of confidence. Some were immediately drawing, writing imaginary letters, or writing full sentences, but others sat blankly or raised their hands for help during the entire writing session.
Then I discovered the work of Vivian Paley, who developed a storytelling curriculum for young children that involves taking dictation about students’ drawings and having their classmates act out these stories. As the child of a playwright and director who often had me act out scenes in the living room with her acting friends, I was immediately drawn to Paley’s focus on dramatization. I wondered if my students would feel the same sense of magic that I had when I was their age when an idea I had became a play, when other people acted out these plays with me, and, for a few moments, everyone became someone they weren’t.
Draw It Out
One morning, as my students gathered on our classroom rug for our writing lesson, I told them that today they could draw anything they’d like, imaginary or real. They brainstormed with one another what they liked to draw and shared some of these ideas out loud, which helped inspire those who weren’t ready with their own ideas.
I let them know that I would be circulating around the room to write down whatever they’d like to tell me about these drawings. And for the next half hour or so, I was busy writing down their stories: some fantastical, some realistic, all of them creative and imaginative. The feeling in the room was one of growing excitement and enthusiasm, and I observed some of my most hesitant and reluctant students drawing with a sense of focus and purpose.
At the end of the session, we sat in a circle and I explained that now we would act out some of their stories. The “playwright” would choose classmates to be the characters in the story, and I would narrate the story. Later on in the year, as students become more comfortable with the process and are able to read with more fluency, the playwright can also become the narrator.
We talked about what a respectful audience looks and sounds like, and we generated a class chart about respectful listening before we began. Then the first playwright stood up to announce which characters she’d need. Her play was about a fairy who gives a bunny wings. Together they traveled to a land of rainbow clouds.
I watched as one student became a bunny, another became a fairy, and another became a rainbow cloud. I observed the seriousness with which these children took on their roles, the way their classmates watched in awe, and the way the playwright seemed to grow taller as she stood next to me, listening to me begin to read aloud her story. When the play was over, the actors and playwright bowed, and the class clapped for them. The next playwright jumped to her feet, exclaiming, “My story is next!"
Now, years later, I begin teaching writing with these story plays, and I continue implementing this exercise throughout the year. In the beginning, my writing often spills off the page as I try to write down all the students’ ideas about their drawings. Later in the year, they begin to write down their own stories, though I always aid in the writing process when needed, as the goal of these lessons is not to churn out fluent writers in kindergarten but to allow my students to become playwrights, to see themselves as storytellers, and to experience the magical feeling when their ideas come to life.