George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Artist: Spoon
Album: Transference
Song: Mystery Zone

My school day started at 4pm. 4pm rocked my eight-year-old world. 4pm = Transformers, G.I. Joe, Voltron, Thundercats -- the best time of the day. At 4pm, unknowingly, the story elements of fiction wore a deep groove into my brain; I learned about character development, setting, story arc, problem/solution, and action.

And I totally plagiarized those elements by playing with action figures, hitting the backyard to create live-action scenes, and drawing. I was writing, just not in the traditional form. And when I picked up a book (not often, I am embarrassed to say) I wanted it to mimic the very things that I loved: fiction, sci-fi, and fantasy.

This is what I knew as an eight-year-old coming to the page. And millions of kids today bring the same energy and knowledge to their writing palette. So, why isn't fiction taught in elementary school? The answer to that question has twisted and contorted my brain to utter perplexity for years. For me, it makes sense to teach it, but maybe we can pick at the knot together.

What Do Kids Really Know?

I learned to write at 4pm, way after writing class. In school, writing was a mental tug-of-war for me. I've heard the statement, "Write what you know," probably like a million times, but only a handful of times did that make any sense to me.

Teacher says, "Write what you know."

Student begins to write. On the planet Jupiter robot warriors called Jenturions launched a . . .

Teacher corrects, "No, write what you know and it needs to be real."

Student thinks 4pm is what I know. It IS real to me.

The realm of reality offers many topics on which to write; I'm not knocking the personal narrative (not much). But it's not the only harvestable crop. Stephen King urges us to broaden the statement of "write-what-you-know." In his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft he writes, "If you are a plumber, you know plumbing. But that is far from the extent of your knowledge; your heart knows things and so does your imagination."

When I say to students, "Write what you know," there are no strings attached. Stories are everywhere in the kid-mosphere. Kids love movies, video games, cartoons, and toys. The energy is incredible. Why not transform that energy into writing? Teach your students what I never was taught: to write down your imagination. It's all there. It just needs to go from brain to paper with guidance.

Born Into Fiction

All children are basically born into a world of fiction. What was the first book you read to your son or daughter? Was it talking frogs or fairies? I remember stocking my son's bookshelf with all kinds of books before he was even born: Frog and Toad, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Little Bear, and Where the Wild Things Are. Ted DeMille, in his book Making Believe on Paper, calls fiction the mother genre: "For most of us, our entry level into literacy was through fiction: storytelling, fairy tales, folk tales, ghost stories, and myths." DeMille reminds us that the best-selling children's books of all times are dominated by fiction books; and of the last fifty Newberry Award winners, all but a handful have been fiction.

If you believe students need to read as a strategy to better their writing, giving them the freedom to write within the genre they are reading is the best and most obvious choice. Isn't it?

Throw that Kid Some Fiction! He Needs Help!

By writing and reading fiction, children safely dance with the bigger issues in life such as love, loyalty, courage, and evil. Nancy Martin, the late British researcher of student writing and learning, states, "Story writing is essential because it's the one mode that synthesizes children's experiences, their preoccupations, and their emotions." Students need a way to anonymously deal with life's problems or even change them.

Escapism lets the writer hash out the complexities of reality by controlling a homemade fantastical world. Unfortunately, escapism is often used in terms of negativity and weakness. I am in agreement with J.R.R. Tolkien when he states escape as being a very practical rule, maybe even heroic. Would you blame a woman trying to escape an abusive marriage or a military commander retreating in order to think, regroup, and make another go at it? Junior authors are mingling with an outlet that will spark problem-solving and reflection, two major aspects of maturity and growth.

The world is too small for the heart and mind of a nine-year-old. A child's imagination is expansive. Instead of blocking it, it is our job to help harness it, mold it, and turn it into a powerful medium for insight and thought about the trials and tribulations of life. We should use writing as a means to reinstate the adolescence that our culture is so insistent upon stealing.

Fantastical expression is "The Ring," "The Chosen One," "The Book," or any other metaphorical statement representing the beating heart -- the life force -- the triumph of the imagination. We have the ability and the opportunity to feed it, make it stronger, and even inspire children to set their own path for greatness. In the book, The Wizard Behind Harry Potter, Marc Shapiro states that teachers admired Joanne Rowling's talent at an early age. She took these compliments as a sign that she had found something she was good at. And isn't that what we all want?

What are some other ways to create a safe space for kids to use their imaginations to explore the world?

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Comments (16) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Jamia's picture
1st grade teacher from Jacksonville, Fl

Loved this article! I often give my students "free write" time, but the majority end up stumped about what to write about. I try to help encourage their imaginations by giving them writing prompts (like imagine you came to school and all your classmates were replaced by aliens. What would happen?) but it's like pulling teeth to get them to think. I believe they're just so in the routine of seeing and describing normal everyday occurrences and are discouraged from using their imagination. Couple that with the fact that so many that aren't exposed to fictional stories and there's a problem. Now I know they see fiction on television, but most of my students don't understand that THEY can write similar stories!

Bonnie Heller's picture
Bonnie Heller
5th grade teacher from St. Petersburg, Florida

I love that you are advocating for more imagination in writing. Even when given a prom,pt, it limits student on what they can write. In my 5th grade class the students write in a daily journal about anything they want. Every 3-4 weeks they take a journal entry and turn it into a fictional story. Sometimes it's great, sometimes not so much. But I rarely have a student who doesn't want to do this kind of assignment. Letting students be creative leads to more interest in school in general, I believe. Wonderful blog!

Joanne Yatvin's picture
Joanne Yatvin
Retired teacher and administrator

It's great that so many teachers are trying creative writing with their students. But prompts or requests to imagine something won't do the job. Children have to read a lot to become familiar enough with various literary forms to use them in their writing.

Kristen McGraw's picture
Kristen McGraw
Fifth grade language arts and social studies teacher

I love that you create a space for your students to be themselves and to write about what interests them. I work in a district with a scripted reading and writing program. I see how it crushes the imagination of the students. By the time my students get to me in 5th grade and I tell them to "write what they know", I get blank stares. "What do you mean write what we know? Will you just tell us what to write?" At the beginning of the year, even when given a prompt to assist in creative thinking, my students struggle to use their imaginations. My class is often a huge shift in thinking for them, but by the end of the year many of my students are reading more and enjoying writing in a way they never thought they would. Your article is encouraging as I continue my quest in changing how my students view reading and writing.

Raymond's picture
Elementary School Teacher - 4th Grade

Wow, I am so glad I stopped to read this posting. I teach 4th grade and telling the students to "write about what you know", goes over about as much as "take out the trash"! I have found that providing several writing prompts for the student's to use helps them to get started. Granted it's not totally creative, but it seems to work for me. I'm not talking about the old tired, "what did you do this summer?" routine. One that really sparked with the student's this last year was: "We were sitting in class and wondering where Mr. E was? Then suddenly we hear this LOUD bang outside the door, I jumped up from my desk and ran to the door, just as I opened the door falling from the sky....". I usually do 4 prompts 3 outlandish and one ho-hum for the student who just can't wrap their mind around the other 3. By the end of the year, I get no responses written on the ho-hum prompt!

Gaetan Pappalardo's picture
Gaetan Pappalardo
Teacher, Author, Guitar––Word.

Thanks for all of the wonderful comments.

I totally agree that reading teaches the writer how to write. A book is the best teacher out there. Unfortunately, as a child, I didn't read much and didn't want to read. I think it was because I wasn't exposed to books that peaked my interest. When I became a teacher my reading increased and my writing changed we well. The book that totally changed my writing style was Stephen King's On Writing, my first King book. I went on to read many more of his books. The Shining totally rocked my world and Misery showcased the brain of the working writer, love that one too.

Prompts have their place. I only use writing prompts when I'm teaching the genre of "State Test" writing. Prompts are an exercise, practice, a challenge. It's not real writing. Real writing needs real time to draft and even more time to revise. My students do well with prompts because I foster creativity. They don't get stuck because they can weave a story around the tiniest bit of info or a picture. Why? Creative thinking and writing.

"There are only two ways to learn to write that I am aware of, no shortcuts--to read a lot and write a lot."

Stephen King

Sarah's picture
4th grade teacher

I agree that there seems to be a lacking in the creative writing students are doing these days. I am always amazed when I have students who come into my classroom who do not see to have this imaginitive skill. I can remember in past years, when I have given my students a creative writing topic/focus (i.e. Write a story from the perspective of a vegetable about to be put in vegetable soup. It's your last day alive...what are you going to do?) they struggle with it way more than I think they should. I wonder if this is rooted in a lack of experience using this skill or a lack of time spent using one's imagination (in a world where it seems more and more kids are just being given what they want, including the answers). I think it's a bit of both. I know several of my collegues who do not like to do creative writing with their students because their stories are "painful to read." Sure, it is much easier to grade a prompt paper with specific rubric guidelines, but I agree wholeheartedly that students need to be encouraged and to be doing more creative writing.

Jayne Elizabeth stewart's picture

I absolutely loved this blog. You write wonderful stuff! I totally agree with you about harnessing, molding and engaging a child's imagination. One really notices how vital this is when working with Autistic students. Sometimes a teacher has very little choice in what the child writes about. To make the process meaningful and productive,writing revolves around what they like, and sometimes it is the same subject every time, i.e. dinosaurs, trains, etc. The way I look at it is if this works, do it. The assignment is complete; the child is happy; and the teacher is relieved and able to see progress if he/she gives the right cues to accompany the writing assignment. One can accomplish this if patient and creative. I tried it the other way, and got nothing but frustration. Thanks for giving a "thumbs up" to this. I feel inspired and excited by what you have written. Good advice for all areas of education to follow.

keisha speller's picture
keisha speller
fifth grade teacher NC

Loved this article. You listed some of my favorite cartoons growing up. I agree students have a better understanding of fiction material. I often relate fiction to non fiction during instruction to help my students. More imagination is important to student development. By building on imgination students are developing experinces to build connections or refernecs for learnign other concepts.

phixson's picture

This is a great article. I too give my students writing prompts to encourage them to use their imagination, instead of just sending them to their seats and telling them to come up with their own topics. I find that the more exciting the prompt and the more it relates to them, the more eager they are to go write! I bought a microphone so that when they are ready to share their writing they can use the microphone and read their writings to their classmates, they love using this.

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