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Teaching Activities
 Pre-writing/
 Storytelling

 What is "writing instruction" for people who aren't yet reading? It's about storytelling! Use these  writers to encourage children to tell/create/ refine their own stories, taking steps toward writing.

Two of the In Their Own Country  writers write books for young children: Cynthia Rylant and Marc Harshman. Both are national award-winning writers, and both love the idea of helping small fellow West Virginians learn to tell and read stories.

 

These are activities for children who can't yet read / write stories. As children get to know Cynthia and Marc as fellow West Virginians, their books and stories will help them tell, refine and ultimately read their own stories.

  • Teachers: As you plan, read the CCRS standards for both writers.

  • Introduce Cynthia and Marc. Make them into real people in the children's minds. Show the class the pictures of the writers' books on the writer pages. Read the children a picture book by each writer if you can. Let them hear the writers' voices, reading from their books, telling about their childhoods.  

    • To get to the writer pages, go to "The Writers" tab. To listen to the tracks, click on the writer's name under the "Listen" tab. 

  • Let the children hear Cynthia and Marc talk about growing up. This tells them writers come from all kinds of families. Here are some details about their lives as children:

    • In her early years, Cynthia Rylant lived on an isolated mountain with her grandparents without indoor plumbing, while her mother went to nursing school, so she could get a job and support them. After her mother got a job as a nurse, Cynthia and her mom went to live in a little Raleigh County town named Beaver. Cynthia's story resonates with many children. She talks about her life, writing, West Virginia and her stories in her audio program.

    • Marc Harshman's family loved to read and tell stories. When he was a child, his parents took him to the library nearly every week and filled their house with books. The family sat around the supper table and told stories  about people they knew. (Track 14.) So did Cynthia Rylant's family (Tracks 2, 3). 

      • Marc advises teachers to encourage young children's early stories and honor them. Who tells stories in your life?  What's your favorite story?

      • Marc's Indiana childhood story opens the door to a discussion of the fact that West Virginians are people who live here, whether they were born here or not. 

​​

  •  Use the writers' books to inspire your own class books.  Cynthia's When I Was Young in the Mountains (Track  18) and Marc’s Only One  (Track 15, 16) are both great examples of the "zipper" book format. In every line, one part of a sentence repeats.  Students can easily use the repeating framework to create their own version. Then they can use their version for reading practice.

    • Activity 1:  As a group, put together your own Only One book, as a group. The format: "There are 12 ______s, but only one __________." (You're teaching collective numbers too!)  Once you're finished, consider putting it on as a play or choral reading.   

    • Activity 2: As a group, write your class' own version of When I Was Young in  ____________ (Example: When I Was Young in Braxton County ... ).  Here, you're teaching social studies too!

    • Activity 3: Make versions for each child if possible. If you have an aide or volunteer, ask her or him to help each child fill in five blanks with their favorite memories and activities, for their own "When I Was Young" book. It helps to suggest categories: games, favorite activities, grandparents, etc.

    • Activity 4: Print the child's five sentences into a folded, 3-page construction paper book, one sentence per page. Leave room for the child to draw pictures. The goal: Use the class book and individual books for reading practice. Interest and comprehension will be high.

  • Another approach: Start with charactersVerbally introduce the idea of characters to the children by drawing a cast of characters diagram on the board and listing the characters in one of Cynthia or Marc's books.  Then draw a blank cast of characters diagram and ask the children to dream up a story that starts in, for instance, the school cafeteria.  (A cast of characters diagram is a round circle that has "spider legs" coming out from it. At the end of each leg is the name (or description) of a character or possible character. You'll be using yours to inventory possible characters.) Ask the children to name all the possible characters they can think of for this story. Then narrow it down to four or five. Go from there!  One day, first chapter.  Another day, second chapter, etc.

  • Yet another approach: start with a place or a time:  This can be combined with local history, some pictures from the early 1900s, for instance.  Maybe the children decide to make up a story about a girl who lived on a farm on ______ Mountain, in the early 1900s.  After that's decided, decide who the characters will be.

  • Another possible book by your students! Night in the Country is about sounds at night (Cynthia Rylant, Track 8). What sounds do your students hear? Make a class book and help them make their own stories or picture "books.": Night on 16th Street, Night in Summersville, etc.

  • A way to get help with making student books: Team up with a sixth grade teacher who wants her students to write children's books as a means of improving their writing. (See the Mind Movie unit on the middle-level page.) Ask that teacher to choose six or seven students whose job will be to interview your students, help them decide what they want in their "When I Was Young" book. Those student will also "test drive" their own stories on your students.  

 

  • Involve other arts. Draw, act, etc. Have your students put on a dramatic reading of a book like Night in the Country (Cynthia Rylant, Track 8).  Each child takes a sentence they can memorize - or learn to read!  See the Other Arts page for more arts ideas.​​

  • Invite a writer: If you have a local writer who writes material that will interest your students, invite her or him to visit, so students know people are writing, here in their community.  Marc Harshman is the state poet laureate. He used to be a grade school teacher. ​He comes to visit grade schools often.  Investigate the possibility of arranging a visit with him or another writer. 

  • Stir their imagination!  Poet Maggie Anderson asked herself what vegetables might dream about, so she wrote her "vegetable dream" poems (Tracks 34 - 37). After the students hear Maggie read a poem or two, have the group make up their own dream poem (or two) about things we don't usually think dream.
    • Here's an easy way to do it: a call and response zipper form:. "What does a ______ dream about?" followed by an answer. What does a cheeseburger dream about? _____________. What does a truck dream about? _______
      • This could be fun. Do it as a group. Have fun. List suggested answers on the board. Have students vote. With the help of a copy machine, this can become reading material that children try to read.  If you get eight or ten good calls and responses, that's a book!  It could be a good choral reading too.
      • Homemade books can be particularly effective with some children who are struggling. It reduces "fear of reading failure" because it's familiar material, partly theirs.

  • Cynthia’s Rylant’s autobiography, Best Wishes, is wonderful, especially in combination with her book, When I Was Young in the Mountains. (Track 18).  Use these two books to introduce children to the idea that their own experiences are good starting points for stories.  If you don't have Best Wishes, use Cynthia's comments about growing up in Beaver. (Tracks 7, 9, 11, 12, 13, 23).

    • Activity: Ask the children to tell about something they like to do every day.  Take notes as they do. Ask them to draw a picture that goes with it. Print what they are doing on the page. Read it to them and have them "read" it back.

  • Details in stories: 5 senses. Let the children hear Cynthia Rylant read The Relatives Came (Track 4) while you show them the pictures.  

    • Activity 1: Come back to the first two paragraphs of the book. Read them again. What details did Cynthia Rylant put in the story that let you know what it was like to be in the car? Go through all the senses. Crackers, purple grapes, baloney sandwiches, station wagon smell, conversation, looking out the window. Write the details on the board.

      • Be sure to introduce the word "details," since some young children don't use that word. It will be helpful to you as a working tool.

    • Activity 2: Do the same with the paragraphs that describe the relatives all sleeping in the same house. What details made you know what it was like (mattresses, breathing, pajamas, etc.)?

    • Activity 3: Do a follow-up on details, maybe the next day. Ask the children to provide details that would help people picture a place they all know: the cafeteria at lunchtime, for instance. Go through all the senses. Write their detail nominations on the board. Tell them they can vote for six. You might start call-and-response: When I walk in the cafeteria, I hear ....  I see ...  And then ....

  • Empathy. In Missing May, a little girl named Summer goes to live with some relatives after she's been passed around from one house to another by relatives who didn't really want her.  (Track 15).

    • Activity: Play the tracks. Afterwards, ask the children what May and Ob did to make Summer know she was wanted. 

    • Cynthia Rylant went to live with her grandparents when she was a little girl. A question for the children: Do you think that helped Cynthia know how Summer felt? 

    • Activity: Read the rest of Missing May to the children. Aunt May dies, and Summer and her uncle try to deal with it. A warm, loving book.

 

  • What is the dog thinking? In Scarecrow, a scarecrow tells us what he sees and feels.  Introduce the idea of giving a voice to something that usually doesn't talk.

    • Activity 1. Read the story or play the recording (Track 21) .  Point out that it's a story about what the scarecrow sees and thinks. No crashes, no big action, just a day in the life of a scarecrow.

    • Think of a dog or cat you know.  Or a bird. Make up a story about what that dog or cat sees / thinks on an ordinary day, starting in early morning and going through the dayk.  Small children can do this in a group, listing possibilities on the board and voting for the suggestions. Give the animal a name. Where is his house? Who else lives in the house?

    • Organize by time of day. What is the dog thinking when he wakes up, for instance, at 6 AM? What does he see going on around him? What is he thinking as the kids get ready for school? What does he think as you leave for school? 

    • Stop this activity at any point. Since you're doing the dog's day by time, you can easily pick it up later.  Do it in 15-minute bursts. 

      • If you finish this story, you have another book!  It may lead to more books: Sparky's Excellent Adventure, Sparky Gets Lost, etc.

  • Starts out slow, then speeds up! Use Marc Harshman's A Little Excitement to introduce the idea of a story that starts slowly, then speeds up (while the roof is on fire), then slows down again after the roof fire is put out. Marc tells how he wrote it in  (Tracks 5, 7).

    • Activity 1: Quick discussion: Can you think of a time when things were moving slow, then something happened and there was excitement for awhile, then things slowed down? If you, the teacher, can think of such a time in your childhood, tell that story, to model and encourage them to share.  First, tell about things moving slow, then the excitement!

    • Possible Activity 2: This opens the door to a more action-oriented class story.

 

  • Point of view / characters. To introduce the idea of point of view, let the children listen to a reading from a book like Marc Harshman's Snow Company  (Track 9).

    • Activity: Who is telling this story? Who are the other characters in this story? If one of the other characters was telling  this story, how might they tell it?

    • Activity: You may want to spend some time on the concept of characters.  A handy device: Draw a circle on the board and write the name or subject matter inside it. Then draw lines coming out from it, like spider-legs. At the end of each leg is a person/animal in the story. Each one is a character.  Who are the characters in this story?​​

  • Many Cynthia Rylant classroom activity books are available via the Internet. Type "Cynthia Rylant Teaching Resources" into a search engine. 

  • Therapeutic stories for individual students: Simply reading parts of these stories to individual children as needed can let them know they're not alone. 

    • Uncle James, by Marc Harshman, is a sensitive, empathetic book about an alcoholic uncle and a child's struggle to forgive him (Tracks 27, 28).  , 

    • Rylant's Missing May, Dog Heaven and Cat Heaven are all helpful to children dealing with death.

    • Cynthia Rylant's When I was Young in the Mountains and Best Wishes gives dignity to rural poverty and raise questions of what makes life worthwhile. For some children, it would be helpful to know that Cynthia lived with her grandparents while her mother got a nursing degree, so she could support them. 

    • Irene McKinney's memories of living in poverty, but happiness, on a rural mountain farm have similar impact of validating that way of life and asking "what's worthwhile?". (Tracks 2, 12, 13, 16, 23,  26).

This is a start. We'd love to hear your activity ideas! Take a few minutes to send them. Click here!
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