top of page

Learning from our writers

Level 2:
writing skills

cover of book by Cynthia Rylant
photo of Maggie Anderson
Cover of book by Sandra Belton
photo of Irene McKinney
Cover of book by Cynthia Rylant

These activities
give you a way to put this web site to  classroom use!


Cover of book by Sandra Belton
Cover of book by Davis Grubb

        ​ A buffet of ideas ...

          Choose any you want! 

  • The activity units to the right contain core tools that will help students with narrative writing. Check them out! 

  • Group or individual? Most activities can be used with individual advanced students, small groups or the whole class. 

  • Also check out the WV History and Other Arts activities. 

  •  WV CCRS standards for this website are provided for teachers.  

  • You will think of other activity ideas that we haven't thought of. Please send them to us so we can pass them on. Use the form here.

Check out these 
core-skills units. 

      Word movies: 



  Story poems


A step toward

full stories.

Free writing:

a valuable

writing tool.

Students come
in all levels of  readiness and maturity. Choose activities that fit your students.


 Activity ideas

This list starts with activities for all ages.  Activities aimed at older students are toward the bottom.

 activity is designed to be used with tracks from the audio program.

Each a
ctivity description includes audio track numbers. To find the tracks, go to the "Listen/Tracks" page for that writer. You can listen and/or download the transcript there.
  • How true is that story? Writing from your own memories. Marc Harshman draws on his childhood memories for one book after another. He often starts with something that really happened, then builds out from there. Sometimes the story is true (Snow Company). Sometimes it's partly true (A Little Excitement), and sometimes it's completely made up (Rocks in My Pocket).  ​This is an important concept for students, as they start to write fiction and poems. In his audio program, Marc tells how he wrote each of the three books, in very clear, classroom-friendly descriptions:  A  Little Excitement  (Tracks 5 - 7), Snow Company (Tracks 8 - 9) and Rocks in My Pocket  (Tracks 11 - 13).  

    • ​​Activity 1. If you take one book at a time, this can be three activities. Play what Marc says about each book to the class, then follow with a quick discussion after each. Follow up with a short writing exercise: (1) Write a three-paragraph story that is completely true. (2) Write a three-paragraph story that is partly true, then tell what part is true. (3) Write a three-paragraph story that is almost entirely made up.

    • Activity 2. Discussion: When is it OK to make up all or part of a story?  When is it not OK?

  • Slow-moving stories. Use Scarecrow, (Track 21/ Cynthia Rylant) to introduce the idea of a “slow-moving story,” in this case, a children's book where no big action happens. (We're using a children's picture book because you can quickly get through the whole story.)

    • Activity 1: Analyze the writing.  Nothing quick-moving or exciting is happening. Discuss: What keeps it moving? Look at the sentence length. Who are the other characters?

    • Activity 2: Write your own slow-moving story. Model on Scarecrow. Make up a dog or cat. Take them through time.  Write about their day, one thing after another, in the voice of the animal or bird. What happens at 7 AM? What about 8 AM? Keep going through the day. Be sure to include some lines that let us know how your dog feels about what’s happening.​


  • Stories with more action. Use Marc Harshman's A Little Excitement  (Tracks 5 - 7)) to introduce the idea of a story that starts slowly, then speeds up (when the house chimney is on fire), then slows down again after the fire is put out.

    • Activity 1 Ask students to think of a time when nothing much was happening, then suddenly something exciting happened, then it was slow again afterward.  Ask them to write about it in three parts: The time before the excitement, the time during the excitement, and the time afterwards.

    • Activity 2: Build on what the students did in Activity 1. Quantify what you would like to see in each section. How many descriptive details? At least one conversation? Include the skills you would like to emphasize.


  • Point of View / Cast of Characters: Introduce the ideas of point of view and cast of characters by playing a reading from Marc Harshman’s Snow Company   (Tracks 8 - 9). If you have the book, read the whole story. 

    • Activity 1: Who are the characters in this story? Draw a point-of-view diagram on the board, a circle with legs sticking out from it (like a spider) with a character’s name or description at the end of each leg. Talk about the fact that each character would tell the same story differently. Discuss a few examples.

    • Activity 2: Ask students to choose a character and write the same story as if that other character was telling it. For instance, if a character who got stuck in the snow was telling the story, they might start by telling us where they were going and how they got stuck. Who was with them? Did they wade through the snow to the house? What did they have on? Did they have to knock long on the door? What did they do/say/smell (food)  when somebody opened the door?

    • Activity 3: Ask students to pick a favorite fairy tale and tell it from the point of view of one of the minor characters.

  • Let students meet writers. If you have a local writer who writes material that may interest your students, invite her or him to visit, so students know people are writing, right here in the community. (If you write, consider letting them know.) Marc Harshman is the state poet laureate. He used to be a grade school teacher and visits grade schools often.  Investigate the possibility of arranging a visit with him or another writer. 

  • Team up with a kindergarten or first-grade teacher.  The children’s picture book is an ideal form for students who are beginning to learn to revise and shape stories, but some students may wonder why they, at their advanced age, are being asked to write children’s stories. If they’re writing them to read to the kindergartners, that’s OK! They can test their story out on kindergartners, then use the children’s reaction to revise.


  • Find story ideas in West Virginia history.  Choose a time or event in West Virginia history that interests you. Create at least two characters who live during this time. Using details about the event, place and /or time, create at least a one-page scene that includes both characters.  Use as many paragraphs as you like. Give us details that help us see where we are and give us clues to where we are in time.

    • If the student likes the scene, the next step can be to create three characters who will appear in a fukll-fledged story. Who are they and how will they touch each other's lives?​

  • Ear writing: Rhythm and language: People know the importance of rhythmic language in songs, but not so much in spoken or written word. It is equally important. As writer Keith Maillard said (Track 11): “I can tell in about ten seconds flat when I see student work if they’re ear writers or eye writers. And it’s hard to get eye writers to actually hear what they’re doing. There is a prose rhythm in my mind that I hear all the time when I’m writing. ” What does he mean? He makes the point that, when people speak, it has a natural rhythm. So when they write without rhythm, they’re not “hearing” it or thinking of it as speech. So when people read it, they don't experience it as rhythmic speech.

    •  Activity 1: Introduce rhythms. Have the children do three or four hand-drumming rhythms on their desks, getting them used to the idea of many rhythms. Make sure the rhythms are quite different. If you have a music teacher (or a drummer guest), involve them in this.

    • Activity 2: Establish the connection between rhythm and speech: Try this as a group at first. Start with something everyone knows, like Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star. Try saying it to a mambo rhythm and several different rhythms. Get students used to saying the same words to different rhythms. (2) If it is hard – or inappropriate – to read to one rhythm, have them slow it down or speed it up or try another rhythm that will work. Students take turns trying to say the words to the rhythms.  Practice this in advance. 

    • Activity 3: Partner the children. Have one child play a rhythm and another child read a poem.  Help them discover the magic of language and drumming when they work together.  A tip: Make this a special assignment for two children who practice in advance, so they can demo.

    • Activity 4:  The partners start with a rhythm. Play it for awhile. Write something that fits that rhythm.

    • Activity 5: How can you make sure you have rhythm in your writing? Read it out loud to yourself! Have the students listen to Cynthia Rylant talk about the way she got her storytelling voice: (Track 14).


  • Arrange opportunities for students to read their work aloud if they would like to.  Reading aloud helps students develop as ear writers. 

  • See the Other Arts page for similar ideas, linking writing - and these writers - with another art.

  • See the Open-Form Poetry unit for companion activities.

  • Giving students "permission" to write in a natural voice.  Students often assume they are "supposed to" adopt an elevated, unnatural voice if they are writing for school. This exercise reminds them that writing is communication, you talking to me, person to person.  The activity can be done one-on-one or as a group.

    • If one-on-one, ask the student to think of somebody they like to talk with. Get the person's first name ("Joe," "Dad," etc.) 

    • Give them the two example sentences. Ask them to put "Hey ___" at the beginning of each sentence and read each sentence out loud, with "Hey _____" at the beginning (Hey Joe, Hey Dad, etc.). Would you say it that way to _________?" 

      • ​Here are two sentence pairs you can use to make that point:

        • "Hey Joe ... your close associates are eagerly anticipating your arrival"  OR  "Hey Joe, your friends can't wait to see you."   ​​

        • "Hey Dad, it is forecast that the state of West Virginia will experience considerably precipitation."  OR

        • "Hey Dad, the weatherman says it will rain a lot in West Virginia."

    • Rule of thumb:  If you wouldn't say it that way to somebody you know, don't write it that way.


  • Moving through time and space with writing: Richard Currey: Track 1.  Richard Currey says his book, Fatal Light, is a true story about a Parkersburg boy (him) who was a medic in the Vietnam War.  The book begins with a passage that takes us through space from Vietnam to Parkersburg, WV, and through time, from adulthood to childhood.​ (Track 1)

    • Activity 1:  Study Track 1.  Play Richard reading it for the class. He makes us see it, with the details he writes, from Vietnam and from Parkersburg.  Talk about the contrast between the details from the two places and the two times. Make two detail lists on the board. 

      • ​Why did Richard feel safe in Vietnam, as long as he could hear those noises? How did he make the jump through time, from being a solider in Vietnam to being a boy in Parkersburg? What words did he use to set it up? Discuss his technique.​

    • Activity 2: Model Track 1, to write your own paragraphs. Imagine your own self forward 15 years. Put yourself in a specific situation and place. Write a paragraph that gives the reader a glimpse of what you see, hear, smell, touch and ______.  You are making this up. Use Richard's structure in all three paragraphs as a model, but use your own details.​

      • ​First paragraph:  "At ______, in ___________ , I could hear ____________. > (Other noises). I felt ____________ > thinking: 

      • Second paragraph: (Jump back to age 7 or 8.) "And the story begins like this. There was a ______ > (put in your own "movie" details.​

      • Do the same with the third paragraph that lets us see what we would have seen if

    • Activity 3 : Modeling is a great way to study the sentence structure of a writer you admire. Pick another writer and work to model

  • Use details to keep the story going:  The first part of Cynthia Rylant’s book, The Relatives Came, is on Track 4.  Show the students the way this highly-successful children’s story is put together. This is a “trip” book, divided into four parts of a trip: Getting there, arriving (the first day), what we did while we were there, and going home.

    • Activity 1. In each section, what details did Cynthia Rylant include to keep the story going? 

      • An example: In part one, what details did the writer include that let you picture what it was like to be in the car? Crackers, purple grapes, baloney sandwiches, station wagon smell, what they saw out the window (strange houses and mountains).

      • In part two, list details that helped you see what the relatives did the day they arrived?

      • In part three, list what the relatives did while they were there.  Include only details that Cynthia Rylant put in her writing.  Other details are in the pictures. What did you find in the pictures that was not in her writing?

      • How do the details in the “going home” part echo the “getting there” part?

  • Activity 2: Write your own trip story with four parts: getting there, arriving, what I did while I was there, and going back home. Include details in each part that help us see what's happening.

  • Fantasy / thriller writing.  Stephen Coonts, who grew up in Buckhannon, has written one best-selling techno-thriller after another. He combines technology with thriller action in scenes all over the world. In his book, Hong Kong, giant robots suddenly appear to keep the peace and keep people safe from a hostile army (Track 23).

    • Activity: Imagine robots appearing in a West Virginia town. What would they do? Create a main character who is between 10 and 18 years old. That character will encounter the robot. Divide your story into three parts: (1) Before the character meets the robot. Use this part to help us see the character in ordinary life, doing ordinary things that give us a feel for where the character lives, how old they are, and what they usually do. (2) the encounter with the robot!  (3) after the encounter. What does the character do? Who does the character tell about the robot?  (You may think of this writing as a first chapter in a book.)

  • Poetic combinations: Poetic images may not make logical sense, but "poetic license" means it doesn't have to be the way it is in reality. For instance here are the first few lines of “The Animals.”  (Irene McKinney, Track 15) 

    • The animals have tongues in their feet and taste the leaves / in crevices and holes,, in quirks of the earth, /they seep from your pores in your sleep, move into / the woods and back.

  • Tongues in their feet? Animals seeping from your pores in your sleep? This is imagination! When you write poetry, it's OK to write things that wouldn't really happen that way in real life. \

    • Activity 1: Do it yourself: Give your students a visual noun like "wheelbarrows" or "raccoons."  Give them a     list of four active verbs that would not usually go with a wheelbarrow or a raccoon (strut, perform). Do a     couple of examples as a group. 

    • Activity 2: Assemble a list of eight nouns on one side of a page or whiteboard and, on the other side, eight      movie verbs that definitely do not go with those nouns. Divide the students into teams. Tell them they have  (however many) minutes to come up with a story poem that includes four of those nouns coupled up with four of those verbs. Example: Nouns: trucks, hippos, bacon, radio, guns, bubble gum, maccaroni, sidewalk. Verbs: flutter, shudder, skip, scramble, chew, grab, eat, hate.  Trucks flutter? Trucks scramble? Trucks eat?


  •  Personification:  When writers personify, they give human qualities to objects that are not human.

    • Activity 1. Maggie Anderson personified her favorite chair (Track 5). Her poem starts with “Dear fat chair.”    Choose an object in the classroom and write a prose poem from the point of view of that object. “I                    am tired of being forced to chew up pencils kids stick into me …”

    • Activity 2. Maggie Anderson also imagined that her vegetables sleep at night and dream while they sleep.  She wrote about their dreams (Tracks 34-37). Introduce your students to her story poems. Then choose a vegetable or other food that Maggie didn’t write about and write a group story poem. Get the words down, then debate where to break the lines.

    • Activity 3: Write your own story poem about something we don’t usually think of as dreaming. What              about rat dreams? Truck dreams? Pencil dreams?


  • Autobiography/ Memoir: Cynthia Rylant wrote an autobiography that really appeals to teens: But I'll Be Back Again.  Young people often thing that there's no point in writing about your life if it isn't dangerous, threatening or unusual in some way. This book gives you a springboard for discussion. ​​

  • Beginning research skills (Grade 6 and up). On each writer’s page, under “The Writers” tab, you’ll find four or five research links about that writer. Use this feature to teach or practice research skills.

    • Activity 1: This activity teaches students to choose a subject, download files, and use downloaded files, learning to use footnotes.

      • Give students a list of In Own Country writers they might like get to know better. You choose the list. Ask them to look at each of the writers’ pages and choose the one that appeals most to them. Tell them they will write about this author.

      • Ask students to go to their chosen writer’s audio page, under the “Listen” tab and download the script for their writer. If need be, teach them how to download.

      • Ask them to read the script while they listen to the program, so, as they listen, they can take notes note passages that strike them. If need be, demonstrate how they can take notes in another color or italics.

    • Activity 2: To the students: Look at your notes, then ask yourself these questions: What do you think this writer cares about? What do you admire most about them or their writing? What did you learn from this writer?

      • Write a (your choice)-word paper answering those three questions. Support your thesis with at least three quotes from the audio program.

        • If need be, explain what a thesis is and have a little discussion about the difference between “thesis” and “opinion.”

      • Ask students to quote at least three passages from the audio program transcript in their paper.

        • Show them the correct footnote form: In Their Own Country,, 2023, Tracks XX and XX.

    • Activity 3:  This activity teachers students to use source material to support your thesis and using footnotes to let people know where you got your information

      • Good research papers use more than one source. Go to your writer’s page. Read the sources listed near the bottom of the page.

      • Extra credit if you find another solid source on the web or elsewhere.

    • Activity 4:  Form a thesis about the writer or one of the writer’s stories or his/her poetry. Write an essay that cites at least two samples of the author’s writing and at least two cites from a research source. (Example of a thesis: “Breece Pancake often wrote about people who are attached to the land.”}

  • Free writes from photos.  Walker Evans was a great photographer who traveled the country taking pictures during the Great Depression. Both Maggie Anderson and Cynthia Rylant wrote poems inspired by his photos. Your students can write from photos too! 

    • Assignment 1: Cynthia Rylant took a free-writing approach. Take a look at the free writing unit above for more about free writing.  Cynthia said she looked at each photo for about 15 seconds, then started free-writing, writing whatever came into her mind. Have students listen to Cynthia’s Tracks 28, 29, 31: We skipped 30 and 32 because they are excellent, but adult material. Here are the titles of the Walker Evans photos she used: "Floyd Burroughs' Work Shoes" and "Barefoot Boy in Chair in Coal Miner's House, Vicinity Morgantown, West Virginia." You can easily find them on the Internet.

    • Assignment 2: Maggie Anderson (Tracks 12 - 16). Maggie Anderson had a very different approach. She did not free-write. In her poems, she explained why she was critical of Walker Evans and wondered how the people he photographed felt. Read her poems students for contrast. Ask them to choose a photo and write about what they like and don’t like about it.

  • Creating suspense (older students only: review):  Davis Grubb was a master of suspense. Have older students study the chase scene from Night of the Hunter  to see how Grubb builds the suspense.  Read and listen to one of his most famous scenes  (Tracks 9 - 10). A murderous con man, pretending to be a preacher, is chasing two children down a steep hill to the Ohio River. He knows that $10,000 is hidden inside the little girl's doll, and he wants to get it. John is the big brother. Pearl is about five.  (Spoiler: They get away from him.)

    • Activity 1:​ Look at John's dialogue, then look at Pearl's. How does Davis Grubb use Pearl to heighten the feeling of danger? 

    • Activity 2: Look at the details in this passage that add to the suspense: the weeds that hold them back, the mist that makes it hard to see, the mud. Copy the passage and highlight the words you feel add to the suspense.

    • Activity 3: Davis Grubb why he wrote about dark things, but there was always contrasting innocence and/or goodness. He said, "I believe in the dark because it shows off the light."  What do you think he meant?


  • Writing from your own life. The media floods students with car crashes, explosions, super-heroes, etc. It's not surprising that students often think their own lives aren't interesting enough to write about. This activity is designed to counter that idea.

  • Cynthia Rylant is one of the best-loved writers in the world, but she doesn't write about explosions or super-heroes. She writes about ordinary life. "For the first several years of my life, I was out in the country," she said. "Nobody had a car. The men went off to the mines. They took the vehicles, so we were left to entertain ourselves. Later, when we moved to a town that had little sidewalks and a drug store and hardware, even then, my mother was a working parent, and she was gone all day, and I was an only child, and I was left to my own resources. So basically, I just walked the roads and got to know people and developed into the person I am now."

    • Cynthia wrote a book of prose poems about the people she met as she walked around her little town.

      • Activity 1: Let students  read "Sam the Shoe Shop Man." Point out that it's all description until the last sentence, which is her reflection back on Sam. Look at her details and her verbs.

      • Activity 2: Have students copy the poem by hand. Copying a memorable piece by hand is always a good exercise. Ask students to think about the details and verbs Cynthia Rylant chose, as they copy them. Sam owned the Beaver Shoe Shop, dumpy little business in a one-room building the size of a garage. Big picture window, though, and cat calendars. And Randy and I swung back that old screen door every day all summer, the smell of leather hitting us square in the face and melting us through. We sat in the shoeshine chairs and talked with Sam for hours, admiring his bald head and hairy arms, and never once guessing he was poor. Never once.

      • Activity 3: Modeling: Write a story poem about somebody you met. Use "Sam the Shoe Shop Man" as a model, insofar as possible. Model each line, until the last line or two. Use those lines to tell us your thought about the person you're describing.

  • Therapeutic stories: 

    • `Uncle James, by Marc Harshman, is a sensitive, empathetic book about an alcoholic uncle and a child's struggle to forgive him (Tracks 26 - 28).  The Storm (Tracks 202 - 26)  a boy in a wheelchair showing courage he didn't know he had.

    • Cynthia Rylant's When I was Young in the Mountains (17-19) and Best Wishes treats rural poverty in  a loving, dignified way and raise questions of what makes life worthwhile. For some children, it would be helpful to know 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 also happiness, on a rural mountain farm have similar impact (Tracks 2, 12-18, 26-29).


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

See the Advanced Activities page for more activities for more advanced students. 

On the other end of the scale, if you need more activities for less advanced students, look through the

pre-writing activities page and adapt.

In all cases, check the West Virginia History/Social Studies activities and the Other Arts activities

bottom of page