Thursday, February 16, 2012

How to write a group story?

I tried something quite new recently - writing a class story.

Our elementary school is focusing on the seven continents for an upcoming "Learning Showcase" evening event for our families. With this as our "umbrella," I suggested that preschoolers would explore international folktales, at least one from each continent.

Well, it didn't take me too long to realize that there were no authors to write folktales in Antarctica! We would have to write our own.

For me, this was fun new territory - to try to get my class of twenty-two three and four year olds to come together as one and write a single story. Was it even feasible? Well, we'd have fun trying!

My friend Marla McLean writes in a recent blog:

"A big part of my work is teaching others how to break down what they see, feel, think, or hear into pieces, deconstructing what seems insurmountable."  

This, really, is the work of all teachers - deciphering the larger 'intention' or 'learning outcome' and then preparing the path for children to attain this.  A preschool class is not going to simply write a story from start to finish.  With this “end goal” in mind - to create an Antarctica folktale - I decided to break the task into several large group discussions, with lots of reminding, nudging, repeating, and emphasizing throughout the day and along the way:

1) Where and what is Antarctica? One visit to the local library and I had lots of great books to share with the children...but the real learning came when I took them on an imaginary expedition to Antartica, dramatically re-enacting our every movement. We pretended to fly in a plane with skis, landing on the snow and ice, with tents, snow clothes, and lots of food for our expedition. We pretended to walk around and discover. We acted like penguins and seals. We realized there were no polar bears.   The children were so delighted with this completely imaginary adventure that they told their parents they went on a trip that day!

2) What is a folktale? What are characters? Who might be the characters in our story? I reminded them of our favorite stories and we deciphered together - Who are the characters in the Three Little Pigs? Who are the characters in Abiyoyo? Who are the characters in Alistair in Outer Space? Then, if we wrote our own story about Antartica, who might be characters? Class answers: Penguins, Polar Bears, White Dolphin. This led to a sideline discussion - What actually lives in Antarctica? The final consensus - penguins, seals, and us! Yes! The children were hooked!

3) What kinds of things might happen in Antarctica? What is the problem in our story? This was an animated discussion, a true brainstorming activity, with children calling out ideas and me recording each and every one of them, without comment. I find when all ideas are welcomed, everyone participates. After the brainstorming, we read through the list and eliminated those which involved different characters or locations than we had decided earlier. I think this was a great lesson in "editing." Finally, we decided our favorite problem was "a magic penguin was trapped in the water and ice, with a seal approaching him."

4) Should our story have a scary ending or a good ending? Having read through the ideas from our previous discussion, it was clear to me that we had two "camps" in the classroom, those who believed the story would end badly and those who needed it to be happy. For this, we voted with our bodies - moving to different sides of the room, one side for scary and the other for happy. The vote was clear - most of us wanted a happy ending!

5) What do you imagine solves our problem in a good way? We had earlier decided that "a magic penguin was trapped in the water and ice, with a seal approaching him." How to solve this is a happy way, using only penguins, seals, and us in the solution? This was another free-wheeling discussion, with lots of suggestions for good things that might happen. Let's get to the drawing board! I sent children to the tables to draw happy solutions using newly sharpened colored pencils (always fun to use new supplies!) As the children drew, we teachers walked around and spoke with each child individually, writing down their ideas on index cards, and keeping them on track "Remember - there is no Green Lantern in our story; what are the magic penguin, seal, and all of us doing?" Yes, this was a lengthy process...but so very, very rich. When I reviewed all the index cards - all the individual thoughts - I found that we had the semblance of a folktale. I put them in a logical sequence, and readied them for our next discussion.

6) Let’s read our story. What needs to change? As I read the story aloud, I showed the color pictures they had drawn to support their ideas. So many great details!! The children were fascinated by all the ideas. Together, they called out additional suggestions and "fixes" - truly, these children were staying focused and were proving to be great editors, too!

The children wrote the most imaginative story about Antarctica...a story where scary might happen but good prevails, a story filled with magic and friendship. I have shared a few delightful pages, but I can't share more - we need to find a publisher! ;-)

Writing takes time.  Writing takes patience.  Writing is wonderful fun as a group activity!


  1. This is amazing (and I am not saying this because I am quoted.) You have broken down the miraculous and lengthy process of collaborative creative writing and storytelling. I wish you had video of all the "penguins" in your class. One of the teachers at my school suggets while reading back the story, have a few kids dramatize in the middle of the circle the part that doen't work or make sense. That way, the children additionally solve the story flow by using their bodies or trying out new dialog all while getting feedback from the group. Just curious, does your story have a title yet? Can't wait to hear more about the "electric penguin." So so fabulous. You and your kids rock!.

  2. Hi Maureen.

    I really think group writing is a great method for increasing individual creativity while encouraging positive social dynamics.

    My friend and I are actually building a website for this exact activity. A site devoted to group writing! We are even building in customized options for it to be implemented in classrooms (like privacy partitions to make sure it is a safe fun online environment). Oh, and it's going to be totally free.

    Anyway, if you and your readers have just a couple minutes, we've put together a short survey to help ensure it's a perfect site for as many people as possible.

    Oh, and completing the survey directs you to sign up for exclusive premiere access to the site once it's live!

    You can also check out the homepage and sign up at:

    If you are interested, I'd love to hear from you if you have any ideas from the point of view of a teacher actively implementing these methods in the classroom. We currently have high school and college level education advisers, but none yet in the elementary school level.


    Joel Usher