As a teacher it’s important to be astute. When I was teaching a writing class once, I had a conference with a second grade student that illustrates this perfectly. During our first conference together, as I usually do, I asked this student about her essential story elements. “Do you know who your main character is?”

“An angry bird,” she told me.

“Wow,” I said, impressed. Children don’t usually associate such a strong emotion with a main character this early on. “That’s great. You’ve already given yourself so much to work with. Already I want to know, why is this bird angry?”

I wrote the question down for her in the back of her journal so she could ponder. It would take a lot of soul-searching. This could make a great story. “What would make a little bird so upset?”

Before I could finish transcribing the question, she gave me an answer.

“She wants her eggs.”

“Wow,” I said. Stunned again. This girl had such insight into character motivation. “If I was missing my eggs, I would be mad too. This is great conflict.” This kid was a genius. What an emotionally wrought story. I could hardly wait to see what she would write. I began to transcribe so I could go on to the next student. It would surely take at least a week for her to consider this next question. I asked her,

“Why doesn’t she have her eggs? What happened to them?”

Again, she answered right away. “The pigs took them.”

I was flabbergasted. This kid was a creative genius. I stopped writing my questions at this point, caught up in her evolving story. “That’s an excellent choice because it’s such a surprise. I never would have expected pigs to take eggs from a bird. It brings up so many questions for me.”

She nodded seriously. She knew this was a problem. All good fiction has problems and surprises.

I continued, helpfully, “For instance, I want to know things like: why do the pigs want the eggs? How do the pigs even get the eggs? I can’t imagine a pig climbing. Aren’t the nests up in trees? I’m growing concerned. Do the pigs have plans for these eggs?”

“They just took the eggs.” She answered simply, shrugging.

“Hmmm,” I said. I decided not to ask how pigs carried the fragile eggs. But we would need a lesson or two on villain motivation. “You have no idea why?”

At last I was getting somewhere. Maybe we found something she could think about for a week and I could get on to my next conference. “Why do the pigs want the eggs?”

I waited for a few moments while she considered. When she volunteered nothing, I asked another question. “OK,” I tried a new approach. She could think about plot points. “How will the bird get her eggs back?”

My student had an answer for this immediately.

“She won’t.”

“Oh,” I said, disappointed. Creative genius can turn dark. “That’s too bad. Why not?”

“She just doesn’t.”

I was stymied. How could a second grader be so certain about this bleak outcome? She had barely begun to write. As a teacher, I didn’t want to guide her away from an unhappy ending. This was her story. So I asked, “So, the bird doesn’t get her eggs back, no matter what, or how hard she tries?”

“Nope.”

I pressed her, hoping, frankly, for hope. “There is absolutely no possible way she can get her eggs back from the pigs?”

Again, she nodded seriously. “Right.”

Desperately and shamefully, I floated a possible solution.  “Will they hatch?”

“Nope.” She said. I was relieved she didn’t accept my idea.

“Well,” I said, trying to be diplomatic, “Most readers like to have an ending to the story. They feel satisfied when the main character gets what she wants. But not every author writes a story that way.”

“Oh. It’s not a story,” she said. Astutely. “It’s a video game.”

9 Comments

  1. Jim
    September 5, 2012

    Oh dear… a second grade plagiarist.
    Put her in the corner with Fareed and Jonah.

  2. Sharry Wright
    September 5, 2012

    I love this story Kristin. It’s funny and a little sad with the twist at the end, where high expectation meets mass technology. There’s a bigger story behind this telling.

  3. Kristin
    September 6, 2012

    It had a happy ending because after she taught me the difference between a story and a video game, she wrote a very original story about a leopard.

  4. Liz
    September 6, 2012

    Good thing she didn’t tell you about how the angry birds had to hide under the desk. Why did they have to hide? So the teacher wouldn’t catch the student playing Angry Birds on her phone when she was supposed to be thinking about her essential story elements.

  5. Riki
    September 6, 2012

    It’s so funny! I love the dialogue between you and the child. What goes on in your head is seriously funny. There are meaningful lessons learned in the story and yet light. As I teach Art to children, I connect with this story really well.

  6. Gail Bradley
    September 6, 2012

    I had a similar experience when a 2nd grader last year asked me if I had any books on wolverines. I paused a minute, thinking, since second graders were doing animal reports at that time. Then I looked in the catalog and came up with nothing. Later that day, I logged on to Follett to order a book on wolverines. Imagine my surprise when up popped several books about the graphic novel character Wolverine as well as a book about the then-recent movie about Wolverine. I was not being very astute!

  7. Judy Noice
    September 9, 2012

    I love your conversation with this 7-year-old. I hear the voices and picture the scene clearly. Thank you for the follow-up note about the leopard story.

  8. Jim Webster
    September 12, 2012

    Believe me, it’s all about Angry Birds right now. A 4-year-old in our home day care comes in every day with an Angry Birds t-shirt or lunchbox. My suggestion that he could play Happy Birds for a change was met with a suspicious frown.

  9. Emma Bland Smith
    September 12, 2012

    Oh, so funny! I’m afraid I saw that one coming a mile away (my son is seven, so I hear waaaay too much about Angry Birds around here). Knowing what the child meant actually made the essay all the funnier.

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