Getting Started: Round-Robin Oral Storytelling

This is the second part in a monthly series written by NCTE member Mindy Daniels. Here is the first part

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As expected, kids admitted to hospitals react differently. For some, it’s “my first day in the nuthouse,” as one teen wrote; for others, it’s a welcome respite from being bullied at school or from abject abuse at home. Also as expected, some kids are extremely active and chatty, others dejected and tight-lipped. Regardless, as teachers we want kids to engage in learning because, as a normalizing process, school is as therapeutic as it is academically important to their overall well-being.

Some students, however, are too traumatized for schoolwork, while others are simply not interested. For both the willing and the recalcitrant, I have found that creative writing activities provide a comfort zone.

One good technique I discovered years ago in a Writer’s Digest article adapts the round-robin reading approach wherein the teacher starts with a simple sentence and each student adds to the story with one to two sentences of his or her own. The one I recall from the article, which I have used successfully countless times, is: “Bill really wanted a drink of water.”

Reasons why Bill is thirsty and can’t get water are infinite. Maybe he’s mowed the lawn and is locked out of the house; he’s broken down on the side of the road in the desert; he’s adrift in the ocean. What he does to get water is equally legion. He crawls through the doggie door; he breaks into someone’s house and is arrested; he paddles ashore. Like playing badminton, the intent of a round-robin is to keep the birdie—the story—aloft as long as possible. For this reason, students can’t allow a character to commit suicide—suicide is a cop-out, according to creative writing teachers.

Some students elaborate without prompting; shyer kids may need assistance, so have ready leading questions like: What if he went to a neighbor’s house and no one was home? What if it was a holiday and the store was closed? What if there were aliens on the island? No matter how bizarre, accept a student’s response so long as it keeps the action and tension going. As the teacher, you can always spin the story in another direction when it is your turn to contribute.

It is critical that teachers contribute as active participants. In this workshop activity, teachers must be more than facilitators; as active participants, our responses cannot be rehearsed. We need to go with the flow of the story and be spontaneous. If you can’t think of any one-liners, try Writer’s Digest prompts (www.writersdigest.com/prompts) or take an opening sentence from a short story. Just about anything works.

Here are a couple of examples from my students: Bill had a broken leg and couldn’t get to the fridge or the faucet. Bill resorted to drinking from the dog’s bowl because the water main had broken and he couldn’t get water from the faucet. Given the opportunity, students can and are creative. Starting with a group activity like oral storytelling cracks open creative doors.

Next time—String Storytelling.

Mindy Daniels has a PhD in instructional leadership. For the last sixteen years she has taught in the children’s psychiatric hospital at the Medical College of Virginia in Richmond. She is also the author of poetry and of a historical novel.

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About Lu Ann McNabb

Lu Ann Maciulla McNabb is the Policy & Alliances Associate for the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE). Lu Ann has long been an advocate for teachers, students and education. As Thomas Jefferson so eloquently said, "Education is the anvil upon which democracy is forged."

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