Children Writing for Children

Fall 2016

By Ryan Tahmaseb

At my school, we recently equipped ourselves with a Makerspace filled with utilitarian gadgets to start implementing design thinking in our curriculum. One could argue that, as a teacher of the humanities, I should be worried. Instead, I find myself in support of what I interpret to be the essence of this movement: students becoming more invested in the process of creating something instead of focusing on the final product alone. I’m happy to have my English classes experiment with everything from pipe cleaners to 3D printers if doing so enables them to become creative thinkers and writers. The question for me, however, has been how to integrate some of the tenets of design thinking into my classroom in an authentic way, and the best answer I have found so far has been asking my sixth-graders to create their own children’s books. 

I was inspired to begin this project by observing a colleague’s fantastic design thinking activity. Her sixth-grade students were in the middle of an in-depth unit on ornithology, and they had been tasked with working in small groups to create a hands-on way to educate their friends in prekindergarten about the world of birds. It was a pleasure to see the younger students respond with such enthusiasm to their older schoolmates’ creative prototypes, which ranged from board games to child-sized nests students could climb inside. The projects were so successful because, as a part of their preparation, the sixth-graders had considered and discussed the specific learning needs of these young children so that their projects might lead to genuine, developmentally appropriate ornithological insights. 

This made me reflect on what I was teaching at the moment and how I was teaching it. My honors sixth-grade class was about to begin a unit in which they would study a novel and write their own short stories in an effort to better understand particular elements of fiction, including mood, tone, theme, plot sequence, methods of characterization, and types of conflict. Whenever my students are at work on a piece of writing, throughout the drafting process, I remind them of their audience: their classmates. They share works-in-progress with each other, and we devote a full class period to the sharing of final copies. 

After witnessing my colleague’s students sharing customized projects with younger students, I realized that asking my sixth-grade honors English class to compose stories specifically for a much younger audience — for very different readers — could be a unique and exciting challenge. 

So that’s what I decided to do but with one important addition: after writing their own children’s stories, my class of 11 English students would design and create their own children’s books. We would still study the elements of fiction, but there would be extra emphasis on intended audience. And in this case, the audience would be new and relatively unfamiliar. I also loved the idea of having a new opportunity to stress the art of omission in writing; much like poetry, each word in a children’s story is of the utmost importance, and what is not included is just as important as what is included. 

I strive to design a curriculum in which learning is as student-driven as possible, so I was excited that my role throughout this unit would be more of a facilitator than an instructor. It was up to my students to determine how they wanted to do things. My students were elated by the idea of complete creative control. They began sharing what they remembered about their favorite picture books from childhood, and we discussed what it was about children’s books that makes them memorable and special. Students used a graphic organizer to record the essential qualities of their classmates’ favorite books: the title, nature of the protagonist (age, gender, human or animal, etc.), central conflict, primary themes, and illustration style. I loved seeing how playfulness and laughter accompanied this intellectual exploration. 

They read two essays — an excerpt from “How to Write a Children’s Book: Advice from Roald Dahl”1 and “On Three Ways of Writing for Children” by C. S. Lewis2 — and took bulleted notes on these readings in a Google document. Both essays are geared toward adults, but I wanted students to understand that writing for children is serious business and they would have to think critically about the choices they made as writers. The next day, students shared their biggest takeaways from these readings. Our class discussion led them to conclude that the writer of a children’s story must be concise, playful, and not condescend to children. As one student commented later, “Writing for children is much more challenging than writing something for a more mature audience. In children’s books, you have to condense your story and then make the language understandable and simple.” And then there’s the fact that writing for children is an exercise in empathy, as another student noted: “You have to write the book not just based off your wants, but off others’ wants and needs.” Certainly a difficult task for all writers, much less very young ones! 

We interviewed faculty members who have small children at home, and students asked them specific questions about the kinds of stories and illustrations their children enjoyed the most, resulting in interviews that were fun and engaging. My colleagues noted how impressive it was to see students asking such excellent questions and taking their work so seriously. This was real intrinsic motivation, and the design-specific, process-oriented nature of design thinking had gotten my students there. 

My students were excited about the next step, interviewing and reading to kindergartners, which reminded me that one of the key elements that would make this unit successful was that real books were being created for real children. Their questions included: What is your favorite part of this book and why? What is your least favorite part of this book and why? Who is your favorite character and why? What is your favorite picture in this book and why? 

My students discovered that the kindergartners’ opinions on such matters were subject to change page-to-page. When we reflected on the experience immediately afterward, we noted that they loved magic (flying children), the unexpected (surfing rabbits), and new beginnings (a chick coming out of an egg). They loved funny parts — silly words and puns — and when bad characters got what was coming to them. In addition to being fun and informative, the process of reading to the kindergartners gave my students plenty of motivation to create good books. One student said, “The thought that kids would be able to read a book I had written and was proud of stuck with me while I was writing.” 

For homework that night, they began the writing process. Students were asked to begin drafting their stories in the Google document they had created for taking notes on the essays by Dahl and Lewis, which was my not-so-secret way of encouraging them to reread the tips they had learned from the masters. In addition to creating drafts of their stories, students were also asked to start sketching some illustrations to accompany them. I stressed the fact that one did not need to be a fabulous artist in order to create good illustrations — stick figures were okay at this stage in the process. However, I told them that they should have a few ideas about how they might ultimately create neat, professional-level images inside their books. I listed drawings, paintings, photographs, collages, and photographs of paper cutouts as examples of mediums they could use. From the very beginning, the images and language should feel interconnected. 

For the next few weeks, our classroom turned into a workshop. Early adolescents are teeming with creative energy, and that creative energy was on full display. During each class period, I conferred with students individually about their stories, delighted to see how spirited they were about their ideas. All of the research and interviews had paid off. Several students had written multiple stories and wanted me to help them choose one to pursue. I was so impressed. Their stories were excellent, from the pun-filled caper about an underwater detective who is literally a red herring to the spooky tale of a boy who becomes increasingly scared of the monsterish noises under his bed until he realizes they’re coming from his dog. 

The technology teachers were excited about this project, too, and they encouraged us to continue defining what the kindergartners needed from a children’s story and how they might create a great book without judging their own ideas or those of others. Our school’s technology integrationist visited during our workshop periods to teach mini-lessons on how Google Slides could create a slide for each page of the students’ books, and she outlined the options for printing and binding in our Makerspace. The tech team also recommended that the self-professed “bad artists” in the class — the students who claimed they couldn’t draw or paint — use Google Drawings to create computer-generated artwork. 

Our technology integrationist created a Google Site that outlined basic instructions for formatting and numbering pages with the “perfect binding” method, which is what she had determined to be the best way for students to design high-quality compositions. She had the students use scrap paper to make mini mock-ups of their books so they could better understand how to order their pages in Google Slides; the pages could not be sequential because they would have to be folded, glued, and sewn in a particular way once the books were printed. 

Students loved the fact that they could tell any story they wanted to tell as long as it was appropriate for kindergartners. One student said: 

I enjoyed how freely we could write about whatever we wanted, in any style we wanted. It was very free and creative and for me it was nice to be able to write about any crazy idea that popped into my head that I thought a child would like to read. 

It wasn’t always easy for students to keep up with the unit’s fast pace, and a few students also struggled to reduce their drafts to 500 words. One student commented, “I learned how extremely, unfairly, totally hard it is to write a short story. Not just a short story, but a one-page story.”

One of the most difficult and time-consuming parts of the process was creating high-quality illustrations in each student’s chosen medium, which included watercolor, photographs, and graphics editors. Because the stakes were high — these books were being printed, bound, and shared — students spent time making sure that each image they made was neat and meaningful. But it was wonderful to behold the way in which classmates inspired and motivated each other. When students saw each other’s impressive artwork, they heaped praise on each other. Then they returned to their own work with a heightened sense of determination, and the results were stellar. 

Once each book was scanned and created into a Google Presentation, I designed a basic rubric to assess the digital versions of their books. I assessed them on their title, cover, plot, characterization, pictures, and neatness, all of which were the aspects of their books that we had agreed were most important. We also reviewed the elements of fiction from this unit, such as types of conflict, narration, and the difference between mood and tone. I gave them a test that required them to read a standard-length short story and answer questions in which they had to identify these elements of fiction. As I graded these tests, it became clear that writing, illustrating, and designing their books had enabled them to define these literary elements and explain how a writer manipulates them to craft a story. They had demonstrated that they could name what they had been doing. I couldn’t have asked for a better outcome. 

Our technology integrationist gallantly took on the task of printing the books. For several months, we met her in the Makerspace on available Friday afternoons so that students could glue and sew their pages together. She taught students the sewing technique for perfect binding, as well as how to fold paper over the cardboard to create book covers, skills she had just learned herself in order to teach them. Creating the books was a slow but satisfying process, as we were all learning together, and this long-term project built and maintained a special kind of momentum. Also, it didn’t hurt that they enjoyed returning to their books as a diversion from the current unit of study. 

When students finished — after months of hard work — they felt an extraordinary sense of accomplishment. They also understood the amount of work that goes into creating something great. One student said, “Now I can really appreciate the effort put into one single book.” Our school librarian loved their final products and decided to make their work part of the school’s permanent collection in the library, going as far as adding plastic jacket covers to their books and classification stickers to their spines. This made everything feel official for my students, and they couldn’t stop grinning when they held their processed books in their hands for the first time. 

Many times I was asked, “Mr. T, when are we going to read our books to the kindergartners?” Months after our first visit, we finally returned to the kindergarten classroom. The teachers there gave us a warm welcome and told their students that the books my class brought were very special, as they had been written for them. The excitement in the room was palpable. Each of my sixth-grade students was paired with a group of two or three kindergartners, and these small groups found comfortable nooks throughout the classroom. Over the next 30 minutes, sixth-graders moved from small group to small group and shared their books, pointing out details in the illustrations and answering questions along the way. Based on the grins and giggles in the room, the experience of sharing their work was every bit as satisfying as my students had thought it would be. 

When I reflected on what we learned and accomplished during this unit, I realized that this was the first time in my eight years of teaching that I utilized both the technological and human resources that are available at independent schools like mine. My amazing colleagues were open to participating and collaborating and were constant sources of inspiration to both my students and me. The students couldn’t have fully realized any of their plans and designs without the school’s technology budget and Makerspace. In fact, without our school’s endorsement of design thinking, none of this would have happened. 

Also, I’ve confirmed that there is room for the humanities in the world of design thinking, and this method gives English teachers like me, who are so often focused on the figurative and abstract, a fun and innovative way to bring some physicality into the curriculum. Design thinking gave me a very good reason to involve people from outside my classroom and work collaboratively, and it gave my students the time, freedom, and space to generate and pursue ideas they were excited about. One of my students put it best: “When I am writing something that I really enjoy writing, I can write a really good story I am proud of.” Process indeed became just as important as product. 

This unit reminded everyone involved why we enjoyed and continue to enjoy children’s books. We learned that writing for children is a way to explore the very essence of humanity, that despite the sometimes absurd characters and fantastical worlds, children’s books are timeless because they are about what makes us human — all the excitement, wonder, and fear we experience each day. This is why schools ask students to study the humanities after all. As Marilynne Robinson, one of my favorite writers, said: “The humanities teach us respect for what we are — we, in the largest sense.”3 I will keep that large “we” in mind, because like children writing for children, good things come from considering what others need. 

Notes

1. James Lawton Smith, “How to Write a Children’s Book: Advice from Roald Dahl,” The Book Base; online at http://thebookbase.com/13/how-to-write-a-children%E2%80%99s-book-advice-from-roald-dahl

2. C. S. Lewis, “On Three Ways of Writing for Children”; online at http://mail.scu.edu.tw/~jmklassen/scu99b/chlitgrad/3ways.pdf.

3. Marilynne Robinson, The Givenness of Things: Essays (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015).

Ryan Tahmaseb

Ryan Tahmaseb (ryantahmaseb@gmail.com) teaches English at The Meadowbrook School in Weston, Massachusetts. His writing has appeared in Education Week, Spartan Literary, and *82 Review. His first chapbook, Mutual Incomprehension, was published by Anchor & Plume Press in January 2016. You can find him online at http://www.ryantahmaseb.com.