Hi there! It’s Rachel Pater, Director of the Richmond Story House. I want to share a few ideas with you about how you might get a kid (reluctant writer or otherwise) to increase their interest sharing through writing stories. But first, because I can’t help myself, a story.
When I was in 8th grade, I had an English teacher named Ms. Herrema. Every day, Ms. Herrema, dressed in a conservative but form-fitting skirt and a rotating line of pastel sweaters, would get out her yardstick ruler. She wasn’t headed toward an ill-behaved student (this was the 90s, past the days of corporal punishment), but rather, toward the chalkboard - the ruler ensuring her long diagonal line would be straight, before she added a shorter, vertical one bisecting it. She scanned the rows for a victim/student, some of us anxiously avoiding eye contact and some of us straight up in our chairs, eager to take the chalk baton and diagram whatever wily sentence she’d throw our way. We all knew the drill: subject to the left, verb to the right, and then any unnumbered amount of articles and adverbs, prepositions and predicate nominatives, and damn if those questions that inverted the sentence structure didn’t throw us for a loop.
The way Ms. Herrema taught motivated me. She was tough. Shoddy work meant you missed recess. Missing a phrase in weekly poem recitation meant you did it again in front of the class. Somehow, this draconian class structure made me love words - to think of them as both a formula to be solved and as a mode of self-expression. Math and art at the same time. Ms. Herrema made me want to write - to be both creative and precise with my language. She was no small part of my decision to study to be an English teacher myself. She is the reason why, when I use gratuitous exclamation marks (she said we only were allowed three in our lifetime, and to choose wisely), I feel a tinge of guilt. She is definitely the reason I still diagram sentences in my head.
Early on as a teacher, I realized that not everyone is motivated to write in the same way, especially not by old school diagramming. Moreso, I learned that many people are intimidated by writing, and I needed to offer lots of inroads to this process - to demystify it, to make it seem accessible, and to make each participant in one of my classes or workshops feel like they had what it takes to share stories, because, as I say in any personal narrative workshop I teach: the only experience you need is life experience. And as I’ve taught over the years - in private schools, and schools for kids who’ve dropped out of public schools, and now, through the Richmond Story House at a variety of places around our city including nursing homes and prisons, I’ve added tools and exercises to help both over eager and anxious writers engage in the process of storytelling.
So, maybe you have a reluctant writer or maybe you have one like I was, ready to write at the drop of a hat. Either way, here are some ideas and prompts for you/your family to approach the art of sharing and writing stories:
1. Follow the prompts/audio recording instructions from StoryCorps:
2. Take a few of the prompts from Storycorps (or from any number of memoir-writing prompt websites you can find online) and have your child respond in a comic strip. An example is below and many other templates are easy to find online.
3. Try the following activity called “Hairvolution.”
Note: many of these work best as mutual activities - if you have the time and capacity, try doing these alongside your kids.
Rachel Pater is a trained English and Speech teacher and had been teaching at the high school and college level for the last decade before moving to Richmond. She did her undergraduate work in Michigan and received a Masters in Social Change from the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado. She and her wife moved to Richmond in 2017, and have found Richmond an exciting place to put down roots. She is lucky to run multiple weekly workshops around Richmond. Her favorite part about facilitating these workshops is the way telling stories helps break down stereotypes and how participants get to know themselves and their classmates through this art.