Show, don't tell!
April 19, 2011 6:43 PM   Subscribe

Tutoring two 2nd-grade students in writing more creatively. I'm a creative writing grad student, so no sweat right? Wrong. Their first language isn't English.

I currently tutor writing on the side to graduate international students. It's a great way for me to supplement my own puny grad student paycheck. Most of the time, what they seem to want to learn to write more expressively and creatively.

One of my students referred her friend to me. This friend has been living temporarily in the US for almost a year, while her husband does visiting professor work at my university. Her children, who are 2nd graders, have been attending their local elementary school in the meantime. She wanted me to tutor her children in writing -- specifically, writing more creatively/expressively and learning how to write stories.

Last week was my first session with them. I *quickly* learned that teaching children to write is REALLY HARD. Especially when English is not their first language.

It's not that they have poor vocabulary. In fact, the girl sibling writes surprisingly well for a second grader who has only been in the US for less than a year. Seriously. She writes better than a lot of second graders, I'm thinking. In about 25 minutes, she wrote a 2 page story about Tinkerbell falling into a hole in a cave and her subsequent rescue.

The boy writes well too, just not as well as his sister. And he tends to forget/misuse articles (a/an/the). It's really difficult for me to explain why/how/when to use an article to him.

Another thing: I feel that one of the most important rules in writing, especially story writing, is "show, don't tell" but when I try to explain that to them, I'm not sure they understand what I'm trying to say.

That's my biggest problem. I don't know if they understand what I'm explaining. If I say, "do you understand?" or "does that make sense?" they just nod 'yes'. Which of course, every little kid does. (I did that a lot when I was little too.) I'm worried that since I'm used to teaching college students, my explanations might not be clear/simple enough for these 2nd graders. I have little brothers about the same age, but I don't really handle their education stuff, so I can't say I have a lot of experience in that area.

I'd like some suggestions on how to teach article usage/grammar to 2nd (ESL?) students and also some creative writing activities appropriate to their age/level. And are there ways I can make story writing seem more fun/exciting? The girl seems to enjoy it, but the boy directly told me that he dislikes it. I asked him why and he said "Because you have to think and write." I have a bunch of small circus figurines on my desk (I tutor them in my cubicle), and so I had him pick out individual figurines and craft a story around them, which he seemed to enjoy. So, how can I continue this? (He's really into Star Wars, if that helps).

Also, just FYI, I tutor them separately, so I can address each of their needs separately. Each tutoring session is 40 minutes long. So, suggestions for creative writing activities that can be completed within that time period would be appreciated.

Sorry for the long post and thanks!
posted by joyeuxamelie to Education (10 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
If you can get hold of Don't Forget to Write, published by 826 Valencia, you will find it chock full of great writing activities.
posted by liketitanic at 6:48 PM on April 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm a second grade teacher and here are my suggestions:

1. The technical stuff will come in time, I would focus on the ideas and expressive language of the stories. I find with my ESL kids having them draw pictures (kind of like a storyboard) and talk the stories out. Then a bit at a time have them write sentences about the pictures and connect it all together.

2. Using a picture book and have them tell you the story from just the pictures.

3. Using index cards with words and having them come up with different sentences, using adjectives and verbs to make it more interesting.

4. A memory type of game using contractions (match can not with can't)

5. Using plastercine and have them create a scene and take a picture, use the pictures to create a story and write under each picture (I bet the boy will be really engaged!)

6. Creating a comic book, if you have access to the program comic life i recommend it.

ESL children learn quick, like I said the technical stuff will come with practice! Good luck.
posted by bluehermit at 6:52 PM on April 19, 2011 [4 favorites]

They make books which are exclusively pictures only. The school I work at has some of them. It might be good to get some of those where they have to come up with the ideas for their story on their own. Its like a picture book but better.
posted by fuzzysoft at 6:55 PM on April 19, 2011

You might try reading to them, or having them bring your stories that they like. Then you can talk about what those stories do that really works. You know-- Show them what you mean by "show don't tell" rather than telling them. ;-) I think second grade is not too young to be thinking about what goes into making a really good story, and while they're probably as creative as the day is long--kids usually are--they seem to just not know how to produce stuff in this context. If they aren't read to very much, or don't have much "formal" experience with stories, they don't have any models to use. Just a thought.

When you're talking to them, remember to be silent and let them talk as much as you can. Ask them questions and then wait-wait-wait, literally count to three in your head. When they respond, count to three in your head again before you talk. This is technically referred to as "wait-time," and while it can be a little uncomfortable at first, it gives students space to think and respond. The silence will push them into talking. The more they talk, the more you will know about what they understand about creative writing.

Yup, teaching kids is way, way harder than it seems. Good luck!
posted by Made of Star Stuff at 8:16 PM on April 19, 2011

Does the boy you are tutoring have any Star Wars LEGO sets? What if you had him play/build for 10 minutes then describe, in writing, what he built, how different characters interacted with it/each other, etc.

I would approach the "show vs. tell" lessons in a lead by example way. Maybe you write a "tell" sentence, example: "There once was a spaceship" and contrast it with a "show" sentence, example: "There once was a gigantic, blue spaceship, big enough to hold noisy five-hundred wookies". Maybe you even have a bunch of pre-written sentences, some that simply tell and some that show and have them sort them into two piles.

Asking direct questions might also be a way to tease out more descriptive writing. Maybe start off a session with a fake "phone call" between you and your student. Ask the student to "call you" to tell you a story about some exciting (made up event). For example: "Tell me about the time you met Tinkerbell". I'd imagine the exercise would go something like this:

Student: One time, I met Tinkerbell
You: No way, what was she wearing?
Student: A yellow skirt.
You: Was it a long skirt or a short skirt? tell me more!

After a few minutes of teasing out details, the kids will have lots of ideas for a story about "The Time I Met Tinkerbell" (or whatever).

Also, remember - typical second grader is going to be able to think up great stories faster than they can write. Don't focus too much on "your biggest problem": "I don't know if they understand what I'm explaining." - if Mom really wants them to be more creative and expressive in their writing, help them make the connection between being creative (imaginative play, dress-up, pretending, etc.) and putting that creativity into their writing. Eventually, writing will be a fun creative outlet for them.

All of the elementary age kids I've worked one-on-one with really responded well to me identifying their interests and then customizing curriculum for them (pretty simple at 2nd grade - sounds like Tinkerbell and Star Wars are a good place to start). Come up with writing prompts that focus on some of their interests.

Keep up the good work!
posted by leastlikelycowgirl at 9:29 PM on April 19, 2011

What bluehermit said. The big picture here is that you're trying to instill a love of writing and expression, and you don't want to get bogged down on the details. In particular, definite and indefinite articles in English are hard to teach at any level because many languages don't even have them. (I teach English to Korean adults, and the article unit is always something I dread. It's a completely alien concept to Koreans.)

Using pictures is great, and also make sure you get the parents to read their stories and/or post them on the wall or the fridge so the kids feel a sense of accomplishment over their work.

And to pick a nit:

"Another thing: I feel that one of the most important rules in writing, especially story writing, is 'show, don't tell' but when I try to explain that to them, I'm not sure they understand what I'm trying to say."

This is 10,000 times more meta than you should be with young kids acquiring a second language. You'll never be able to explain the concept to them directly. What you need to do is show them examples. Take one of their best stories, then one of their weaker ones -- tell them why the good story made you so excited and the other one didn't work as well. Be very specific and above all very concrete. Second graders are not ones for abstractions.
posted by bardic at 11:01 PM on April 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

ESL teacher in Korea here working with 1st-6th graders on a daily basis :)

Right now, the best thing you can do is get them excited about writing. Play up the great work, encourage the less-than-great work, and accept that they're at different levels. There's only two of them, which makes giving them individual attention a WHOLE lot easier...

For vocabulary games, I play a game like this in class. Set a stopwatch / timer for three minutes, hand them paper and pencil, and give them a category related to something in their reading. For example, today was a story about planting and growing, so the contest was 'who can write things that we plant?'. Within three minutes you'll have answers like flowers, peas, corn - and proof of their growing vocabulary.

For pure writing at this age, focus on ideas - perfect grammar comes with time. Try to take them step-by-step through the logic if need be - OK, so the princess climbed the stairs, what happens next?
posted by chrisinseoul at 2:26 AM on April 20, 2011

Thanks for all of the great suggestions! I'm already planning out how I will use some of them in this weeks tutoring session. I talked to the friend who referred me and she told me that the kids liked me a lot! I was so happy :)

It's funny that a bunch of you mentioned teaching Koreans; these kids are Korean too.
posted by joyeuxamelie at 7:21 PM on April 20, 2011

posted by bardic at 6:45 AM on April 22, 2011

Thanks, bardic! ^__^v
posted by joyeuxamelie at 7:23 AM on April 22, 2011

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