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Re-imagining Fairy Tales

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A recent thread on a parenting forum about whether or not we should be reading Cinderella to our children reminded me of this activity I used to enjoy doing with my students. I’ve always loved the dark side of fairy tales – the side that doesn’t get into Disney films! If you haven’t read it, you should really get a copy of Angela Carter’s ‘The Bloody Chamber’. With advanced students I have read and discussed her version of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’, which she calls ‘The Werewolf’ before doing the second half of this writing task. It is a very short story (2 pages) but is very dense and quite difficult for all but good advanced learners. Even though this activity is about fairy tales it is not necessarily a task for young learners, although you could use it with them without the reading and rather than re-writing the stories for adults you could just re-write them set in modern times. As the lesson is described here though, it should be a writing activity that teenagers and adults enjoy. It is a good activity on editing and re-drafting, and would be a nice, interesting follow-up to my lesson plan on ‘Getting some flow’.

Aim: For students to write two versions of different fairy tales, one for children and one for adults.

Level: B2 + (although particularly successful with C1 if you use the reading too)

Task:

1. Ask students if they read fairy tales when they were growing up, or watched movies about them. Brainstorm some different names of fairy tales and write the names on the board (often the names translated differently into English so sometimes you need to do a bit of detective work to work out which story they mean!). Some of the stories might be from your students cultures and unfamiliar to you.

2. Ask your class if they know the phrases that we normally use to begin and end fairy tales in English and teach the phrases ‘Once upon a time….’ and ‘Everyone lived happily ever after…’

3. Put the students into pairs or small groups and ask them to brainstorm some different vocabulary that commonly comes up in fairy tales for a couple of minutes then write the vocab they think of on the board. You will probably have words such as: Prince, princess, step-mother, fairy godmother, dwarf, castle, etc… Again, you might need to help with some of the translations as they can sometimes be different in different languages.

4. Ask the students to each choose their favourite fairy tale, or at least one they remember well. It doesn’t matter if it is not a really famous one, it might be one from their own culture.

5. Tell the students to imagine they are going to tell this story to a young child. They should write the story as simply and clearly as they can using simple vocabulary and short sentences.

6. OPTIONAL: This is the point when I would do the reading activity if you wanted to. First, I would give them a traditional version of Little Red Riding Hood, written for children, to read, such as this one. Then I would ask them to read Angela Carter’s ‘The Werewolf’. Students can compare and contrast: Which aspects are the same in both stories? Which parts of the story are different? How is the language different? How is the atmosphere created different (and how is this done)?

7. Put the students into pairs. Try and pair them up with someone who has written about a different fairy tale if possible. Ask them to swap stories. It shouldn’t matter if they don’t know the story their partner has written about as there should hopefully be enough information in the story.

8. Tell them they are going to re-write their partner’s story, but write it for adults. Discuss what changes they could make, i.e changing the ending (i.e do people really live happily ever after?), changing the time setting (making it modern?), bringing out the darker elements of the story (the death, dark magic, etc).

9. Give students time to re-write the stories. You might want to set this for homework to give them time to think about it and write.

10. When the students have written their new stories they should swap back with their partner to read the new versions and then they can discuss which versions they like best, how they have changed it, etc. It’s a nice idea to publish the stories on a class blog or wiki if you have one.

This lesson is based on and inspired by ‘Writing: Creative Writing’ from One Stop English.

Very Short Stories

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“For sale: Baby shoes, Never worn.” Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway allegedly wrote the six-word story above in order to win a bet. Some say it is his best ever work.

After my last post on writing haikus I started to think about other short forms of creative writing to use in class. I haven’t written a lesson plan here, but rather some thoughts and ideas about some very short pieces of fiction that you could use for ELT.

Writing often gets pushed to one side as a class activity or set for homework but I believe by using short forms both teachers and students will enjoy writing in class without feeling like they have to sit in silence scribbling away for long stretches of time (collaborative writing is also a great way of avoiding this). Short forms also lend themselves to studying really carefully how words are used and are also good for students that find writing a bit daunting. I have listed a few different types with ideas here, from the shortest getting (a little!) longer. Despite them not requiring students to write a lot, most of them would be better for students that already have enough grasp of English and knowledge of vocabulary to be able to express themselves in different ways and control their writing.

6 Word Memoir

US online magazine Smith was inspired by Hemingway’s story and asked its readers to tell their life story in just six words. Here are some of my favourite examples:

‘Not quite what I was planning.’

‘Educated too little. Learned too much.’

‘Awkward moments make the best memories.’

‘I made everything up, except you.’

‘Got away with more than expected.’

You can find lots more on Smith’s six words site, and could even get your students to submit their own.

There are lots of circumstances where you could use these in the class. A great ‘getting to know you’ activity for more advanced students would be to get students to write a six-word memoir to introduce themselves and then ask them to mingle and discuss each other’s. I could also see it working well as a ‘getting to know you’ with business students, ask them to write a six-word memoir about their business philosophy, career, etc.

You could also use them as a Monday morning warmer, ask the students to write a six word story about their weekend, then write them all up on the board and see if they can guess who wrote which one.

Twitter Fiction

The ultimate modern short form must be twitter. The restraints of 140 characters or less doesn’t initially seem to lend itself to great works of fiction, however,  the Guardian newspaper in the UK has a series on ‘twitter fiction’ where they ask famous writers to come up with a story within the constraints of a tweet. Here are a couple of examples, you could even use them as a reading task:

‘Mother love is strong enough to lift a car. I’d heard that. But when my girl was hit by a Mercedes, I heaved, screaming. Nothing moved.’ – Esther Freud

‘Life is always flashing before your eyes. Look down. Children playing, trees and traffic, your shadow running over the ground to meet you.’ – Mark Haddon

‘Darkness. I woke, felt the familiar weight in the bed, the breathing, the hand on my skin. “Oh, Paul,” I said. “Who’s Paul?” said the voice.’ – Nicci French

I like the idea of giving students a story prompt (a picture, opening line, title, etc) and asking students to brainstorm some ideas for a story. Only after they had come up with some ideas would I tell them they needed to write the story in a tweet (140 characters or less). It is a great way to practice editing and reformulating ideas. You basically have to condense the idea of a story into one image or idea, which is easier said than done! Students can tweet their stories to @twitterfiction.

Classics as Tweets

Staying on the twitter theme, there is also a tongue in cheek movement of reducing great works of fiction to a single tweet. For example:

Woman meets man called Darcy who seems horrible. He turns out to be nice really. They get together. – Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Upper-class woman gets it on with gamekeeper. – Lady Chatterley’s Lover by DH Lawrence

Orphan given £££ by secret follower. He thinks it’s @misshavisham but it turns out to be @magwitch – Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

You could ask the students to try this activity as a follow-up to reading a graded reader, or even write them about each other’s stories by swapping round longer stories that they have written and converting them to tweets. It feeds in nicely to the ideas of ‘getting the main idea’ that are so beloved of reading tests! If your students come up with any for famous books you could get them to tweet them with the hashtag #twitternovels.

Microfiction (100 word stories)

Microfiction (sometimes known as flash fiction, short short stories, sudden fiction, postcard stories, etc) comes in many guises and forms. There are story competitions for microfiction with word limits from 100 to 1000 words. In class I like to stick with the 100 word rule, and to enforce this as exactly 100 words (not 99 or 101!). I have used this task several times with EAP students because I think it is a really good way of getting them to focus on editing skills. At University there are often very strict word limits and I know, for me, I found writing within these limits meant I had to become really ruthless at cutting words or reformulating ideas to be more economical with the language. It is also useful for students who will be taking exams where there are word limits (IELTS for example). Often students have no real idea of what 100 words look like, so they find it hard to imagine 200 words, 300 words, etc. If you give them practice at writing exactly 100 words and they are familiar with this it is easy for them to imagine it doubled, etc. If you ask them to write it by hand (if the test is hand-written) then it is even better as they can see how much space 100 words takes up in their own handwriting.

There are several sites with examples of 100 word stories, and Reader’s Digest magazine even has a competition you could encourage your students to enter (there are also some great examples of 100 word stories on that site). Again, I would just use a story prompt such as a photo, object, first line, etc to give them the stimulus. You don’t have to use fiction either, you could get them to write exactly 100 words on any topic, and could choose a subject related to their area of study for EAP students (although fiction is more fun!)

 

I hope this post has inspired you to try writing some very short stories with your class. If you do, let me know how it goes, and if you have any other ideas about short form writing I would love to hear about them too.

Chain Story Activity

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(Photo taken from http://flickr.com/eltpics by @sandymillin, used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial license, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/3.0/)

This activity was inspired by a great blog post by Rachael Roberts on ELT Resourceful on Collaborative writing activities. In the post Rachael mentions circle writing (or chain writing) activities and states she is “not actually very keen on this activity. It can have some amusing outcomes, but I wonder what exactly the students are learning, as the process rarely produces a coherent or cohesive outcome.” I also had the same issue with chain stories, it was hard to see the point to them! However, the students did seem to enjoy them, and it got even the most reluctant writers getting something down on paper. So I decided to try and find a way to make them work for me, and this is what I came up with. It is a simple solution but it has always worked well for me.

Aim: The class will collaborate on several stories and then edit and redraft to come up with (hopefully) coherent (although probably at times bizarre) stories. I like to use a guided chain story with prompts which can be found in many photocopiable resource books (the Reward series have a couple), or you can make up your own with the class.

Level: A2+

Task:

1. Carry out the chain story (I always remind the students to write clearly because another student is going to have to read their sentences afterwards). Set a time limit for students to complete the question before saying change and asking the students to fold the paper over and pass it to the person on their right. Monitor as they do the activity to check they have understood the questions and their sentences are answering them.

2. Once the last question has been answered ask the students to pass the paper one more time to the right. Tell the class that the paper they are now holding is their story and they are responsible for it.

3. Ask them to unfold the paper and read the story. If there is anything they don’t understand encourage them to find the person who wrote it and ask them to explain.

4. Now explain that they are going to redraft this story into a text. The text must be connected and logical. They can add information but they have to keep the facts of the story the same as they have on their paper. Ask them to try and make the story flow. Set them a time limit to complete the task.

5. When they have finished the stories it is nice if everyone has an opportunity to read them since they have all contriuted to them. If you have a class webpage or wiki they could be uploaded there, or you could stick them up around the walls of the classroom and the students could go round and read them. You could even vote on which was the funniest, strangest, etc.

A (Creative) Writing Editing Checklist

Aim: I find it useful to give students a checklist before expecting them to edit their own work, or indeed to undertake peer correction. The following checklist is from a creative writing module I taught. It can be adapted for almost any level or any type of writing. It can also be personalised for individual students and added to over time so it reflects errors or problems that they make. Over time it will serve as a memory jogger for common problems.

Level: A2+ (when adapted)

Worksheet:

The first time you write something is only the beginning to get your ideas down. That is the fun part! After that, the hard work begins… Here we will look at three main areas: paragraphs, grammar and vocabulary.

Use this checklist to try and make your writing as accurate, clear and as interesting as possible. First make notes on your first draft and then write the piece out again.

Paragraphs

Have you used any paragraphs? Have you used them in the correct places?

There are three main places where you would start a new paragraph:

  1. When you change location or time.

For example:

…..After they finished dinner, Jane was shattered and so headed off to bed to get an early night. She was asleep before her head hit the pillow.

The next morning the sunlight through the thin curtains on the window woke her early….

2. When you change to a new idea.

For example:

…her eyes met his and she smiled, a spark of electricity passed between them. His brown eyes reminded her of her father.

She still missed her father even now, ten years after his death. She thought about him every day….

3. In dialogue (start a new line every time someone speaks)

For example:

“Hello?” she called “Is there anyone here?”

Her voice echoed in the darkness. Suddenly she heard heavy footsteps behind her. Before she had a chance to turn she heard a gruff male voice.

“Who are you and what do you want?”

*Remember, when you start a new paragraph you need to start a new line and indent.*

Grammar

Grammar is very important in making your ideas clear. You should know the errors that you often make and be checking for these. However, here are some common errors:

  1. Missing/too many verbs.

Does every clause have one main verb?

X He a big man.                                  X He has is long hair.

2. Using the correct tense.

Generally, when we write prose we use the past tense, but this could be past simple, continuous or perfect.  Also, when we write dialogue that could be in the present tense. You need to check your tenses agree after you finish writing.

3. Using the correct word form.

Sometimes you will be using the correct word but the form will be incorrect, for example nouns instead of verbs and adjectives instead of adverbs.

X She walked slow home.                   X He gave her lots of good inform.

4. Missing articles.

You need to be careful to include articles. Remember, normally the first time we mention something we use ‘a’ and then after ‘the’.

For example:

There was a young girl who lived in a forest. The girl was very beautiful.

5. Your own problems.

Do you have another grammar mistake you often make?

Write it here:

_____________________________________________________________________

Vocabulary

Your vocabulary is what makes your writing come alive and be interesting. Especially when creative writing – you need to use creative words!

  1. Repeating the nouns.

Try not to repeat nouns too much, use pronouns instead.

X  At six o’clock the man entered the bar. The man sat down and ordered a drink. The man drank quickly.

2. Repeating adjectives/adverbs.

Try not to repeat adjectives or adverbs either, it is boring! There are thousands of words in English, try and find some new ones. Check your writing to see if you are always using the same vocabulary to describe things.

3. Using boring adjectives/adverbs.

Boring words are words like nice, good, happy, sad, etc. Can you find a more interesting way to say this?

4. Use similes!

Similes are an excellent way to make your writing more exciting! Look at your writing and find a boring adjective. See if you can change it to a simile.

For example:

He had blue eyes.  =  His eyes were as blue as the ocean.

When you finish writing you should always go back and read your work and check you are happy with it. It is often a good idea to read it out loud as then you will read more slowly and carefully and are more likely to notice mistakes. Or give it to a friend to read and ask their opinion, they will notice things you may have missed and might be able to give you some suggestions.

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