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by Erin Armstrong
Erin Armstrong lives in Tucson, AZ and loves the unbearable heat that the desert offers. She is currently working on her M.F.A. in fiction at the University of Arizona and is trying to tackle the short story form. Her primary interest lies in the intersection of the genres, and the creation of hybrid pieces. She has read for Sonora Review, interned at Madden Media in the editorial department, and will be working with the magazine CutThroat next fall. She recently finished teaching at Keeling Elementary as a Teaching Artist and will be working for Summer Fine Arts this summer.
I don't think anyone will disagree that television, movies, and the Internet are entities that surround our students. I recently taught two fourth grade classes at Keeling Elementary, and one of my most successful lessons was allowing students to incorporate the characters that they have come to love, through these mediums, into their writing. I found that students weren't as exposed to reading books as I had expected, but television was something in their everyday life. While my ultimate goal was to promote reading and writing, I found that referencing a medium that students were familiar with helped me encourage the act of reading and writing. Students talked about this lesson plan for weeks, and I could often use this lesson as a reference in explaining other aspects of writing. This lesson gives students the chance to explore back-story, character development, description, and if they chose to mimic the literary model (the poem) they have a chance to explore rhyme.
We read the poem "Hook," by Paul Curtis, which is a poem that explores the question, What was Captain Hook called before he lost his hand.
I asked my students to come up with their own list of famous characters. The boards quickly filled with characters such as, Eeyore, Optimus Prime, Batman, Spiderman, Peter Pan etc. Many of the characters came from what the students had seen on television, a few characters were contrived from books certain students had read. The students then went on to create back-stories for whatever character they desired. I gave them several prompts to get them going, such as: What was the person called? What was their nickname? What did they like to do? What kind of place did they live in? Their poems were terrific! Who knew that Optimus Prime had so many brothers or sisters? Or that Spiderman loves pancakes and sausage? Since they already had a relationship established with many of these characters, students felt free to imagine unusual and creative ideas for them. It was a great stepping stool into creating characters they'd never seen or heard of before.
For this specific assignment I asked students to write poems; however, it could work equally well as a prose assignment. I found this lesson to be an excellent way to demonstrate back-story and prime the students' imaginations for future fiction lessons. (Download the complete lesson plan here).
Here are some student examples:
The Imaginary Spiderman
His name is Peter Parker
His friends are MJ and Harry Osborne
He eats pancakes and sausages
He lives in a huge house
His best friend is Harry
He wears blue and red
He goes on trips to Paris
He likes to save people
He likes to fight and web you up
He loves to eat chocolate milkshakes
Everyone else thinks he is a dork
He loves Vanilla Sundays with a cherry on top
--Adrise Elem 4th Grade
His name was baby ducky
He was born in New York
He liked to eat worms
He was short and brown and yellow
His friends was Mr. Goose
He liked to play video games
He went on a trip in California called the Jungle Place
He always walks down the street
He plays with toy blocks
He always watches America's Funniest Home Videos
He stares at a ball all the time
He talks to a snail
He likes to play Hide and Seek
He loves furry things
He was born in 1998
He drives his mom crazy
He chews on erasers
He likes math
He loves the twister game
He says "Hi" every time
He loves playing with Play-doh
--Araceli Dang 4th Grade
Was he happy?
His name was Ernie Oreland
Eeyore for short
He used to be red
He liked to be in the sunshine, but not so much anymore
He had no friends, but a fly that flew away one day
He liked to eat grass and not really anything else
He lived in acre woods and never left that sight
Along the way he met a girl Tvisha Pight
He liked to talk to trees and the sky
He had no adventures but one question still remains: Is Winnie the Pooh the one that ruined his life?
Or was Piglet?
I really can't tell.
No wait yes I can because Eeyore is allergic to honey
It makes him feel down and sometimes it spun him all around
His girlfriend left him and stayed at a motel
It is all because of Winnie the Pooh that Eeyore has a horrible life and he never smiles.
He just rolls up under his sticks crying that he's alone at 26
Now I feel bad for Eeyore he went up to the wrong bear who had yellow-paint hair
Now Eeyore is in the hospital tree
I feel so bad it wasn't meant to be
Oh wait did mention he went from red to black to blue?
--Brittney Cramer 4th Grade