This post is part of a series about helping students with LBLD experience academic success.
by Erin Broudo
Each October, I assign my students a writing challenge in the form of a scary story contest. Returning students love this unit and talk it up to our new students each fall – creating this hype is a big part of my strategy to improve student buy-in! Over a two-week period, I give the students opportunities to brainstorm, draft, and work on improving their stories in a unit that I fill with writing prompts, activities, and exercises intended to target specific skills, such as writing a grabbing opener, creating a sense of setting or character, and writing dialogue. Since my students already love this unit and are willing to produce more in terms of quantity than they might otherwise, I decided to start here in my attempts to help them learn and practice strategies that they could apply to more on-demand writing prompts. My goal was to use this unit to work on introducing and practicing more complex sentence structures and to teach my students how to use more descriptive and sophisticated language in their writing.
Play Creative Writing Games: To begin our scary story contest, I always give students a chance to brainstorm. This year, I started with a little creative writing game that my students enjoy and that I use to review literary elements, such as setting, protagonist and antagonist, plot, conflict, and climax. For this particular version, each student writes down a “spooky setting” on an index card, then turn them all in to me. Then they write a possible antagonist in a scary story on a different index card, which turns into a second pile. Finally, they write a possible climax in a scary story on a third index card. I shuffle the cards, each student picks one from each pile, and they craft their own stories using those three elements. The students always have fun with this writing challenge! I usually give them about 10-15 minutes to write and tell them that their story doesn’t have to be long and spelling doesn’t count – they should just try to include all three elements.
Use Short Stories as Models: After playing this game (which produces some pretty hilarious stories!), we talk about some of the settings that they used in their stories and brainstorm other possible scary settings. Then, we usually read a few horror stories together. I love to read Edgar Allan Poe’s stories aloud, particularly “The Tell-Tale Heart“ and “The Cask of Amontillado,” which I find students enjoy despite the challenging vocabulary as long as it’s read quickly and with the right suspenseful tone. I also include just the right amount of pauses for comprehension checks and “think alouds” to ensure students are understanding the plot and conflict. I also enjoy reading R.L. Stine’s short story “I’m Not Martin,” which helps to solidify the point that a story doesn’t have to include violence or gore to be scary and suspenseful.
Practice and review: After a general brainstorm of possible scary settings (a few of my favorites were a hospital – an inevitable choice after reading “I’m Not Martin” – and an abandoned amusement park), I then do some practice with sensory details. The students each choose one setting and come up with what you might see, hear, smell, taste, and feel in that setting. We discuss the importance of balancing vivid description (or imagery) with figurative language, and I challenged students to come up with a few similes and metaphors to describe their settings. All of these skills are broken down further: students practice each skill in isolation, write sensory details and metaphors to describe their settings, and then incorporate this kind of writing later while working on their stories.
Start with a Warm-up: This year, to begin my goal of helping students produce more sophisticated sentence structures and learn to “play around” with language in a different way, I paired the unit with the review and activities related to different sentences types that I described in the first installment of this blog. I also gave students warm-up activities related to their scary stories, using sentence starters to prompt them to use different types of sentences, as well as more complex conjunctions and introductory phrases. This is a strategy that I learned from the writing workshop I attended at the International Dyslexia Association conference given by Judith Hoffman (mentioned in my first blog), so I’ll give her the credit here! The idea is that you provide students with sentence starters using transition words, conjunctions, or introductory phrases that they might not ordinarily choose themselves. This allows some discussion and reflection about the function of these words. For example, students are given the sentence “Rachel heard a spooky sound” and then, on three separate lines, they are asked to turn the above sentence into a compound sentence using the conjunctions “and,” “but,” and “so.” Students must think about the function of each of those conjunctions in order to figure out what might come next in the sentence, and they gain practice in using conjunctions other than the most common “and.”
Throughout the two weeks of my scary story unit this year, I started each ELA class with a different type of writing warm-up. For one activity, students experimented with writing attention-grabbing story “hooks”; in another, they worked on developing more well-rounded characters by answering creative questions about their protagonists. We looked at the rules for writing dialogue and practiced writing scenes made up of only dialogue. After each workshop activity, students were asked to go back and add to their story, using the skills they had just practiced. At several check-points, I had students read through what they had written so far and edit using specific checklists I’d created for the skills we had worked on (sensory details, dialogue, hook, figurative language etc.) to give them opportunities to add and shape their story.
Implement Productive Peer Feedback: I also had students pair up and read through their stories with each other, writing down questions rather than specific comments or feedback to help their partner continue their story. I’ll fully admit that this is a strategy I stole from my own son’s fourth grade teacher! I have always struggled with peer editing – I love the idea and spirit of collaboration behind it, but I find that students often read each other’s stories and make a few (at times inaccurate) grammar corrections and don’t really give much substantive feedback. One of my very favorite peer editing stories involves a student at my previous school who bemoaned the “feedback” she’d received from her peer editor. The one and only mark he’d made on her three-page story was to change the word “naked” to “butt-naked.” This anecdote made me laugh, but it also clearly demonstrated what often happens when students are asked to peer edit without clear parameters and support! With my directions to only ask questions, my students ended up with comments like “Why is the character in the woods?” or “What does the house look like?” rather than “I didn’t understand …” or “I think you should explain …” or the addition of a few commas and capital letters.
Write a Story! In the end, all students ended up writing a story that was at least two pages long – a major accomplishment for some of my students! One of them even worked on her story at home and produced ten full pages! The culminating activity in the unit takes place on Halloween, the final deadline for their stories. That day, we take a class period and sit in a circle with the lights down. I bring in a flashlight to make it more fun, conjuring the spirit of sleepovers past, and the reader can either shine the flashlight on their story or on their face to create a spooky effect. I encourage students to read their own story, but I offer to read anyone’s story who isn’t comfortable reading aloud. At the end, students are asked to vote on “Scariest Story”, “Funniest Story”, and “Best Overall Story.” I can honestly say I was thrilled with the stories my students composed this year. One particular eighth grade student, who would rarely write more than a paragraph when she first came to me in sixth grade, included wonderful description and figurative language, and she was very proud to win “Scariest Story.” My task now is to remind my students to use these strategies when we practice on-demand writing (with less or no opportunity to add and revise) as we approach MCAS season in the spring. To that end, I decided to next tackle a type of writing that is often difficult for my students: writing a story from a given point of view. This assignment will be the topic of part 3 of this blog series on creating positive student outcomes in middle school special education.
Erin Broudo currently teaches in a language-based program for grades 6-8 in the Wachusett Regional School District based in Holden, MA. Prior to this position, she worked as a special education coordinator at Masconomet Regional High School in Topsfield, MA. Erin began her teaching career at Landmark High School, where she taught literature and grammar & composition courses in the preparatory program, as well as one-on-one language arts tutorials, for seven years. She has been teaching online courses for Landmark Outreach since she left Landmark and continues to participate in Outreach seminars, as well as other professional development opportunities related to dyslexia and language-based instruction.
The directions for Erin’s scary story assignmentDownload
The rubric for Erin’s scary story assigmentDownload
An exercise to help students learn to edit creative writingDownload
Check out these additional writing articles, web sites, and Free Landmark Teaching Strategies that can be found on our web site.View Resources