There are millions of images on the internet, and sometimes we want to share a few of those with friends. I sent the two photos above of a rescued man with his kitten during Hurricane Florence (North Carolina) to my girlfriend, as I thought she would be as touched as I was. A third grade teacher, at a K-8 STEM School in Seattle, Ms Kathryn Show was so affected that she took the photos to school and showed them to her students, who seemed mesmerized by the images. So she asked them to write a story based on the photos and ended up with 24 great realistic fiction stories written by a bunch of eight year olds.
Realistic fiction, or fiction based on a true story, is a difficult concept for third graders to grasp, she said. Students often mix in elements of fantasy. The sequence of events is often out of order, and there are huge gaps in time. “In the past, stories might start out about one thing, but then fantastically the character would turn into something else, and sail around the world in 2 days, before falling in a hole in the middle of the earth,” she said.
“My students have so little experience with real tragedies and so much of entertainment that they are exposed to on a daily basis is filled with fantastical feats by superheros. ”
The students immediately empathized with the man’s plight, said Ms. Show. They kept asking questions about the man and the cat in the photo. Does the cat belong to the man? Whose boat are they in? Is a hurricane like tornado? Why is there water everywhere? They wanted to know if he made it to safety. And they were so worried about the fate of the kitten. “And all of sudden I got this idea,” she said.
She realized she had a true story represented by the photos. There was a real setting, real characters, and an actual event– the hurricane. What better way to foster their imagination into wondering what happened before the boat rescue and what might have happened afterward, said Ms. Show. “I think seeing a photo of two real participants in the storm, and having some background info about what a hurricane can do to a town, helped them stay “real” and not suddenly lurch into fantasy,” she added.
She and the students brainstormed as to where the man and his kitten might have been when the storm began, how they might have gotten stranded, and how long they waited in the flood waters before a boat rescued them. “I gave the man a name but not the cat. I thought out loud about how they might have been doing one thing or another as the storm struck their town,” she added, telling them to use their imaginations to come up with valid scenarios.
The two photos helped the students “stay on track” and prompted them to think in a logical way and to stay focused.
She asked her students to adhere to a simple outline, where there’s a beginning, and couple of steps before the end. “But the photos helped enormously with giving them a structure to follow,” she said.
“My students were amazing. They often “showed” rather than just telling the story. For example, here’s what one wrote: “Then they got to the second floor of their home and looked out the window. Garbage cans were flying through air. The winds were so hard shingols flew of off the roofs. A refridgerator flew out of someones home and against their door, they were locked in! After they climbed out of their window, and on their roof. Spots the kitten meee-awed aloud meaw over and over and over again. Finally, someone came to rescue them….Jo, the man, tucked Spots in his coat…
Another student wrote how, “They saw garbage cans flying like airplanes! They saw roofing of houses flying like black birds.” And went on to describe how Able (the man) “had…an apple and a bagle and cat food for Ningie (the cat’s name).
Some of them could only write a few sentences. One writer told how the man and cat got rescued, taken to a hotel, got in a taxi, and flew to Seattle where they bought a house and lived happily with no more sadness. Others were able to keep the man and cat in the same area and ended the story with them getting to a safe place. Another student ended the story by saying the owner put the kitten “in his jacket and they were happy.”
Students also illustrated the cover of their stories. “I thought their illustrations would have made any artist proud…they were imaginative and original,” said Ms. Show.
“It’s like herding cats to get 24 kids to write a story, including revising and editing within a 2-3 week time period. They only have enough stamina to write about 20-30 minutes a day, since they have to keep up with their other assignments. But all of them finished their stories,” she said.
Upon completion, they read their stories aloud to each other in groups of four. “They were so excited to read to each other, that I had to guide them in how to listen and respond to each other,” said Ms. Show.
Ms. Show also featured six stories each week, placing them in folders to be read during independent reading hour. The students eagerly read them often laughing out loud over the funny parts.
“The photos were so powerful that I think my students wanted to reach out and touch the man and his cat, and let them know that they also felt the anxiety he must have been feeling,” said Ms. Show.
Stories are often told through images. But more often than not, it’s only part of the story and we are left to wonder about the whole story. Leave it to a class of third graders, who had never written fiction that made sense, to use their imagination and came up with a complete story–a beginning, a middle, and in most cases, a happy ending.
The photos at the top of this blog post, were taken by Andrew Carter, a reporter for the North Carolina News & Observer.