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Teaching and Learning

Home  >  Teaching and Learning  >  Writing Workbooks  >  Elementary School
Writing Myths
By Cary Birdsall Page 1 of 2   Next ยป

  • to familiarize my students with Raven myths, and to differentiate between creation and trickster myths.
  • to provide experience reading such myths
  • to expose my students to a storyteller
  • to provide the opportunity to become story tellers
  • to integrate mask making and writing into the experience
  • to create a situation in which the playing field was level for students with and without reading disabilities.


Cary Birdsall

Kicking Off the Unit
To initiate the experience, I invited Grete Perkins, a local storyteller, to visit the classroom. Her work inspired interest in my students and reinforced the notion that story telling was more than a teacher creation. She told a few stories from her repertoire, and also spoke of the historical and cultural importance of story and the storyteller.

A number of collections of Native Alaskan stories are useful for this exercise. These include:

  • In the Shadows of Mountains, collected and edited by John E. Smelcer.
  • The Raven and the Totem, collected and edited by John E. Smelcer.
  • Alaska Native Writers, Storytellers and Orators: The Expanded Edition, edited by Ronald Spatz, Jeane Breinig, and Patricia H. Parnow.


Story Telling
The students each learned two stories. The first was learned by all, and introduced by Ms. Perkins. This was a successful strategy because in the process of learning it, we heard the story many times, reinforcing each other. It was in the process of learning this story that students first practiced various techniques used by Perkins, such as voice characterizations and inflections, body movement, hand movement, facial expressions and eye contact. Oral presentations are an ongoing practice in our classes, so skills such as being loud and clear were new to only a few students.

For their second story, I chose a variety of options, so that there were small groups of students learning stories. This allowed for variety as well as reinforcement.

The culminating activity for story telling was for groups of students to perform their stories for other classes in the building. This proved to be a powerful experience for all concerned.

Mask Making
Once students had begun working on their second stories, we began making masks, which students would later use to illustrate their stories. They were allowed to choose any character from their story. Part of my criteria in choosing the second stories was to find stories in which Raven interacted with other animals, so that there would be a variety of masks.

This method of mask making was introduced to us by Ernesto Sanchez, who came to us from California, by way of the Alaska Council for the Arts. The base for each mask was a glue – paper laminate. For each mask we used the following procedure:

  • Paint a piece of 8" x 14" paper with a water-white glue mixture.
  • Place another piece of paper over the first and smooth it down.
  • While the paper is still wet, mold it to a student's face, using masking tape to shape the forehead and chin.
  • Be sure to form the paper around the eyes and nose.
  • Before removing the mask, mark the eyes in pencil with the student's assistance.
  • Be sure to write the names of the students on their masks.
  • When dry, these "bases" can be built out with newspaper, cardboard and tape, covered with two layers of papier-mâché, and painted.

In the process of practicing their stories and listening to each other's stories, my students learned two stories and heard 12 others. This provided an excellent pre-write for the last phase of the project, which was for the students to compose and illustrate stories of their own. My criteria were that theirs be creator or trickster stories, using Alaskan animals of their choice. Examples of these stories and their accompanying artwork are included here.

Evaluating: View the Scoring Guide for this Exercise.
Ideally, a scoring guide should be written collaboratively with the students before they write their stories. Everyone should have a common understanding of what is meant by each portion of it. In my class, a "3" corresponds to a "B", or "Proficient." It is the first line constructed, and includes the things I expect most students to be able to achieve, based on my instruction and class discussion. "Four" indicates the extra mile an "A", or exemplary work, will require. The "2" line indicates what can be missing or incorrect and still attain a passing grade, even though the work would be considered substandard. The "1" line is for students who made an attempt, but not an acceptable one.

Students are rated, and sometimes rate themselves, on each category. In other words, a student could get a "4" for "Plot", but a "2" for "Writing Conventions". I sometimes weight the categories differently, again, based on a common understanding with the students before the paper is written. The grade for the paper is an average of the scores from all the categories.

The beauty of this system is that it takes most of the mystery out of grading, because students know what is expected ahead of time. Teachers can grade quickly and consistently.

This was the maiden voyage of the unit for me. I would have liked to have the students learn their own stories as well, but I felt that many of them had had enough of memorizing for a while. The most desirable direction for this to go next is into personal writing and story telling. I want our children to see the importance of story, not only in traditional cultures, but in their own culture as well. What stories are passed down within their own families? What stories do they have to tell from their own experiences? I have found that nine to twelve year olds are more often drawn to stories about good vs. evil, fantasy and blood. Perhaps in the process of a unit such as this, children will come to see and appreciate the stories of their own lives.

More » Read Student Examples:

About the Author: Cary Birdsall is a teacher at Talkeetna Elementary School.
Next page:   Writing Myths - Scoring Guide Pages:  1 2 

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