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Starting with Story Timelines: A Powerful Launch to the Year by Emily Strang-Campbell

One silver lining to this year – I’ve been forced to rethink some of my teaching methods in new ways, including how I kick off the year. In my past role as a staff developer, I’d often work with teachers and kids to create reading and writing timelines as we launched our workshops. I’d asked them to jot times when writing felt powerful in their lives and times when it felt hard along with the books that had been the most influential. This summer, as I was planning these lab site lessons, something didn’t feel quite right. I knew that kids would be coming into the classroom with such different experiences from this past year. Some kids might have become closer to their family in ways they could only dream of, while others might have lost family members and friends. Some kids might have filled pages and pages in their writing notebooks and read TONS of books, while others might not have filled or read a single page. The disparity felt huge.

Still, one firm goal I held as I approached my work in schools - no matter how many books a kid read or didn’t read in the past 14 months, no matter how many pages they wrote or how many notebooks remained blank, I didn’t want a single kid to feel like they were coming from a place of deficiency. I wanted them all to feel like they were coming from a place of power as we started the year. It dawned on me that MANY kids might be entering the classroom not feeling like readers and writers YET. They might not have found the joy of reading and writing YET. But, I didn’t know a single kid that didn’t love stories RIGHT NOW.

This also meant cracking open the idea that many of the stories kids love don't always start with books. Their spark might start with movies, Disney Plus and Netflix series, video games (which often have very sophisticated story lines), TV shows, photographs, pictures and even oral family stories. So this year when we launched our opening days, instead of asking kids to create reading and writing timelines, I asked them to create story timelines. After I modeled making my own story timeline (all the way from my early childhood to present day), I encouraged them to think about the stories that had a big impact on their lives or ones that they simply loved. The energy in the virtual class exploded as kids quickly wrote and shared in breakout rooms their most treasured TV shows, video games, Disney movies, and even beloved books!

It was also a perfect opportunity for me (and the other teachers in the lab) to get to know the kids AND for the kids to get to know each other. Listening to people talk about their favorite stories is a great way to get to know who they truly are, and also the kinds of readers and writers they can become. By listening into these story timeline conversations, teachers gathered tons of information about the kids. For example, if a student was obsessed with the series Cobra Kai, they guided her to parts of the library that had competitive sports stories by authors like Kwame Alexander, Jason Reynolds and Victoria Jamieson. If a kid’s most cherished story from their timeline was the movie Moana, teachers encouraged them to look for titles about strong teens questioning their identities like The First Rule of Punk or Fast Pitch. Talking about their story timelines could also serve as a springboard for kids to notice the kinds of stories they were ready to write about. If a kid jotted lots of stories about families, they could write stories about family pressures, sibling rivalry or parent issues. If they had a ton of fantasy on their timeline, they could start writing fantasy stories in their notebooks.

My hope is that the story timelines are an inspirational way to get kids excited about the stories in their lives, which hopefully will lead them to the kinds of books and writing topics they will love. They can serve as a motivational and accessible tool that help shape powerful reading and writing lives, no matter how many books a kid read or didn’t read this year. Most importantly, story timelines can be a window into a child’s full identity and a way for teachers to get to know the kids in their classroom first as people and then as students. This silver lining realization, one that came out of surviving a tough year, reminded me that life-long readers and writers usually begin their journeys with a genuine love of stories.

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