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Amassing writing skills requires patience; it’s layer by layer, rolling forward until you arrive as a more whole, well-rounded writer.
It’s a basic tenet all great teachers live by, and it’s a well-suited analogy for Spring Creek’s excellent 5th-grade teacher, Jessica Kempter. During our visit, Kempter started building skills toward curriculum mastery through “snowball writing,” a collaborative and inclusive writing activity from which all students can practice and grow. And, for parents looking to build foundational writing skills at home in fun, interactive ways, stick around– we’ve got a five-step process for you.
So, what is snowball writing?
Snowball writing is a group activity where students create a story together, taking turns adding sentences or sections. For a fifth-grade class, it’s a great way to improve their writing skills. Using a visual prompt like a video or picture, Students free-write a narrative for ten minutes, establishing characters, a setting, and a conflict. At the end of the ten minutes, students ball up their paper (into a snowball) and fling it towards the front of the classroom. From there, students retrieve a new snowball, uncrumple and read their peer’s stories, and write from the middle of their unique story. Their goal is to match tone and drive stakes, leaving space for an ending. From there, students rinse and repeat, collecting their final snowball, thus writing a conclusion for a third story.
It’s an inclusive and collaborative practice that teaches students to describe settings and space using sensory detail, create characters, sequence events, develop a plot, and recognize tone. It also teaches students how to structure a story with a clear beginning, middle, and end.
Kempter proved a seasoned teacher, reviewing instructions, the learning target, and an “I Can” statement before the practice. For unfamiliar learners, Learning targets and “I Can” statements are concise, student-friendly goals that articulate what students can expect to learn or accomplish within a lesson or unit– and they’re proven to build deep learning. She prepared a station with language aids (iPads with translation tools) for multilingual students beforehand and visited said students throughout the writing activity.
Students received their visual prompt: a stone golem sitting beside a child in a silk tunic near a lush waterfall. It’s captivating, take a look:
Students whispered for a moment, transfixed with the image.
“I’ve got the whole story in my head already,” one boy whispered.
“Don’t write the whole story,” Kempter reminded him, “Just develop the beginning section!”
Kempter continued prompting students and answering questions, writing some commonly requested words on the board as a spelling aid—words like golem, waterfall, and journey.
Students closed their introductions, and Kempter led students by section to throw their snowballs—a good classroom management technique if you’re trying this out with your class.
Students then had ten seconds to grab a new story. After receiving their story, Kempter helped divvy out stories written in partially different languages to their multilingual peers. She continued prompting; What season is it? Why are the two characters speaking? What is the conflict?
Students continued before tossing their snowballs again, writing a conclusion, and closing the activity.
Their stories are incredibly charming. Here are two sample stories from six students (with a few edits from our department):
Once upon a time, there was a beautiful waterfall in a pretty forest where a kind beast lived who loved to make friends—especially humans. One day, a little girl got lost in the forest. Her name was Lilly, and the beast’s name was Golem.
But the thing was that Golem never had visitors, so in the beginning, when the Golem saw Lilly, he was surprised.
“Someone finally visited me! It’s nice to meet you. What’s your name?”
The giant had so many questions for Lilly, and his voice echoed far.
(The student ran out of time, which is okay! All writers can relate! We adored this story.)
One day, a boy named Layn was going through the forest. Then he saw a big rock statue. He climbed the statue until it started moving, and he got very scared. But the statue talked and said, “Hello, what is your name?”
“I’m Layn. What is your name?”
“I am Hunter,” said the giant.
“What are you?”
“I am a rock giant. We don’t want to get caught, so we act like statues.”
They talked for hours. Then it was night.
“We should get to bed,” the giant said.
They both went to bed.
But the next morning, there were men with weapons. They stood still. When the men weren’t looking, they attacked them. They ran for hours and hours and slept at night. Then, they found a home: a cave behind a waterfall.
(Which is presumably what the visual prompt depicts– sort of a fun, roundabout way to return to the beginning, with their prompt.)
As you can tell, the kids had a blast. And, as a teacher, it’s a valuable way of gauging specific skills in your students; some students wrote interesting characterizations yet struggled with mechanics here or there, while others understood mechanics but had issue sequencing their stories. Overall, each student had a genuine writing experience, one of many during their time at Provo City School District.
We thank Jessica Kempter for allowing us to visit; her classroom decor is adorable (watch our reel to see the Snoopy-themed deco), and we thank her for everything she does for her students. It’s clear that she cares deeply and does an excellent job.
If you’re a parent, please try it out! You can follow the five easy steps in this teacher’s article.
And for those interested, here are just a few standards Snowball Writing covers:
Reading: Literature Standard 7
Analyze how visual and multimedia elements contribute to the meaning, tone, or beauty of a text (e.g., graphic novel, multimedia presentation of fiction, folktale, myth, poem).
Writing Standard 3
Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective techniques, descriptive details, and clear event sequences.
a. Orient the reader by establishing a situation and introducing a narrator and characters; organize an event sequence that unfolds naturally.
b. Use narrative techniques, such as dialogue, description, and pacing, to develop experiences and events or show the responses of characters to situations.
c. Use a variety of transitional words, phrases, and clauses to manage the sequence of events.
d. Use concrete words and phrases and sensory details to convey experiences and events precisely.
e. Provide a conclusion that follows from the narrated experiences or events.