Who Writes a Good Story? A Mini-Lesson on Story Elements

This post is part of a series written by Live It Learn It’s Experiential Learning Fellows. During their year-long fellowship with LILI, Fellows are planning their own experience-driven mini-units that include both classroom and field components. In these posts, Fellows will reflect on the experience of planning and leading a Live It Learn It-style unit of study.

In today’s post we’re hearing from Eleni Marsie-Hazen. Ms. Hazen is a Kindergarten teacher at LaSalle-Backus Education Campus in DC’s Ward 4.

Mini Lesson, complete with a Field Experience to DC’s very own literary group, 826DC.

Objective: Students will develop the tools they need to write a complete story by giving them creative freedom to write about his or her own interests without limitation, with an emphasis on character(s), setting(s), events, a problem and a solution.

TimeThe lesson can be taught over 5 school days, during a daily 30-minute whole group reading lesson and 30-minute writing lesson block. 


Age Group: Kindergarten, ages 5-6 years old

Teacher Planning:

  • Collecting Prior Knowledge
  • Building Background Knowledge
  • Applying Knowledge

The first step in any unit should be collecting prior knowledge by assessing formally or informally what the students already know about the subject matter. When collecting prior knowledge, chalk talks can be a helpful way to find out what students know. On the first day of introducing this unit, use a piece of chart paper to write the question, “What does a story need?” and allow students to think for themselves for about 30 seconds before doing a “turn and talk” to discuss with a partner. Depending on students’ writing ability at the time of year, one can either scribe what the students’ responses are or have students write on sticky notes. Explain to students that the information they just collected is what their new unit of study will be about – this allows them to feel successful and helps plan the next step of building background knowledge.

When building background knowledge, focus on exposing students to content-specific vocabulary they do not already possess. Using BrainPOP’s video resources, show students short clips about story elements: characters, setting, events, and problem/solution over the course of several days. The BrainPOP videos give students an idea of which story elements they will be learning about, but it is very important to show them examples of character, setting, and plot in real literature. This introduces the third step – applying their knowledge in whole group, small group, or individually.

Story Element #1: Character

On day two of the unit, start with the Character video from BrainPOP. If time allows, it is best to watch the video twice, allowing students the opportunity to stop and answer the questions the first time through. Afterwards, read and act out the short poem, Sick, by Shel Silverstein. On another piece of chart paper, have a simple drawing of a girl that is blank on the inside, representing Peggy Ann McKay from the poem.

“Sick” by Shel Silverstein

After reading the poem one time, ask students to share what needs to be added to fit her description in the poem. If time permits, allow students to color her in, or simply record their responses.

Probe them with questions like, “What was wrong with Peggy Ann McKay?” and see if they can figure out what she may have looked and acted like based on what they have heard. Ask the following, “Do you think Peggy Ann McKay is smart?” and when students answer the question, follow up with “What makes you think that?” Encourage various adjectives like sneaky, honest, or good to describe the character. This will help students give a reason behind his or her thinking and use information from the text to support their answer. Create a character with the whole class and give him or her both physical and personal attributes. Give students the opportunity to make their own character independently that will be featured in a story at a later date.

Story Element #2: Setting

On day three of the unit, show the BrainPOP video on setting before reading the book, Knuffle Bunny Free by Mo Willems. When reading the story, allow time for students to see the images on each page to gain a better understanding of setting. This is a good time to use Project Zero’s thinking routing: See, Think Wonder. Choose an image from the book that has both cartoon and real life images to project on the board. Using three separate sticky notes, give students 2-3 minutes to draw what they see on one of them. Model some details noticed in the picture and challenge students to find something they think no one else will notice. Then give students another 2-3 minutes to draw something it made them think about on another sticky note. Next, prompt students to write down any unanswered questions or things they wonder about the images on a third sticky note. These sticky notes can be attached to a See, Think, Wonder chart to hang in the classroom. Discuss why the characters must be in certain places in order for the setting to make sense. Reintroduce the drawings they did of their original character in the first exercise and connect the idea of placing them in the right setting. The goal is to have them think about places that their character would go and objects that would fit in the setting; for example, an ocean would need sand, coral, seaweed etc. Allow students to draw a setting that his or her character would be placed within the story. This particular exercise can be done multiple times, as there are often multiple settings in a story.

Story Element #3: Plot

This next part starts on day four of the unit, but depending on your class blocks, it could take several days to complete. After watching the Brainpop video on plot, discuss the events that happened in the beginning of Knuffle Bunny Free by Mo Willems with students, writing their answers on a 3-column chart labeling the first column, “Beginning of Story”. Explain that the beginning of a story focuses on the characters and setting, but no problem is introduced yet. At this time, reintroduce the characters and setting that the students made from the previous exercises. Instruct students to brainstorm some events that happen in the beginning of his or her original story. 

On day five of the unit, re-read the middle of Knuffle Bunny Free by Mo Willems. Allow students to share the events that happened in the middle of the story with their partner, and add their responses to 2nd column in the chart from the previous day labeled, “Middle of Story”.  Students can begin writing an event or problem for the middle of his or her original story. On day six of the unit, re-read the end of Knuffle Bunny Free by Mo Willems with the goal of students thinking about the events that happened and adding them to the last column, “End of Story”. Highlight that the end of the story is where the problem was solved. Now that students know what to expect from the ending of a story, give them the opportunity to brainstorm events and a solution and then write their own ending independently.

Finalizing the Story

Once students have a beginning, middle and end, they can begin to revise his or her work. Give students criteria for success of content –  does the story have character(s), setting(s), a beginning, middle, end, problem and solution? Allow him or her to add any changes they wish before turning in their work. This is also a great way for students to learn how to complete a peer review! Explain that a classmate will check for spelling, capitalization, or punctuation errors and return their story after making edits. After a peer review, check to ensure that the students work has been corrected to some degree. Once students know what should be corrected, give students clean paper to rewrite the story with space to draw pictures. Over the next several days, allow 2-3 students to read his or her original story to the class. Optional: make an event for parents to attend to hear their child’s story being read aloud.

Field Experience:

Upon completion of the book, students will be ready to take the trip to 826DC located in Columbia Heights. 826DC is a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting students ages 6-18 with their creative and expository writing skills, and to helping teachers inspire their students to write At 826DC, students will learn how a book is written and actually have the opportunity to create a story together. Everyone will have the same beginning and middle of story, but each student will create an original end to the story.  Note: the entrance for 826 DC is located on Park road between Z Burger and the Bank of America ATM. 

If you take photos and post them on social media, be sure to tag us @liveitlearnitdc or #LILIpad. We’d love to hear how you introduced writing elements in your classroom! 

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