June 3, 2021

Playful writing in the early years: Story Workshop

Ben Mardell

When adults prepare for exchanges supportive of both identity and intellect, children achieve academically because they learn to value the academic as a set of tools useful and necessary to construct and express deeper meaning.

So writes Susan MacKay in her new book Story Workshop: New Possibilities for Young Writers. The academics here involve writing—from the mechanics of grammar and spelling to clarity of expression and voice—all skills we hope children begin to master in elementary school. Written with Kerry Salazar and the Opal School Teacher Researchers, the book offers a vision of how to set the conditions where children embrace learning about writing. It offers a playful way to engage all learners in what is often a painful process for children and teachers alike.

Story Workshop is the perfect mix of theory, pictures of practice, and nuts and bolts advice. Consider some of the chapter titles:

• The case for Story Workshop

• Preparation

• Provocation: presenting content to be learned

• Invitation and negotiations: setting expectations and inviting children to create

• Story creation

• Story sharing

• Living and learning

Everything you need to know to take this practice on is here.

The book can be used by individual teachers or, better yet, teaching teams who can discuss, try things out, and reflect on the questions Susan offers throughout the book. It should also be of interest to teacher educators and professional developers. The wealth of supporting materials—practical tools and video examples, make this a perfect text for a course on literacy. Teacher candidates can read about and see Story Workshop in action.

Because the videos and examples model excellent teaching, this book is about more than Story Workshop. It is also about setting up an environment that enriches learning, asking generative, open-ended questions, and being a teacher researcher and a reflective practitioner.

Of course, a book about writing should be well written and this one certainly is. Both in how it is written and the commitment to story, the volume reminds me of another of my educational heroes, Vivian Paley. All in all, it is a pleasure to read.

With the upcoming closure of Opal School, Susan is now associated with the Center for Playful Inquiry. Information on options for purchasing Story Workshop can be found on the Center’s website.

Story Workshop is also about the rights of children and teaching for democracy. Near the end of the volume Susan explains:

Children have the tools they need. But they will sacrifice them all for belonging. They’ll give up curiosity if being wrong risks alienation. They’ll give up creativity if being right ensures a place in the group. They’ll give up imagination if their ideas don’t have influence. So the task before us is to create a classroom culture in which no one risks alienation, in which everyone’s ideas have influence, and to which everyone believes that they belong.

Susan deeply understands that children come to school as whole people. A pedagogy that treats children as people with feelings, as people who are social, and as people who desire to play is one that will have the most success in helping all children become writers and engaged members of their communities.

PS: Mara Krechevsky and I will be having a conversation with Susan Harris MacKay about Story Workshop: New Possibilities for Young Writers on Friday, June 4.  We'd love to have you join us!  Register here.