Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Making Magic

I spent a cool summer week near the Poconos at the Highlights Foundation camp in Pennsylvania (I won the workshop during a commenting challenge last March). Spending time at Highlights changes a writer.

I have loved Highlights since I was a child. My mom was a dental hygienist for more than thirty years and she would clean the family's teeth on Saturdays. We would be the only folks in the waiting room, taking turns in Mom's chair. Highlights kept me entertained and with every article, I felt smarter. I dreamed about writing for them.

During the Writing from the Heart writing camp I went to, the talented Suzanne Bloom led us through an experience in magic making. We experienced the magic of making something up out of nothing. I wrote about it here.

As soon as I got home, I went on several thrift store dates with my husband. We gathered magic boxes. I found a vintage Samsonite train case in a thrift store in Clermont. Than I filled the boxes with magical items and packed them into the make up case.  Today I unpacked that magic in class.

We began with an exercise in creative thinking. I asked students to draw five squares (or frames) on a page in their Academic Journals. They draw--quick sketches--images from their imagination in and or around the frames. What students draw shows me how they think. Who thinks outside of the box? Who is bounded by perfection using a straight edge and stalling the sketch? Who completes the creative practice and is open to divergent thinking? It's a quick bell work exercise, just six minutes.

Then we move on to the magic. I showed students the train case and took out the first warm up item (a yard of sequined fabric I once wore as a cape for a Super Teacher costume). I asked them, like Suzanne asked us this summer, who owned this magical item and how did the object transform them?

We run through two, whole-class practices. One with the cape and one with a miniature maraca. I show kids the item and give them a couple of minutes to talk in their small groups about what it might figuratively, magically  be. Breaking free of the literal is difficult for some teens. It's difficult for some adults.

After we share the warm up stories,  I put boxes on each small group's table. I aimed for dramatic. I told students not to touch the boxes until I said so. I took my time. I smiled. I used big arm motions.

It was so fun. Oh, how they wanted to snatch the boxes up and dig in. I just loved seeing the anticipation on students' faces. They waited. So patient and polite.

I explained that they would talk through a story--a summary of a story. I showed them how to use five Ws and an H to generate ideas and summarize the story their group created. They wrote the ideas in their Academic Journals. Then the magic happened. I told them to open the boxes and examine the magical objects.

Kids handled the objects like props. As they touched the items; they talked and told stories. The buttons pictured above enabled characters to time travel, come alive or even change shape! Kids made up characters, plots--whole worlds amazed me. 


I'd stocked one box with a lace handkerchief. I wore the handkerchief home from the hospital after I was born and then carried it on my wedding day. My mom used to make handkerchief bonnets for family and friends' babies. I didn't tell the kids that story (yet), but I sure loved watching them handle the handkerchief and make up stories with it. Some students went so far as to write what Peter Elbow would call a zero draft of the story. Here's one: 

 Another group held a glass bead I bought many years ago but don't wear any more. They were amazed at all of the details in the bead. "There are gardens in here!" One group said.

My favorite story created with the bead today reminded me of A.S. King's Glory O'Brien's History of the Future. Kids decided that with the bead, a king could look through the center hole and see the past  and then flip the bead and look through the other side to see the future (that story is not the one pictured though) .

I had such a great time today listening to the stories students created. Today was about talking and thinking and imagining. Building our community with story.

Tomorrow students will get to choose, the same box or a different one, and they will write their own stories.

I can't wait to see what they create.
Happy New School Year! 

Here's the sequence, in case you want to try it:

  1. Drawing frames (five squares on a page, six minutes to sketch).
  2. Magic warm up. Use two items and ask kids who owned it? How did it magically transform its owner?
  3. Make Up Case: 
  4. Group students in triads.
  5. Give each triad a "magic" box filled with magical items (feathers, shells, buttons, beads, tickets, etc.)
  6. Encourage students to exercise their imaginations and break free from the literal.
  7. Have students talk through a story using a summary tool like 5 Ws and an H for 10-12 minutes.
  8. Ask each group to share out and tell the story they discussed.
  9. Day Two: individuals write the stories--the ones they rehearsed with their groups or stories they thought of themselves. 

Thank you to StaceyBetsyDanaTaraBeth, Anna, Kathleen & Deb for creating community and valuing voice. Join us at Two Writing TeachersSlide by the Slice of Life buffet for seconds or link up to serve your own slice of life.


  1. So much to love about this post - especially how much you enjoyed the way your students dove into the process.

  2. So much to love about this post - especially how much you enjoyed the way your students dove into the process.

  3. Oh wow, making magic is providing some inspiration for my own writer's notebook, just started for this new school year. And now I'm off to share this post with my colleagues.

  4. Oh, I'd love to do this. Magic writing. Do you think it would work with younger writers?

    1. Absolutely, Margaret! I think younger writers would love the adventure into their imaginations.

  5. I remember you showing this technique to me and Michelle on the first night we saw you at Highlights. What a thrill it was to read about it here. I'm glad you carried it out with your students.

    BTW: I was thinking of Suzanne today since I was in the library and Isabelle happened to sit down in the B section of picture books. I read quite a few of her books this morning.

    1. I really enjoyed Suzanne's work at Highlights. The writing sessions were wonderful, but also the day she showed us her art making process, spectacular. I sure hope Isabelle enjoyed her library venture this morning.

  6. I love how you transferred this activity to your classroom. Truly sounds like a magical writing lesson, and I wish I were there to participate!

  7. Wonderful, wonderful, Lee Ann. I can't wait for you to tell us more. I have an old suitcase that I filled with different things & carried around for poetry in different classes. Somehow those 3-d objects hold the power of imagination and connection. I bet your students will talk about this for a long time, all year! The beginning is often so memorable.

    1. I love the idea of adding curious objects to the mix on magical boxes and using them poetry. Writing from artifacts can really help young writers elaborate and be descriptive. Thank you, Linda.

  8. Thanks for this post, Lee Ann! I wish I had some students to go try this out with today. :'( Maybe I'll just write my own stories instead.

  9. Lee Ann, I am so glad that I read through your posts about the Highlights Workshop Retreat. Your application of what you learned seemed to truly appeal to your students' sense of imagination. Thanks for sharing.

  10. "Building our community with story." I have been trying to decide what activities to have on the first couple of days. Perhaps we will use magic storytelling to build community in the beginning of the new year! You have inspired me!