A touch of the bizarre…an unexpected twist to the plot…the creativity of cross fertilization…all of these things make the Pass-it-on story a firm favorite for holiday writing activities in my current class.
Ting! The bell rings… A rustle of papers as they pass from hand to hand…The fascinated silence of reading, only broken by stifled giggles or gasps of amazement…The absorbed concentration as students focus intently on writing their own contribution, striving to get their ideas down before the next bell….and Ting! Here we go again! Pass it along!
This is an easy activity to set up. All it needs is a sheet of lined paper, a pencil per student and the agreement to make a story on the theme of the current holiday. I have tried it with the whole class but it is actually more satisfying to do with groups of about six. Each student writes the opening few lines of her own story on her own paper. The student who writes most slowly is the “bell master” and once she has brought her story to a suitable point, she rings the bell and all the students in the group pass their story one place to the left. They each have to read over the story they received as it has been written so far and then add to it, moving the action along. Each time they should leave the story at a cliff hanger or at a turning point for the next student to carry on. As the stories come close to closing the circle, the students need to draw the action to a end. The story returns to its initiator for a final proof reading and polishing of the joints to make sure it all makes sense. Then comes the fun of sharing the finished products, to great hilarity!
“It ‘s so unexpected! You think your story is going to go one way and it turns out completely different!”
“I thought it was funny because John put this same character in all the stories. He just kept popping up!”
“I would never have been able to write something so good on my own.”
As an exercise, this is really demanding on many levels and the students enjoy the challenge and rise to it. It requires very careful reading and response to what has been read, creative thinking and flexibility to connect their ideas on to the existing story. Students become aware of the necessity of making their meaning explicit so that the next writer can carry the story along. The joint ownership puts pressure on writers to conform to standards of legible handwriting and to use conventions to make their meaning clear. It exposes the purpose behind these conventions in a way that conveys so much more conviction than just writing for the teacher.
Reflecting on this as I now write, I’m thinking another time we do this we could focus on plot structure and ring the bell each time giving instructions for writing parts of the story: setting, protagonist, antagonist, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution. Would this add a new level of challenge to the activity or would it actually spoil it by adding too much structure? I’ll have to try it to find out!