PAWCATUCK — Dwarves have asked a banished dragon to fly to a mountain cave to retrieve a sacred, secret stone that will save their friends, who have been captured. The stone is guarded by ice-breathing mini-unicorns and a large unicorn with sinister rainbow-throwing powers, but the dragon uses his fire-breath and black rainbow magic to break through and capture the stone, which he brings back to the dwarves.
Can a fantasy story like this teach fifth-graders about writing?
Author Mike Squatrito knows it can, and it did, because students brainstormed the story’s characters and plot in his writing workshop at Pawcatuck Middle School on Friday.
Squatrito, 52, is the author of “The Overlords,” a young-adult fantasy series. He is a systems engineer at Raytheon Co. in Portsmouth, a member of the Rhode Island Sea Dogs and Rhode Island Brewers baseball teams and vice president of the Rhode Island Association of Authors.
“I call this workshop, ‘Creating Stories Using Plot Points,’” he said. “What we do is come up with a main character and then a setting and then the main character’s goal — what does he do, where does he live, what are his obstacles, how does he get out of his situation? The teaching point is to come up with an outline for the writing but to make it fun.”
Students in fifth-grade language arts teachers Elaine Temel and Heather Pescatello’s classes eagerly raised their hands to provide story ideas as Squatrito documented each plot point on a whiteboard at the front of the classroom.
“The dragon meets the dwarves in this cave system, so that’s one point, and then the dwarves send him on a quest to get the secret stone, that’s another point,” Squatrito said as he got ready to call on students. “What’s our obstacle? What’s going to stop us here?”
Students suggested ogres and flying eyeballs.
Then a student suggested the mini-unicorns that have ice breath. And they should have a limited amount of power, another student said.
“I like the ice versus fire,” Squatrito said. “And I like the mini-unicorn minions; how about, they can only do one puff of ice but there’s a lot of them, but our dragon breathes fire and that allows him to get past them.”
The next plot point was getting the dragon to the large unicorn.
“Where does this unicorn live and how is he guarding it?” Squatrito asked.
Students brainstormed an abandoned, cold chamber with a sinister unicorn inside.
“The dragon negates the rainbow magic,” Squatrito wrote on the board. “So now that leads us here to where the stone is. How does he know which stone to collect?”
After a discussion, the fifth-graders decided the secret, sacred stone would pulsate special colors and would turn to gold when the dragon picked it up.
It was time for a break and the students broke into groups to draw pictures of each plot point using markers on large sheets of paper.
Squatrito said it took him a long time to learn how to write a story. He played Dungeons and Dragons in college and, as a computer engineer, he started off wanting to create a story for a large computer game but eventually turned to creative writing. In 1992 he began to teach himself how to write and eventually worked with a friend who edited his work. He published the first book in “The Overlords” series in 2006.
He said he does writing workshops tailored to age groups from elementary to adult in schools around the region as a way of giving back to the community.
The workshop was inspirational for students, helping them understand the value of learning writing skills, said Temel.
“When you try in class to connect the skills we’re learning with the real world, it’s very abstract because they’re 10 and 11,” she said. “But when they meet a real author and can handle his book and talk to him, the skills we’re working on become much more meaningful and they start putting what they learn into their writing.”
Pescatello said the workshop demonstrated the writing process is a skill students may use throughout their lives.
“People [write] for their jobs, so it really does solidify that connection between the things we work on and the things that people do in real life,” she said. “Because of their age, they think this is only for right now, but really it’s lifelong.”
Fifth-grader Sophia Dutra, 11, an avid writer, said the workshop was useful because she was learning to collaborate with others on a story idea.
“I’m learning a little bit about how to work as a group because when I’m writing I’m just doing it all on my own instead of working with people,” she said. “The easiest part of writing for me is coming up with the setting and the characters, because it just all comes at once. The hardest part is trying to think of a good main idea and what the character is good at and what the character’s downfalls are.”
Classmate Owen Spellman, 10, said he gets ideas for stories from friends, online and “things I find interesting.”
“I think writing is fun because you get to express what you feel, but the hard part is the beginning,” he said. “It’s hard to think about what you’re going to do, what’s coming before this, how to link things together.”
At the end of the workshop, Squatrito asked the students, “What is the one thing we’re missing in our story?”
Students made several guesses until Squatrito gave the answer.
“We don’t have any words!” he laughed.
Writing a story means starting with an outline and then writing from one bullet point to the next, he reminded the students.
“If your outline is very strong and solid, has a beginning, a middle and an end and characters that attain their goals, I think you’ll have some pretty good stories, don’t you?” he said.