Staging ‘Story in a Bag’ in Your Room or Online

After Lynne’s post about her Book Report in a Bag activity got lots of reads, we asked her to share her Story in a Bag writing idea! She’s included tips for physical and remote settings.

By Lynne R. Dorfman

Story in a Bag is an engaging way to help students write a narrative by embedding a series of objects into their story in a way that makes good sense.

This activity helps students build writing fluency, and at the same time, it helps them learn to problem solve on the spot! As items are removed from the bag, the writers must somehow weave each object seamlessly into the story. At times, this can be very challenging!

To model Story in a Bag, the teacher fills a paper bag with 5-8 random objects. To make this activity interesting, you can include objects that are diverse and unrelated to each other. Go for a combination of the unusual and the mundane. These items are used to help bring the story to life.

I usually start with items that are themed around a subgenre of fiction such as mystery, adventure, fantasy, or science fiction. It is great to pair your Story in a Bag with a subgenre you have just explored in reading or writing workshop.

An adventure story bag could include a journal, a map, a picture of a secret passageway, a card that reads “DANGER!”, a shovel, and a tiny chest or box decorated in chest-fashion.

I always write a lead sentence on the board to get everybody writing. You could use “It was a dark and stormy night” or “It was very early for our doorbell to ring, and when I opened the door – no one was there.”

Have fun making up some genre-specific starters of your own.Students can choose to revise their lead sentence after the story is completed or they can keep the original.

When I model, I usually create the story through oral rehearsal since writing it may take too much time. Later, I may write the story as I remember telling it. I like to demonstrate that I am a teacher of writers who writes.

As I pull an item from the story bag, I place it on a long rectangular table or on the tray that borders your chalkboard. If the item needs a label (such as a kitchen item that the students may not recognize or know its name – like a spatula or hand juicer), then I prepare a large index card with the name on it and tent the card so it is standing up.

It is important to note that you could choose to record yourself on an audio device such as RecForge II Pro, an android app of choice for many teachers that includes cloud integration, multiple formats, editing, adjustable quality levels, playback speed adjustments, and more.

For teachers, audio recording logistics are simple and easy to adapt with an iPad or any device with a recording app. You and/or your students can upload the recording to a Google Drive folder, email the file to students or to the teacher, or save it on the course management system.

Sometimes, you can scaffold a story in the bag by placing words or phrases on sentence strips and pulling them from your bag in a meaningful order. For example, consider the following list: Sammy’s kitten, a big dog, a huge tree, the park, the fire department, a tall ladder, a bowl of milk.

You could also include some props or create them with drawings, Legos, or building blocks. It is fun to see what everyone comes up with and how they find a way to incorporate all the objects into their individual story.

After I have conducted two or three “Story in a Bag” events, I create a sign-up where students can volunteer to create a “Story in the Bag” and lead the class in this writing activity. For virtual classes, this activity can spark interest and real engagement. Stories can be shared through email or placed into a folder on Google drive.

Your writers will enjoy the chance to scaffold a story across different genres and create items to be placed in the story bag. You could also choose to highlight a story on your Canvas page or website. If you are in the classroom, post stories on a bulletin board or hall display.

With my intermediate grade students, we saved this activity for the last Friday of each month. The class created and posted a sign-up sheet, and we often had a partnership or a group of three collaborating to create their bag of items. The activity is easily tweaked for any grade level. Enjoy!


Lynne R. Dorfman is an adjunct professor for Arcadia University, a co-editor for Pennsylvania Reads: Journal of the Keystone State Literacy Association, and a co-director of the PA Writing & Literature Project. Her newest book, co-authored with Stacey Shubitz, is Welcome to Writing Workshop: Engaging Today’s Students with a Model That Works (Stenhouse, 2019).

Follow Lynne on Twitter @LynneRDorfman and on write-share-connect, the PA Writing & Literature Project’s blog.