Note the first: I’m talking about third-graders here. That’s really significant.
A ginormous component of our writing curriculum entails “personal narratives,” basically memoirs for the eight-year-old crowd. Some kids totally get into it, but a lot of kids believe, justly IMO, that their lives don’t necessarily support writing a memoir yet. They get bored to death of writing about when they went bike-riding, or the time they ate at Wendy’s, or whatever.
So this month I’m doing what I usually do in January, and striking off on my own into the world of fantasy writing. Most of the kids love it, since fantasy stories form such a significant part of their experience with stories, and it allows their imaginations to run wild.
Every year, I tell my kids that they can write stories set in the real world, or they can make up their own worlds, but they cannot use a world that someone else made up (or characters that someone else made up). New York City is fine, Smaddypaddy Fire World is fine, but Middle Earth is off-limits. I want them to be creative, not just tell the story that someone else tells.
And every year there are some kids that really, really struggle with the idea. They want to write about Batman, or they want to write about Mo Willems’s pigeon, or something.
Today I had my first head-butting of the year with a kid over this issue. He wanted to write a story about Dinosaur Voltron, and he was talking about the TV show (FWIW, I don’t think this is an actual show–it may be connected to Power Rangers’ Zords, something else creeping into his story). I was trying to explain to him that he could write about dinosaur robots, but not dinosaur Voltrons, and in his look of irritated confusion I had an epiphany: as a creature of the media, he draws no distinction at all between nouns like robot and nouns like Voltrons.
So that got me thinking about the OP’s question. Should I continue to try to enforce a ban on using other folks’ intellectual property, on the assumption that it’ll force kids to be more creative? Or am I making an arbitrary and artificial distinction, since someone else also created the idea of robots, and borrowing the concept of Voltrons just means their writing will be fanfic, and has no real intellectual distinction as long as they’re not sued by an overzealous publisher?