This article was excerpted from Writing Extraordinary Essays
Before we can get our students writing, they need to have something to write about. For some students, this is a huge problem. They may talk all day (often when they shouldn't), but when it comes time to write, they draw blanks. In a desperate attempt to fill in those blanks, we may give them writing prompts. I have done it myself. But I think there are better ways of dealing with students blanking out-what I call "writer's blank"-than simply handing them topics. As my editor mentioned to me in an e-mail, quoting John Dewey, there's a world of difference between "having to say something and having something to say."
The Problem With Prompts
Real writers write for real reasons about things that are important to them. They write because they want to change things, influence people, or express themselves. If we are constantly flooding our students with writing prompts like "Describe a special day/friend/teacher" and"Persuade your administration to take your point of view about gum/homework/vending machines/dress code," we are not teaching them to do what real writers do.
Many of the standardized topics we throw at students aren't bad, but when it is all we give them, they often give up on generating their own topics. Worse yet, they may forget how to come up with their own topics. Worst of all, they may disassociate writing from real-life relevance altogether.
When I ask students to come up with their own topics, I can tell how "far gone" they are by their responses:The student who has not yet been crushed under the weight of standardized-test-like prompts will say, "I can write about my own topic! Great!"The student who is partially crushed by generic prompts will say, "I don't know if I can think of anything!"
The student who has been completely smushed under the weight of Persuade the Principal to Take Your Point of View About Improving Cafeteria Food will say, "Please, please just give me a topic! I can't think of anything! I have nothing to say! Nothing interests me!" When you hear students saying things like this, the situation is critical.
But there is a cure to the ennui of the writing-blanked. It is to start, bit by bit, to have students delve into their own lives and the world around them for topics. This will make them better, more engaged writers, but more importantly, writing has the power to make any of us better, more engaged human
Tapping Into Students' Lives
Many of my students over the years have been writing-blanked. Some years it felt as if most of them were. I've had students tell me that nothing interests them, that they can't remember anything important that has ever happened to them, that they don't have anything that makes them angry. I never seemed to be able to reach some of these students. For whatever reason, they didn't want to tap into their own lives for material, or they simply didn't want to think about their own lives.
But for the most part, I've had success with getting students to realize they have plenty to say. What follows are some of the strategies I have used to get them to this realization.
Too often, I think, we tell students that they need to know how to do things because they will need those skills at some "later" time. You'll need to know this in high school. You'll need to know this for college. And, of course, the ever-popular "You will need to know this because it will be on the test." What about "You need to know this for real life"?
When I survey my students early in the year, most of them say they have received plenty of the "you'll need it for the test" advice, but very little, if any, of the "you'll need it to live your life" advice. I try to remedy this situation.
At the beginning of the school year I usually start with an activity called Why Write? I write at the top of my board, "Why Write?" Students form groups, and I tell them it is each group's job to brainstorm as many real-life reasons to write as they possibly can. Every time I do this activity, I find we have trained them well, for when I ask for examples, many of them first call out, "For the state test!" and "So we can do well in high school." I quickly point out to them that these are academic reasons, not "real- life" purposes. I also point out that our definition of writing is "putting words together to create meaning." This means that typing things without using a pen counts as writing. Signing your name on a check does not
(At this juncture, many students like to point out to me that I do much of my writing for school, so I must not live in the real world. I inform them that not having to live in the real world is one of the many fringe benefits of a career in teaching. They never know whether to take me seriously.)
Once they get the hang of it, though, when we've hit on five or six examples, and hands are reaching in the air for more, I tell them to work in their groups for ten minutes-which often turns out be 20-25 minutes-to come up with more real-life reasons to write.I walk around to encourage them and drop an occasional hint. When time is up, I rotate around the room, one suggestion per group, till we run out of suggestions or time, whichever comes first. Usually we run out of time rather than reasons. Some of the reasons students have suggested are listed in Figure 2.1.
job applications and cover letters
scripts for videos at work
editorials/letters to the editor
letters of complaint
flyers and brochures
letters (business and friendly)
Our lists are never the same, and never complete, but that's not the point. The point is that there are many, many real-life reasons to write that have nothing to do with school. Students keep this list at the front of their language arts notebooks, and we refer to it throughout the year. I tell them to remind me of it if I start talking about The Test too much.
Students need to know that they have plenty of opportunities to write outside the realm of tests. They also need to know that their writing, if it's done well, can affect and influence other people, and possibly even change the world around them. But once we have emphasized how many real-life reasons there are to write, we must once again delve into the question of what to write about
Most students have special interests, but they often don't think of them as topics for writing. Often, they are also unaware of how the things they are interested in are connected to each other-hence, the idea of an Enthusiasm Map (see Figure 2.2). It is a kind of stream-of consciousness way of brainstorming topics to write about. I model it for students on the board or overhead before I have them do it. They usually dive in with, well, enthusiasm.This is completely nonlinear. Students may follow one category all the way down to a very specific topic, or they may list several categories around their name from the start, and then develop them. Encourage them to look for connections between seemingly dissimilar enthusiasms. On my map, for example, I have connections between Cartooning and Movies,Group Games and Teaching, and "Peanuts" and Theology. The challenge is for them to come up with everything they can possibly think of that interests them, and then to see how their different interests relate.
When students know their enthusiasms, they can write about them all in different ways. They can explain why they like something, describe how to do something, persuade other people to like it, compare something they like to something else they like or hate, or write a narrative about it. They can even defend their enthusiasms when they come under attack. I once wrote a whole op-ed piece about the demise of traditional, hand-drawn animation in favor of computer animation, a phenomenon I heartily protest.I ask my students to update their map periodically since they may be developing new interests. As a class, we delve into this list whenever they need an expository topic. Have students start by writing their name at the center of a blank piece of paper that is turned sideways. Then have them draw lines out to major categories and then subcategories of interests.
Spheres of Interest
List Another way of looking at potential topics is to ask students to think about their spheres of interest and influence. I ask them to imagine themselves at the center of concentric circles:immediately outside themselves are their own personal interests and everyday lives, beyond that circle is the local community and the school they attend. For many younger students, fifth or sixth graders, for instance, that is as far as their sphere of reference extends. Beyond the local community and school, there are state issues (like standardized testing), then national issues(like presidential elections and the issues that come with them), then world issues (climate change, terrorism), and finally universal/metaphysical issues (science topics like black holes and string theory, as well as religious or philosophical questions). As students get older, their spheres of interest should begin to extend outward, not just as writers, but as people. Writing can help students begin to extend those circles outward. I'll put the following list on the board, and ask students to add examples of issues that could be added as potential writing topics
Spheres of interest: Issues that interest me, bug me . . .
Personal: cartoons, football . . .
Home: TV usage, chores, which way the toilet paper should face . . .
School: gum, homework . . .
Local: litter, nowhere to skateboard . . .
State: standardized tests, severe weather . . .
Country: Internet dangers for teens, presidential election, capital punishment . . .
World: climate change, terrorism, war, poverty . . .
Universe/metaphysical: religious issues, philosophical issues, science issues like string
theory, cloning, black holes . . .
One thing we note when working on this list is that some issues can fall into more than one sphere and some (perhaps the best ones to write about) can be both national and personal.If the military and war are national issues, they are also personal issues if you have a sibling deployed overseas.I will sometimes assign an essay to come from a specific "sphere" so that we can discuss how the "size" of the topic influences how you write about that topic. Writing about the school flip-flop policy requires a different kind of thinking than writing a paper about the war on terror.
Ongoing Topics List
As the year progresses, I ask students to begin looking for topics everywhere. At my household (where our children are unfortunate enough to have two English teachers for parents), if we find ourselves complaining about some injustice in society, some ludicrous behavior or attitude that we've observed, some moronic policy we see being enacted by local or national government, we will find ourselves saying, "Sounds like a ‘My Word.'" We usually don't actually write a "My Word" due to lack of time, but we frequently find ourselves having opinions and wanting to express them. I try to encourage my students to do the same.
I ask students to set aside a page at the front of their notebooks (the fronts of their notebooks are very crowded) and keep an ongoing list of possible writing topics-this in addition to things that they may already have thought of on their various maps. It sometimes helps to remind them to add to this list on a regular basis, at the start of class every Monday or Friday, for example. Just make it a habit. My ideal is for students to have so many topics to choose from that they won't get to them all and can take some to high school with them. I also keep a list like this myself, and I sometimes share it with them.
Issues Bulletin Board
A class-wide strategy for keeping "big issues" in the forefront of students' minds is to create an issues bulletin board where you tack interesting articles, editorials, and printed Internet stories about various issues. It creates a centralized place for students to go and find provocative things to write about.
In some ways, you are continually "setting the stage" for student writers. In my classroom I try to duplicate, as closely as possible, the conditions that real writers work under. But even grownup writers spend time honing their craft, reading books about how to improve as writers, and even doing exercises from some of those books. I have read Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way and The Right to Write, both of which give specific journaling exercises, as well as writing books by Peter Elbow and William Zinsser that have suggestions for specific writing activities that are not polished pieces in and of themselves, but may help writers hone the skills they will use on those polished pieces later.
If there is one common thread throughout all of the arts, it is the idea of discipline and practice improving your skills as an artist. Musicians have finger exercises; singers do vocal warms-ups; visual artists have sketchbooks. As a cartoonist, I have a sketch pad where I jot down ideas for strips or series of strips as well as doodles. I assign myself little exercises: try drawing the same character's face with as many different expressions as possible, or try drawing a character doing some new action, or from a different angle. These sketches and initial ideas never make it into the newspaper like my finished comic strips, but they contribute to the quality of those finished strips.
When I teach middle schoolers writing, I try to think about it as I would an art class or a cartooning class-I want polished final works of art, but to get to those, I need to assign smaller sketches to develop various techniques involved in the bigger piece.
I have heard these exercises called many things: Show-me Sentences, Detail Paragraphs, Quick Writes, and just plain Journals. I tend to avoid calling them journals, simply because I think a journal is very personal-a free-form account and reflection on one's own life. These exercises are more focused and teacher-generated. I had thought of calling them "Writing Sketches," but that lacked something-probably alliteration. The name that seems to have stuck in my classroom is Flash Nonfiction. They are quick, focused writing assignments, for use either at the beginning of class or as homework.
Usually, I explain the Flash Nonfiction assignment and give students about five to ten minutes to complete it, depending on the length. When they finish, I ask them to pair up and share with each other. I usually give them something to focus on as they read each other's writing, which helps keep them on task. For example, I may ask them to pick out the best detail, find the most vivid verbs, or make one suggestion for a place that needs more detail. The sharing usually only takes about four minutes. Time permitting, I ask for volunteers to share either some whole exercises, or maybe just one good detail from their papers (which means that more people can share).
Assigning Flash Nonfiction as homework has its advantages as well. You can start class with the pair/share activity, but only students with the homework done get to participate. You can be done with the pair/share and group discussion in anywhere from six to ten minutes and then be on to the rest of the class.
A Different Kind of Practice
If you've been thinking these writing exercises sound like good ways to practice writing to a prompt for the state writing test, you are correct. But there's a difference here: some teachers teach using nothing but state test-style prompts, and all the teaching is geared toward test performance. The purpose of writing exercises I provide throughout this book is first and foremost to hone their real-world writing skills; the test is incidental. If you focus on writing exercises mainly as a way to better test scores rather than to better writers, you defeat both purposes, and neither test scores nor writers themselves are likely to improve.