I am a writer. I have been a teacher. And as a teacher—writer or not—I found writing one of the most difficult skills I ever tried to teach. Looking back, I think I focused too much on writing as an assignment—a thing that had to be completed before the end of the book—and not enough on writing as a creative process. If reading is a way of life, then writing is a way of thinking. And any good writing—even an academic essay—tells a story.
In this article, I focus on writing as part of a larger creative process that may or may not include putting words onto paper. I’ve included a few writing prompts I find especially meaningful, as well as word and storytelling activities designed to foster imagination and the art of thinking like a writer.
Read and Discuss Good Literature
The single most important tool for good writing is good reading. After finishing a storytime book, pause before moving to the next book to analyze the narrative. Have the students tell you the beginning, the middle, and the end. Help them identify the narrative arc, the climax, and the denouement. Notice with them the writing style the author chose and how that affected the story. Learning to recognize the elements of story outside of a textbook is a valuable tool and will teach them to be good writers as well.
That being said, the most valuable part of this exercise is the story itself. Even if you never analyze, still read, and give your students opportunities to read.
Many people freeze at the sight of a blank paper. And many people try too hard, lathering stiff and wordy sentences onto the page instead of the clear and simple English we speak every day. The first step in learning to put thoughts onto paper well is simply to overcome the distance that lies between the student and the page. Paper should be made to seem friendly and inviting, and the best way I’ve found to do that, for myself and for my students, is with freewriting.
- Pick a subject.
- Set a timer for five to ten minutes, depending on age and attention span.
- Say, “Go!”
The only rule with freewriting is that you must write the entire time without stopping. If your brain can’t come up with anything, write, “thinking, thinking, thinking,” until it does. This works like magic to clear a clogged imagination and build a friendly connection between a writer and his page. When you’re finished, students can share their words if they want, or they don’t have to. No editing is involved.
You can use the same method, with a slightly longer time period, to write stories on the fly. Students will be surprised at the cohesive narrative they can throw onto paper with no prior brainstorming or outlining. Again, sharing is optional and editing is not allowed. The point of the exercise is to learn to move your thoughts directly from brain to paper, with no brawny fearmonger blocking the flow. In every class I’ve ever taught, students loved this exercise because it takes the work right out of writing.
Write Comic Strip Dialogue
Comic strips intrigue all people of all ages. To teach your students to write dialogue in a fun way, copy a page from Garfield or Peanuts or Calvin and Hobbes; white out the dialogue; make a second, clean copy; and let students fill in the speech bubbles.
Write a Letter to a Missionary
One of my most memorable writing assignments in school was to write a letter to a missionary. (I wrote to Claire and Clara Schnupp of Northern Youth Programs and felt incredibly honored to receive a reply.) Children writing for a real person, and not just a grade, will put extra effort into their work. As a bonus, writing to a missionary will spark an interest in the work going on in that part of the world.
Write a Letter to an Elderly Person
Writing a letter to an elderly person, like writing to a missionary, provides the student with an audience, a sense of responsibility, and the pleasure of blessing someone else with her efforts. Elderly members of your congregation will enjoy getting letters from the young ones in the church, and the exchange will foster relationship and a sense of community.
Write to Imitate
Benjamin Franklin taught himself to write by reading, rereading, and imitating the writing of Joseph Addison. The ancient Greeks and Romans also used imitation to teach writing, and it’s a great way to teach your students. Read a short story or essay to them—choose a writer with a distinctive style—and ask them to write something in the same style. Choose writing in a different style. Read. Repeat. Don’t expect them to produce words that imitate the style exactly—even experienced writers would find that difficult. But by experimenting with the tools other writers use, students will develop their own.
Good writers know how to bring their writing full circle, how to play with connotations, and how to link together many concepts and words. A fun way to play with word associations is to give your students a word and tell them to write it on piece of paper, then—each on their own paper—to write after it the first word that comes to their mind. Follow the second word with the word that makes them think of, and so on for the next several minutes. Then compare papers to see how their trails have diverged.
My students modified this exercise into a group game they played over their lunchboxes. One person would say a word, and then the next person said the word that made him think of, and so on around the circle.
As a more challenging exercise—and a creative way to loosen up a clogged mind—tell each student to think of a word, or give them one, and then proceed to make a list of words with each word unrelated to the last. The minute someone starts to recognize a pattern in their words—such as beginning to name things they see—they should stop, rethink, and choose a word that does not fit the pattern or concept of the previous word. This is much more difficult than one would think! When brainstorming, it’s a great way to teach your brain to think outside the box.
Everything on earth is connected in some way. A fun way to really bring home this concept is to play a simple game. Tell two people to think of a noun and then to say it aloud at the same time. Afterward, brainstorm together on ways those nouns are in some way alike. My mom and I used to play this game together, and I soon discovered no two things are so different they are not in some way also connected.
As a writing exercise, tell your students to go to three different people and ask for a noun. (Yes, you could just put slips of paper into a bowl to draw from, but collecting random words from people is more fun.) After collecting their three random nouns, the students should write a story or poem that connects those things. The desired skill is to be able to use the three objects or concepts in an organic way that is natural to the story and doesn’t seem forced. And yes, with any three nouns in the world, this is entirely possible!
Build a Team Story
Like the March girls and friends in Little Women, build a story as a team. One person starts the story, continues for a sentence or two, and—preferably at an exciting place—stops. The next person picks up the story where they left off and on around the circle until someone chooses to end it. A story can take numerous surprising directions this way. You could also do this with a written story, passing it to a new author every day.
Write from Two Points of View
An interesting way to explore different characters’ points of view is to have two students work together on a story, with each creating the actions and writing from the point of view of a different character. You can use this idea in multiple ways.
- Write about a character conflict: a girl and her brother have trouble getting along, or a girl is hurt by the actions of her mother, while the mother feels exasperated.
- Write from the point of view of very different characters: a city boy meets an Amish man for the first time. What do each of them think?
- Choose a time in history—perhaps in conjunction with what you are studying—and write about an interaction between two very different people: a Nazi soldier and a Jewish mother, or a settler and a Native American. How do they relate to each other? What are they thinking?
- Have someone from the modern era meet someone from a past era, with each student writing one side of the conversation. Let them tell each other about their lives and ask each other questions. Would they trade places if they could?
Remember, reading is the most effective writing teacher we have. And freewriting may be the best way known to man to alleviate a student’s dread of blank paper. Regardless of the writing prompts you choose, encourage your students to think creatively and have fun with what they write.
CONTRIBUTOR: Lucinda J Kinsinger