Saturday, September 17, 2016

Generating Writing Topics

At the start of each school year, I always talk to my students about their previous writing class experience. I want to know what their favorite and least favorite parts of class were. Without fail, almost every student will tell me that they like writing best when they get to write about what they want. And they dislike most when they are told what their writing topics must be.

My response is always the same: "Well then, you are just going to LOVE this writing class because in here, you get to pick your topics!" (Cue cheers, fist pumps, and smiles.) Then I say, "Okay, turn to your first page in your brand-new writer's notebook and get writing!"

Kids will open to the first page, get their pencils in gear, and then... freeze. About 15 seconds in, some will start to look around. Others will put their name and date and on the top line... unnecessary in their own books, but they at least feel they are starting something. Many will just stare at the page, peeling their eyes away only for a second to look at me and see if I'm readying myself to give more instructions. After a most uncomfortable, crickets-in-the-air minute, a brave soul will raise his/her hand and say quietly, "Well... what do you want us to write about?" With that, every eye in the room will be on me waiting for some guidance.

"Anything," I respond.

More silence. More uncomfortable glances. More crickets.

Same kid's hand goes up. "But... what is the topic?"

"Anything you want it to be," I say.

Lots of eyes. Lots of silence. Lots of crickets. Certainly no more cheers, fist-pumps, and smiles.

I look at them. "Didn't you all just tell me that you like writing best when you get to choose your topics?"

A few nods.

"And didn't you say you hate when teachers assign topics to you?"

A few more nods and now a couple of murmurs.

With this, I end my little game. I know that they love to write about what they want, topics that mean something to them. But, without time and guidance on brainstorming those topics, most kids are at a total loss. They need help to get started, and that is where list writing comes in.

All my favorites, Atwell, Calkins, Fletcher, Gallagher, advocate the creation of lists to help kids generate writing topics. The lists hold a special place in our writer's notebooks and we will turn to them again and again and again throughout the year. Lists give kids a place to store their ideas - people, places, things, events, passions - that mean the most to them.

That is why in September, we spend most of our time creating lists and then practicing writing from them.

We will create a list of things we can't imagine life without:

And a list about things we just cannot stand:

And a list about things we can't wait to do in our lives:

The list of our lists goes on and on :)

Once students have their lists finished, we practice writing from them. I model how I can take an idea, something like the beach in Sea Isle City (my hometown and favorite place on Earth), and write about it in lots of different ways:

modified from Kelly Gallagher's Write Like This (Stenhouse 2011)
Through this entire process, kids are able to see that there are limitless possibilities for their writing. And each and every time they write something, they can tie one of their "passions" into it in some way.

For many kids, this is a transformative experience. When I tell them the story of a former student who centered every single writing piece that he did for me on the WWE - from a personal narrative about his first time attending a live show, to compare/contrast of the legend John Cena to current star the Miz, to a biography of the Hulk, to an argumentative piece as to why WWE wrestlers are some of the best athletes in the word - my students who've spent years dreading writing class, are suddenly excited. The kid who spends all his time trying to become a BMX superstar and the kid who has planned to dedicate her life to becoming the next YouTube sensation suddenly find that maybe writing won't be so bad this year. In fact, not only does the idea of spending 53-minutes each day writing about the thing in life that means to the most to them not sound BAD, it actually sounds pretty great. Awesome even!

And now, I have them.

October comes and kids are writing, writing, writing, filling their pages with narratives, comparisons, and arguments. Hands that never even liked holding a pencil are flying across pages and then wiggling in the air when I ask for volunteers to share.

It's a beautiful thing... and it all starts with a list!

Do you have students write lists in their notebooks? How does it work for you? I'd love to hear about it!

Happy Teaching!!

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Here's a blank copy if you'd like to use this in your classroom!


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  2. I've been using your list writing lessons this year, and my students really enjoy it! They are amazed at how much they can write about their topics without me saying "one page" or "five paragraphs"! It has eliminated the constant question, "How much do I have to write?" When I set my timer, they write until it goes off, and they are thrilled with what they were able to write, shaking their sore hands while they proudly show me their work! I hear comments like, "I've never written this much before!" or "Look, Mrs. D! I filled up the front of my page and still have things to say about it!" Often, they are begging me for another minute to finish "this sentence" or "this thought"! Writing in my classroom this year is NOT pulling teeth, and we are all enjoying it! Since we started school in August, we have almost completed the list writing and will move on to narratives soon, but I will use that "9 ways" chart to help them see the big picture before we jump into those narratives. Thank you for helping me fine tune things I've already been teaching so that now we have the enjoyment factor!

    1. Thanks so much for sharing!! I love being able to help out other teachers :) You made my day!!

    2. I started this school using Writing from Lists, and I think it will make a big difference in how my students view writing. Right now, we are completing the "Things I Cannot Stand" list, and they LOVE it! Last week we completed the I Can't Imagine Life Without.." list. I recognize that 9 ways chart from Kelly Gallagher's book, "Write Like This". I had completely forgotten about it, but I'm so grateful to you for providing a blank copy!

  3. Since it is my second year of teaching, I got a lot of your lists to improve my writing class curriculum. Every 1 and 1/2 weeks (about) we use a list to write about. I follow what you outlined as a possible lesson plan and have them Brain Dump after creating their lists before choosing a topic to write for their final essays. We've been slowly working on increasing our brain dump times (2 minutes in August, now 4 minutes!), and it is amazing to hear a room full of silent students furiously writing. I am so thankful for those lists!