Generating ideas can be one of the hardest parts of writing for students. How many times have we looked up from conferring to see a student staring off into space or with his or her head down on the table while others around them are engaged, their pencils moving? How many times have we felt that way—overwhelmed by a blank screen or piece of paper with no idea how to start?
When I see "the stare," or the panicked eyes of a child, I realize how lucky I am that through my experiences at the summer institutes with the Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University's Teacher's College and my professional and personal relationship with the amazing writer Georgia Heard, I have learned so many ways to help kids get unstuck when it comes to generating ideas. First and foremost, I always try to go back to my own experiences with writing and figure out what has helped me get started.
If our goal is to create lifelong writers, we need to think about what writers do and teach those things to our students. Here are some ideas for helping students generate ideas in any genre:
Start the year with an inquiry study of what an author is and where they get ideas for writing. Your students can look through the classroom library to figure out what other authors write about, and then generate topics for their own writing. They can also notice what fellow writers are writing about to see if they can write something similar. I always show my students two different books about the same topic to illustrate the point that writers write different things, even if the topic is the same, based on their own knowledge and experience.
One thing I know about many writers, myself included, is that we keep writing notebooks simply to hold ideas. The best ideas for writing always happen when I am not poised to write with a pencil or a keyboard nearby. My best ideas come when my brain is quiet enough to let ideas in—when I'm running, trying to fall asleep, driving, and so on. I keep my writing notebook as a way to hold the ideas that come to me during those quiet times so that when I do find time to write, I can look in the notebook and pick one of the ideas to expand on. I give my first graders small notebooks and encourage them to collect ideas for writing outside of writing time so they will have a place to start when it is time. Older students can be given a composition notebook to keep with them. Will all students use this strategy on a long-term basis? Probably not, but it will help those who do choose to use it which could lead to a lifelong writing habit.
Have your students decorate their writing folders/notebooks with photos of their lives to inspire writing.
For genre studies in the classroom here are some other ways to help writers generate ideas for writing.
Have students . . .
- think about a person in their life and a time with that person they could write about.
- think of a place they have been and a story that happened at that place.
- think about a strong emotion. Have the students think of a time they were embarrassed, angry or sad and write about what happened that caused them feel to feel that emotion.
Some writers of informational text start with a question they are trying to answer that eventually turns into a book. Students can write down questions or wonders they have about the world and then pick one to research and write about.
Have students . . .
- think of something they are experts on and have them write to share their knowledge with others.
- think of something they are passionate about and try to convince the reader that they should share the same passion.
- think of a time when they felt they were unfairly treated. What felt unfair? Write a better outcome.
- use poetry or excerpts from literature to create personal responses.
There are obviously many more ways we can help students generate writing, but knowing just these few can help create the kind of lifelong writing habits we hope for in students. What might you add?