A Backpack of Writing Ideas

My last post, Gathering Writing Ideas: 5 Tips to Generate Ideas, really should've been 6 tips because I totally forgot about this idea... A Backpack of Ideas.  This idea is similar to the strategy of using children's literature to generate writing ideas, but instead I use my own personal treasures to stimulate thinking about topics.  It's super simple, but very effective.

All you'll need is a backpack (or a bag or a basket... just something to hold your goodies) and then fill it with items you think lend themselves well to topics that are age-appropriate and interesting to the students in your grade level.  These are examples of some of the things I've had in my backpack over the years:

• my camera ... so I can talk about a favorite hobby

• a tennis ball ... so I can talk about a sport or game I like to play

• a dive mask and snorkel ... so I can talk about something I'm learning how to do

• a dog leash ... so I can talk about pets

• a trophy ... so I can talk about an "I did it!" moment

• a plastic frog ... so I can talk about something I'm scared of

• a picture of my cat ... so I can talk about something sad or something I miss

• a band-aid ... so I can tell the story of a time I got really hurt

• a sand bucket and shovel ... so I can tell about one of my favorite places to go

• a gift box ... so I can share about a special gift I once got

• a book ... so I can talk about things I collect

You get the idea.  The items in the backpack are completely up to you.  Think about the kinds of topics kids like and then gather items that will allow you to share and brainstorm story ideas with them.  The possibilities are endless.

At the beginning of the year, my main goal is to make sure the children have plenty of time and encouragement to collect writing ideas, so I pull 2-3 items out of the backpack during each writing workshop lesson, going through the same exercise as I take each one out:

1.  I make a big deal out of the item... "Oh my gosh, this dancing trophy is so special to me!"

2.  I share my memory... "It reminds me of the time I worked really hard to learn..."

3.  I model jotting this idea down on my Idea List in my writing notebook.  "Wow.  I can't wait to write about this one day."

4.  I invite the children to turn and talk to a partner about a time they worked really hard to do something challenging.  In first grade, that's usually something like riding a bike, learning to swim, or hitting a baseball.  

5.  I ask a few volunteers to share out their ideas with the whole group.  "Oh... that's a neat memory.  I think that will be a great story for you to write very soon." 

6.  I give them a few minutes to jot or draw their ideas on their own Idea List.  At this point, we're just collecting ideas, not actually writing the stories.  

Then I pull out the next item and start all over again.  It can take me a few days to get through the whole backpack, but the kids love it because they're eager to find out what else I have in the backpack... it's a total surprise to them... and they LOVE, LOVE, LOVE to talk about themselves.  The collaborative nature of these discussions also means that some children are getting ideas from other children, and that's good because not everyone can think of ideas as easily as others.  

TEACHING TIP:  Consider leaving the items out for several weeks.  Either prop them up on a shelf where everyone can see them or hang them from the ceiling with fishing line.  It can be very helpful to have them displayed so that when you're conferring during those first weeks of school and you kneel down next to that precious little one who cries, "I don't have anything to write about," you can have fun going through the items again for inspiration.  You can even invite them to create their own little shoebox of artifacts to bring to school.  Then, on days when they're stuck for an idea, they can search through their personal items for a story spark. (A family photo album is a great personal artifact to bring to school.  Pictures often lead to powerful memories for children and these are the seeds of stories.)

TRICKY TIP:  Don't worry if your backpack is too small to hold all the things you want to put in there.  You can secretly add more items after school, when everyone is gone.  It'll be like the "clown car" of writing ideas.  By the end of the week, they'll wonder how you got all those items in there!  :)

If you try this idea, leave a comment below and let us know what you put in your backpack.  It's great to get ideas from other teachers!

Happy teaching!  :)

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