You know, some days are like this... it's just the way it goes. And it doesn't just happen to kids. It happens to me, too. Sometimes, it seems like coming up with a good idea is the hardest part of writing.
Our writing workshop is one of my favorite times of the day, so helping kids generate and maintain a wealth of topics is critical to our success. No ideas... no writing. This is what I've observed over the years... children who have a hard time generating ideas to write about are the kids who either:
(1) NEVER write anything. Ever.
(2) Write the SAME story over and over.
(Like this one boy I knew who only wrote about sharks... every single day.)
And this little thing we teachers sometimes say to kids rarely helps, "Just keep thinking. Something will come to you."
(It seldom comes to them.)
But these 5 tips really work for my students, even the most hopeless writers. You need to know, these strategies are taking place within the context of an exciting writing community. (Or what I hope is exciting.) If most of your children have ideas and are eager to write, it will create a contagious feeling of anticipation in your workshop... you need that authentic feeling to help bring along your writers who are searching for inspiration. They want to belong to this "club" of writers, so work hard to make it inviting.
TIP: MODEL IN THE MORNING
I don't have writing workshop scheduled first thing, but I do manage to squeeze in a little teacher-talk like this on most mornings: "Oh my goodness you guys... you won't believe this funny little thing that happened to me last night." Or, "You know, I saw the sweetest little squirrel sitting on my patio last night. He was trying to crack open an acorn, but he kept dropping it. I can't wait to write about it later today." This kind of authentic talk is important for a few reasons. One, I've identified myself as a writer, a person who thinks like a writer and who expects to write about life. Two, I am constantly modeling the value of small-moments. Don't underestimate this part. Many kids think a story has to be grand to be good, so unless they've been to Disney World lately or met the President of the United States, they think they have nothing of value to write about. This is one of the root causes of why some children won't write. They don't understand the value of the small moments in their daily lives. Model your own, no matter how small... the smaller, the better. Three, most kids, especially primary students, want to be like you. If writing is what you do, then writing is what they'll do too, especially if you look like you're having so much fun with it! When you do this teacher-talk in the mornings, be joyful about sharing your ideas, but try not to make up stuff. Kids can detect mini-fibs pretty well. Keep it simple, keep it true. That's the point.
TIP: BE AN IDEA HUNTER
Gathering ideas is a writing habit and, for some kids, it has to be developed over time. You can help by noticing ideas for kids throughout the school day. For example, when my kids and I are outside at recess and something funny or unexpected happens and we are surprised or start laughing, you will definitely hear me say, "Oh my gosh, that was so funny! We should definitely write about that because I never want to forget this moment. I'm going to put that on my idea list when we get back inside." Or if a child tells me a story as we're walking back from the cafeteria, it wouldn't be unlikely for me to say, "Wow, that would make a neat story idea. I think other people would like to hear it, too. Can you add it to your idea list when we get in the room?" What this dialogue subtly suggests is (1) writing ideas are all around us, (2) writers notice them, (3) writers collect ideas to write about later, and (4) the ordinary events of our lives aren't so ordinary... they're worth writing about.
TIP: KEEP LISTS
People collect things they value, so let's collect writing ideas... because we value those, right? That's the message this tip sends to kids. This is another "writerly" habit... writers keep lists of ideas to write about one day. Because these "light bulbs" sometimes happen in a snap, I let my kids visit their idea lists any time an idea pops into their head (unless we're in the middle of something they absolutely can't miss). It only takes a minute or two to jot down a quick idea and I want to empower them in this way so they'll develop this habit. If I don't honor those moments when they happen, I'm sending the message that the collection of ideas isn't that important, plus they might forget the idea by the time writing workshop begins. I always have Post-It Notes nearby, no matter where I am, so if I can't let a child go to their idea list (or a particular child might take forever and a day to jot down their idea), I'll quickly write their idea on a sticky note and tell them to go put it on their idea list. That's a good win-win compromise for everyone. To piggyback on this tip, consider having a "Weekend Wrap Up" session on Monday mornings. This is a good routine to get into to help children process their weekend, mining for ideas. Also, let children share out their ideas, either in pairs, small groups, or to the whole class. Kids get ideas from other kids and, often, one child's story will help another child remember something personal from their own weekend. And last, think "therapy." Writing can be very therapeutic. I make sure I model all sorts of topics on my own idea list and I teach the children that I write about things that make me mad and things that make me sad, too. I let them know that writing about these emotional moments in my life can help me feel better about them, so I make sure to have those ideas on my list, too.
TIP: USE CHILDREN'S LITERATURE
It's common to use children's literature as mentor texts, showing students how other authors begin their stories, use details, and include elaboration, but don't underestimate the power of stories with strong kid-topics to help your writers generate their own ideas. I spend a lot of time at the beginning of the year reading literature with topics I think the kids will relate to... fighting with friends or siblings, being afraid of something, learning how to do something for the first time, feeling jealous, being in trouble, etc. Kevin Henkes is one go-to author for these types of kid-friendly stories, but there are many titles that would work. Gather your favorites and be prepared to use them at the beginning of the year as you're establishing the enthusiasm for your writing workshop. Keep them displayed near a banner that reads: Authors get good ideas from other authors, and keep a growing anchor chart of possible topics the kids can write about. In our classroom, I might call something like jealousy a topic or a theme, but each writer has to claim their own story idea for that theme. In other words, jealousy is not an idea, it's the overall theme. My modeling might sound like this, "This Kevin Henkes story about Lilly reminds me of a time I was jealous over my own sister..." I'll share the story briefly with my children and then write the idea down on my own list for later. Then, I invite them to share out with a partner about a time they were jealous. Sharing good literature and making time for them to talk helps them generate a lot of ideas right from the start. By focusing on this at the beginning of the year, I establish on day one how important I think this writing behavior is. I could teach anything on the first day of writing workshop... I choose to teach: Writers collect ideas!
TIP: ORAL REHEARSAL (AND MAYBE A BITTY-BOOST)
I learned this tip after working with one of my sweet boys who had very little self confidence and a lack of vision for his life's stories. He just needed someone else to tell his story so he could hear it. So, all I had to do was get him talking about something... his puppy, the bike his cousin gave him, fixing things with his Grandpa... and then just listen, the kind of listening where I watched his face carefully while he talked and imagined being there with him... not the kind of listening where I'm thinking about the 17 emails I need to answer as soon as he's done talking. (Do you do that, too?) I'd ask questions when I was confused or curious (that shows true interest) and then, when he was done, I'd say, "I really like that story. So, when you write it, it might sound something like this..." I'd start by telling the story a few sentences at a time and invite him to think about how it sounded. Then, I'd walk away and let him work out getting those beginning parts on paper. A few minutes later, I'd come back. "Let's see how it sounds. Oh, I love it. How do you think the next part might go? Do you want to practice it out loud so you can see how it sounds with your first part?" This type of oral rehearsal can really help the kind of writer who struggles to develop an idea and it has the potential to make the story come alive and sound worthy of writing. He may have thought he didn't have an idea, but once he started hearing it, it made all the difference. One piggyback thought on this is the strategy of giving a little bit of a boost. I only do this on rare occasions because I worry about the dependency it may cause, but sometimes it can be helpful to write just the first sentence or two for a struggling emergent writer. To see their story being physically written can provide the motivation they need to value the idea and continue writing. One way I do this is by drafting their dictation on a sticky note. In this way, the words are their own and they maintain a sense of ownership by having to rewrite the words onto their journal page. Some kids just need help getting-going with an idea.
Can you add to this list? How do you help your writers when they don't know what to write about?
Happy teaching! :)