Here’s what else I do to help students find writing topics they care about and then start writing
part 2 of 6
I know from teaching middle school (6-8) ELA for a few years that, in order for students to be passionate about their writing, they must first have a topic that they care about. When they care, they won’t mind taking the time to struggle to get their ideas expressed effectively. They’ll persevere through the thinking and writing (and rethinking and rewriting) that inevitably happens when they are truly engaged and committed to their ideas. In a previous post, I listed three ways I help my students find topics they care about. Here they are:
1) I give them lots of choices. If they don’t like any of the fifty or more prompts I offer, they can write about their own idea.
2) I regularly assign slice-of-life essays about the ordinary moments of life that, while small, reveal our humanity and common experiences.
3) I simply give students time to think.
The fourth thing I do to help students find a good topic is this: I let them talk.
Nothing builds enthusiasm as much as inviting students to share their ideas, connections, and memories. Writing ideas bubble up around the room as others share their experiences. I carry a dry erase marker on me at all times so I can rush over to the whiteboard and jot down a random idea like “snowboard life lesson thing” for Gwen or “spaghetti disaster” for Casey.
Usually, after they’ve talked for a while (about 15-25 minutes), I’ll notice students here and there pulling out pen and paper to start writing. I use that as my guide. I make a quick announcement that it’s time to start writing. I invite them to grab a clipboard and find a spot on the floor around the room or at a table where they can be productive. Many choose to stay at their desks. If they sit with a buddy, they must still be productive.
Then I turn off the fluorescent lights and flip on the white Christmas lights hanging from the ceiling. It creates an inviting glow that signals it’s time to settle in for writing.
Those kids who pulled out their paper first to write will usually be my star students. Because I know those kids can easily dive right into writing, I make sure to keep an eye on those who may need help getting started. I let everyone know it’s okay if nothing gets written down that day, but the goal for the next is to have a semblance of an idea at the beginning of class. And then I let those strugglers stare at the wall some more. I pour out the patience.
One of the most introspective pieces ever composed in my classes was written by a student who stared at the wall for most of the class period. At first, I thought Joe was just biding his time, but when I checked with him, he told me he just couldn’t think of anything. So I let him stare.
The next day, he rushed into class with a sheet of notebook paper covered on both sides with some wonderful personal thinking about being young, making choices, and about how it can actually feel bewildering to have so many options in life. A truly interesting piece with ideas I never expected this student to harbor. In fact, I still keep a copy in my “Why I Teach” binder. Rereading it reminds me that I should be patient when discussion doesn’t ignite everyone’s imagination right away. Some kids just need more time to think.
The next steps I take with my students will be discussed in an upcoming post. I’ll be finishing that soon. Click the “like” button and share on social media if this has been helpful to you. Feel free to leave a comment and don’t forget to follow me to catch that post! Thanks for reading!