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Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Why and How of Writing Prompts

This blog offers writing prompts each month, ones for teachers and students. I also include several journal prompts in my three books, The Compassionate Classroom (with Jane Dalton); Teaching Romeo and Juliet (with Delia DeCourcy and Robin Follet); and Teaching Julius Caesar. I provide these because teachers need and request them. I've always assumed we know why writing prompts are worth the time, but that's not always true. It's good to revisit why they matter in the classroom.

Still ringing in my ears is the only parent complaint I've ever heard on the subject. "What's this touchy-feely stuff? What's this got to do with academics?" While I did convince this parent I wasn't wasting his child's time, the complaint gets to a misinformed opinion--that writing prompts are a flights-of-fancy indulgence we can't make time for. I figure it may also help teachers to have this argument in their back pocket should parents, administrators, or pacing guides approach.

(This image found at Darton College's Writing Lab site.)

Why You Should Use Writing Prompts in Your Classroom

-- Writing prompts are great dress rehearsals for deeper thinking, the critical analysis required by most literary interpretation, argumentation, and research.

-- Writing prompts tap into what I call the Big Ideas--the concepts and abstract topics that need fleshing out in an essay. In the low-stakes dress rehearsal area that is a journal, students can discover what they think as they see what they writeSo Romeo and Juliet is about the Big Idea of Love; that claim is no thesis statement yet. Do you believe in true love? Love at first sight? Platonic love where there's once been lust? What is more important--the love of family or romantic partners? It's these interesting questions that come from journaling on a Big Idea.

-- Students need to make affective, personal connections with the literature before they can delve deeper into analysis. Why are we reading this? radiates from every student pore, every adolescent 'tude entering your classroom. When students write journals on prompts that at first glance seem to be all about them, that thinking leads to better, deeper conversations when you put the lit front and center. Big Ideas are always relevant to students' lives: Love, Justice, Jealousy, Revolution, Change...

-- Writing prompts tap into metacognition, sparking reflection about the writing process. They allow students to mull over the complex stages of thinking that lead to a finished draft and develop a perspective on their own writing strengths, weaknesses, and methods.

-- Writing prompts allow creative forays into personal, imaginative writing such as short stories, novels, poetry, even lists--every genre and type--that again, serve as great dress rehearsals if not companions to the academic writing we teach. Some schools assign creative writing before assigning literary analysis. If a student can develop a character, create a narrative thread, or craft a symbol in personal writing, isn't it that much easier for students to approach literature where they must analyze character traits, track a plot's trajectory, or explicate the connotations of an image?

-- Writing prompts help our kids access difficult texts, from Twain to Shakespeare to Swift. Old school becomes new school when our kids realize that these authors grappled with very modern problems and timeless emotions. In some ways, not much has changed with humanity, and journaling can get our kids seeing that.

How You Should Use Writing Prompts

How do we integrate this type of writing practice into the average class period, burdened as it is with other reading and writing tasks and the demands of pacing guides and standardized tests?

-- Opening & Focusing Activity. When students hit the door certain days, they can see their first task--that writing prompt on the board--to focus their thinking. Allow 7-10 minutes. This can be followed by a pair-share or a brief class discussion where students share thoughts. You might collect these journals randomly.

-- Anchoring Activity. This is a go-to assignment when students finish a task early in order to prepare for the two uses described below. Journal prompts can be listed alongside other tasks that students can pick up for ten or twenty minutes and return to at any time. They are particularly helpful when you have a range of abilities in your classroom and are trying to conduct mini-lessons with tiered groups, conference with students, and interact with several students within a class period.

-- Essay Preparation. These journals allow students to explore and experiment with a range of essay prompts before making a final selection. Students can contemplate the entire work just read and call up evidence in a more casual writing foray to see if they have enough ideas, supporting examples, and passion about the topic to commit to it. Assign at least two of these before students conference with you or before they identify their choice. This task also allows you to offer more than one or two essay prompts and give students a wider choice.

-- Pre-Socratic Seminar. Planning on an intensive discussion? Writing on the discussion topics before speaking aloud is important rehearsal for more retiring students as well as those who speak extemporaneously and fearlessly.

-- Homework. Journal writing on Big Ideas or creative writing prompts offer great homework options. Students are more likely to be alone and more reflective, and, after a busy school day, their minds are freer, rambling, and needing open expression rather than serious drill assignments.

There are many other places to integrate prompts; these are just a few of the most obvious times to integrate them.

Other General Tips:

-- If you use hard-copy composition books, allow students to fold over pages of their journal that they don't want you to read. I always say, "Please don't fold over every page; I've got to read something." This offer does make the journal the student's domain first and foremost and encourage ownership.

-- Don't spend a lot of time grading journals but do focus on whether students have done one or two of the following: offered specific and rich examples or discovered some interesting insight or interpretation. I usually give 10 out of 10 points, with one or two points deducted for poor effort. We know a half-baked journal when we see it.

-- Tell students that if they do tackle tough subject matter, such as personal dilemmas or crises, that you will feel compelled to assist them by referring them to a school counselor. If students hint at eating disorders, abuse, and other trauma in their lives, it's impossible to turn our heads.

The best reason for assigning writing prompts is getting to know your students better. I've formed better relationships and understandings with my students because of what they have shared with me in their journals.


Janet Wagner said...

Thank you for this timely article! I am forwarding it to my closest friends still in the classroom. May all teachers and parents see the value of daily writing, at home and across subject areas, in all classrooms! Thanks again!

Lyn Fairchild Hawks said...


Glad you find this helpful. Thank you for the feedback!


Appalachian Authors Guild said...

I can see where your writing prompt might stimulate critical thinking, a critical thinking in search of "truth."

If it really works that way, you've done a service to these United States that no politician can match.