Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Crafting Classroom Writing Prompts - Gary Miller & Deb Fleischman

First, a prompt from local authors and writing instructors Gary Miller and Deb Fleischman. Set a timer (an actual timer, not planning to look at the clock to track time) for seven minutes and follow this prompt:

"When this winter is finally over. . . "

The goal of the prompt is to write a description using all the senses.

. . . and seven minutes later. Here are some things that the participants in Saturday's workshop noticed in this exercise. That when someone gives you a task, sets a timer and says "Go!" there's an instinct to get to work and not stop. Seven minutes is actually a pretty long time. At the end of seven minutes, if you write straight through and don't worry about getting the wording right and resist circling back around to finesse sentences, you end up with a whole lot of words on the page. And all that content could lead to some strong finished products - one example is linked at the end of this article.  

Then, there's what happens after sharing the responses to prompts. The diversity of how the group interprets the same starting point might inspire new ideas. Plus, if what you get in seven minutes isn't a great foundation for moving forward, then you can probably spare another seven minutes to try again.

The broad goal of writing prompts is to unlock the creative process. Gary and Deb have built from this starting point, and their own experience of what students produce in response to prompts, to develop a thoughtful approach to using short prompts as a way to teach writing skills and engage students who might be reluctant to write. 

Designing a Workshop Around Short Prompts:

When Gary Miller and Deb Fleischman began their Write Mondays workshops for middle and high school students, Deb had the rule "no homework" - everything they did had to happen in the classes. After all, these workshops already asked kids to add an extra class to their day, adding homework seemed like too much to ask. And with that rule, they developed a basic format for using prompts their workshops:
  1. A quick (10 minute) lesson on some element of writing craft. For example, they might go over dialogue and three ways to create dramatic tension within dialogue - disagreement, confusion, silence. 
  2. Provide a prompt with a clearly stated goal and give 7 minutes for students to work on that prompt. For example, they might show the start of a scene of a movie and ask students to continue the conversation. Or a starting line and a conversation that flows from there.
  3. Students share what they've written and discuss it, with the ground rule to focus just on positive feedback.
This simple structure can be modified and applied to different lesson goals. Gary borrows the "fail fast" motto from entrepreneurial business models to describe it - you get a lot of ideas out quickly,  learn from the ones that don't work, and each successive attempt brings you closer to getting the result you want. "You're not writing to perfection," Gary says, "You're learning from experience." Students who track their writing over time see their progress as the many short practice assignments add up.

A structure built on immediacy like this one has some advantages over traditional writing assignments designed to be "do later" homework.  

The more time students are left with an assignment, and left alone with an assignment, the more time they have to think of all the things that they could do wrong, reinforcing a fear of failure. In the context of a quick prompt, there is no "wrong" - you're brainstorming and thinking creatively. Grammar, punctuation, refining your best ideas, these come much later in the process. 

The interval between class and the task of writing can dissipate any enthusiasm for the writing built in the classroom.

Using writing prompts means that students respond quickly to an assignment, then share, then get to talk with each other about what's working right and what the possibilities are. They also get to see the different ways other students responded to the prompt.  Gary and Deb find that even students who are reluctant to share at first end up being eager to share - not only is the emphasis is on the positive parts of their contribution but they have much more time to spend on the discussion of their ideas than in a typical classroom format of short answers to specific questions. 

Phones, computers, social media, television - distractions that lure students away from their writing work (and that they may be using at the same time as their writing) don't interfere with in-class prompts. The amount of time for writing with prompts is relatively short, the pace is quick. Students don't have to write anything, but students who don't start intending to write often have an idea come to them following a well-crafted prompt. It can be hard to resist that race start of "Go!" and a timer. (Gary notes that for truly disruptive students in the past he's had them write cuss words over and over. . . and after a very short time that task begins to feel stupid and the student moves on to some new ideas).

Designing the Prompts:

Part of prompt design is setting it in the goal of the lesson and stating that goal clearly for students. That comes with the mini-lesson beforehand, or simply saying "the goal is a description using all the senses" like in the opening prompt.

For the wording of the prompt itself, Gary and Deb have developed the idea of what they call "positioned prompts." Many textbook and test prompts are not positioned - they are asking the student to figure out how to approach the assignment, analyze available information, take their own position on a topic, then build the argument for their writing piece from that position. Those are important analysis skills. But the writing prompts Gary and Deb use have a slightly different goal of focusing on the writing itself, and to unlock creativity in the responses. This goal applies to both fiction and nonfiction. They want to make that creative thinking and writing practice easier for the students by embedding a position and perspective in the prompt. Gary calls this "filling the pool" for students to dive in. 

Take this example - the poem "Where I'm From" by George Ella Lyon (available from the author's website here). It's a poem in list form, a quickly intuited perspective and tone.

Imagine the non-positioned prompt that would elicit this information:
"Write a poem about your background. Tell readers about where you are from, and who your family members are. Give examples of special family traditions, events, and times."

Or the positioned prompt:
"I am from. . . ."

Gary gives more examples of the difference between positioned and non-positioned prompts in his notes for the workshop (linked below) and you can read about an exercise in creating prompts that the group did here.

You can tailor prompts even further for different goals. Deb has students in Upward Bound fill out a brainstorming sheet about who they are, generating lots of possible material to respond to the "prompts" posed by college essays. Or you can choose different media for prompts. Deb and Gary have also used the first two scenes of a movie and asked students to write out a third scene (Deb says "Breaking Away" both has a dramatic opening and most students haven't seen it already).

Well crafted prompts, used effectively, can transform writing instruction. As Gary said in his description for the class "Can you spare seven minutes to change the writing lives of your students forever? In just that tiny window of time, a good prompt can build critical skills and make even reluctant writers look forward to picking up a pen."


Response to "When this winter is finally over. . . " by John Gower (this is a final draft of a piece, not a 7 minute brainstorm)

Handouts From 2/14/15 Workshop:

Gary also uses prompts in his Writers for Recovery workshops (focused on addiction recovery) - you can read about the workshops in this Burlington Free Press article and hear Gary interviewed on VPR.

You can read an example of Sarah Stewart Taylor using short writing prompts / exercises to explore what makes an engaging opening to a story here.

Some recommended books about writing (these are for older students):
For some more creative thinking and writing exercises that work in classrooms, see this follow up post: New Ideas - Creative Jumpstarts that Work in the Classroom

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