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New Teachers

A Wounded Lover of Writing Prompts

Do clever exercises lead to memorable results?

December 1, 2011

I am addicted to searching for inspiring writing prompts. Like playing Pachinko, clicking through education resources soothes and focuses me. My coffee goes cold as I hunt through Twitter and Diigo posts for just one more idea. But for a few years now, guilt has bled some joy from my ritual of collecting writing warm-ups to try out with students.

For the sake of explanation, guess what perturbs me about the four writing prompts that I assigned this semester:

Prompt 1: Create a poem by using Emily Dickinson's "Bring me the Sunset in a Cup" as a springboard. (Creative Writing Prompts)

Prompt 2: After the instructor spreads eight fall leaves on a table (potatoes work, too), students secretly pick one and write about their "new best leaf friend." After each writer reads his or her composition, classmates guess which leaf their peers described.

Prompt 3: Use Five Card flickr, a web site and tool invented by Alan Levine that generates random images, to Dadaistically incorporate into a narrative. (Tom Barrett's 55 Interesting Ways to Support Writing in the Classroom)

Prompt 4: Students write a parody of Rod Serling's opening narration of The Twilight Zone, using the following scaffold:

The _________________________ Zone

There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to _____. It is a dimension as _____ as _____ and as _____ as _____. It is the _____ between _____and _____, between _____and _____, and it lies between the _____ of _____, and the _____ of his/her _____. This is the dimension of _____. It is an area that we call ... The _____ Zone. (Original source of the prompt unknown)

As an example of how the Twilight Zone parody works, see how "Melissa" completed this assignment. Note that she intentionally skipped the title so that there would be a bigger payoff at the conclusion of her passage:

"There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as challenging as quantum physics and as rewarding as a winning slot machine. It is the balancing act between first steps and first heartbreaks, between achievement and disappointment, and it lies between the excitement of awaiting his birth and the angst of his departure to college. This is the dimension of unconditional love. It is an area that we call...the motherhood zone."

In response to each prompt, my students wrote and read aloud their work. There was laughter and applause, but I was still dispirited. You've probably guessed why.

Not all prompts are created equal

Alas, all four prompts from the list above were teacher generated one-shot exercises, culminating in disposable texts. I'm losing faith in clever prompts that culminate in clever, but what I suspect is, for students, ultimately forgettable writing.

Judith A. Langer and Arthur N. Applebee's research concludes that superficial writing activities offer superficial benefits. In contrast, when students are given time to manipulate complex information, their retention and understanding of content is enriched. In all the cases above, students were given little time to do more than what they do all day, follow instructions.

In Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana's new book, Making Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions, the authors argue that because their instructors ask the majority of questions during a school day, kids are deprived of opportunities to generate their own questions about the cultural, political, philosophical, economic and scientific dimensions of a topic. Students are more likely to fully commit to the difficult process of critical thinking when they care about -- when they develop -- their own questions.

Check out this episode of Harvard EdCast where Rothstein and Santana talk about their six-step protocol for socializing students into thinking deeply about a topic and asking significant questions. If you like Edward de Bono's PMI, you'll like the six-step protocol. See Facing History and Ourselves for a summary and description of how a similar question formulation technique is employed in a classroom setting.

Last week, I tried out a slightly modified version of the six-step question generation procedure in an undergraduate English education class. In 40 minutes, the activity organically deepened my students' understanding of grammar instruction before I provided any content knowledge on the topic. One group of students asked this formidable question: "How do you teach students standard American English and academic language and still preserve native/cultural ways of speaking and writing?"

Such classroom experiences, where I resist controlling the "horizontal and vertical" of student writing, accompany my waning enchantment with take-and-bake prompts.

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