Recently, my seniors competed in a state-wide writing competition, and to aid in inspiration and help launch their writing process, I presented students with unique and exciting, low stakes writing opportunities. After reading my students’ writing contest pieces, I was reminded once again of the importance of time spent journaling—of the freedom and release of a writer’s notebook.
Before we get to it, if you haven’t already checked out Tricia Ebarvia’s recent post on her three go-to writer’s notebook prompts, you should definitely do that now.
No, no…now! It’s that good. In her post, Tricia shares not only her favorite strategies to get students writing, but a thoughtfully curated list of resources as well.
The Moving Writers gang has published a wealth of notebook time ideas, of which I find ever inspiring. Check out more Notebook Time posts here.
So in the spirit of throwing my notebook time hat in the ring, here are 10 novel and inviting prompts that can get your students writing. Sure, most of these strategies are high on the fun-factor, but all of them should help your students find a seed of an idea that they could nurture into a mature and developed composition.
1. Page Number Game
Have students grab any book in the room and ask them to turn to a random page you choose. Ask students to write down the first sentence on a notecard. Collect their notecards, and then have students choose a new card. After students draw their new card, have them use the book sentence to begin their writing.
It never gets old watching students’ surprise and delight when reading their starter sentences and learning what they are to do with them. They enjoy the novelty and challenge, and I enjoy watching them work through their approach. Check out my student Katie U.’s example below with a special twist of an ending sentence:
A disease ravished her. I saw it first in her eyes, the former light in them dulling away. Then it was her body, crumbling and falling and contorting itself into nothing. Then it was her voice, from soft to screams, laughter to sobbing. Finally, it was her mind. Her beautiful mind. Instead of her mind thinking through books and adventures and fresh brwed morning coffee and happiness, it became mad with fantasies of demons surrounding her, psychos waiting in her shower, all food poioned. My mother was gone. I knew she wasn’t going to come back. My last words to her were, “I hate you.” I shouldn’t have said them.
2. Writing With Images
Imagery sparks creativity, discussion, and writing. Susan Barber is a wizard at Using Art to Teach Critical Thinking, and this thinking and analysis lends itself perfectly to notebook time.
Also, check out The New York Times Picture Prompts for a wealth of interesting and vetted images, complete with prompts.
3. First & Last Word
Choose two words—they could be words you love (“cellar door” anyone?), words you loathe, words you happen upon, or words you choose on a whim—and have students begin and end their notebook time with these two words.
As in life, the challenge is finding a way from point A to point B, the first word to the last word.
Terrance Hayes, an early favorite poet of mine, published a collection called Hip Logic. In Hip Logic, there is a section entitled “A Gram of Ampersands” in which each poem is constructed with lines ending in words made up of the title word. For example uncle, rule, learn, and so on here is Hayes’s poem “nuclear”:
How to make a nation say, uncle.
In other words: how to rule.
there will be no clue
before it happens. No clear
sign from the Cosmos. A clan-
destine airplane appears wrapped in the lace
of a black dream. A flash like an ulcer
bursting in God’s gut. Citizens race
about the city as the sky becomes a caul-
dron. The bones burned clean.
Challenge students to play this challenging and thought provoking writing game.
5. Post-It Flash Fiction
Give each student a Post-It note. Have them create a flash fiction or teeny tiny short story, complete with beginning, middle, end, on their Post-Its. Have students post their Post-Its and share their short short stories.
6. In-house Field Trip
Take your students exploring in your building or on your campus. Ask them to bring along their notebooks or “field journals.” Encourage your students to pay attention to the details we normally overlook, and have them write down their observations and sources of inspiration. (For one of my students: security cameras were particularly inspiring).
When you return to class, have students focus on one of their observations for notebook time.
7. Writing with Lyrics
To incorporate music into your notebook time, consider beginning class with a particularly moving or poetic song and having students imitate how the songwriter uses literary or rhetorical devices. One of my favorites is The Beatles “Til There Was You” to imitate the writer’s “there-cleft” sentence structure. For an added bonus, follow up your notebook time with the same device at play from your class’s literature study.
8. Dear Teacher Literary Analysis Letter
For a lit analysis focused notebook, have your students write a letter unpacking the meaning of a poem, short story, or passage. One day last semester I was home with my sick Kindergartner. I left my students a particularly summoning poem, “Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver, and asked them to write a letter to me. The task was to read, enjoy, appreciate, and savor the poem; to talk about the poem with their classmates, and then to write a letter to me examining the writer’s craft, and the poem’s structure and literary elements.
I was blown away by how the intimacy of letter writing lent itself to sophistication and maturity in writing and in literary analysis. Here’s one of my favorite letters I received from a lovely student, Ashley H.:
9. Take a Stand
In the style of an anticipation guide, ask students to agree or disagree with a simple yet polarizing statement, such as “It is possible for men and women to be friends.” Have students move to one side of the room or the other, based on whether they agree or disagree with the statement, and then have students discuss their reasoning. After that, ask students take to their journals to expand their thoughts.
I’ve found that the more students talk about their ideas and do some thinking up front, the more they have to say in their notebooks
10. Chuck Klosterman’s “Hypertheticals”
Chuck Klosterman’s “Hypertheticals” are money for ginning up interesting conversation and debate. The best part of these for me is that not only are they great fodder for notebook time, they’re purely hypothetical and…ridiculous. Like Super Gorilla, Artistic Telekinesis ridiculous. No politics or religion necessary at this table. Here are a few that exist on the Internet. And here’s my favorite scenario for class:
Genetic engineers at Johns Hopkins University announce that they have developed a so-called “super gorilla.” Though the animal cannot speak, it has a sign language lexicon of over twelve thousand words, an I.Q. of almost 85, and–most notably–a vague sense of self-awareness. Oddly, the creature (who weighs seven hundred pounds) becomes fascinated by football. The gorilla aspires to play the game at its highest level and quickly develops the rudimentary skills of a defensive end. ESPN analyst Tom Jackson speculates that this gorilla would be “borderline unblockable” and would likely average six sacks a game (although Jackson concedes the beast might be susceptible to counters and misdirection plays). Meanwhile, the gorilla has made it clear he would never intentionally injure any opponent.
You are commissioner of the NFL: Would you allow this gorilla to sign with the Oakland Raiders?
What are your go-to notebook time prompts? What novel and engaging activities do you use to get your students writing? I’d love to hear from you!