Providing Experience to Write About: the Quicksand River Un-assignment

I write this post in a spirit of optimism. I write in the hope that we will be getting back to some kind of normal someday soon and can do class activities without fear of spreading the virus. I write in the hope that we can take students outside for instructional purposes without fearing an active shooter event. I write in the hope that all teachers everywhere will someday be encouraged to do things that are simply good for students, whether they raise test scores or not.

Okay – with those serious subjects out of the way, I can now proceed to my real subject: giving students a common experience to write about. We often (too often, perhaps?) give them common prompts, or common texts sets with common prompts. We give them common pieces of literature to write about. So why not a common experience?

Let me back up. Before I get to the common experience I gave my students, I need to discuss the two things that inspired it.

First, I was once a summer camp counselor in the Adirondack Mountains in Upstate New York. I always think that my best teaching is a lot like summer camp counseling: I developed and led activities that worked on multiple levels and then stepped out of the way and let the kids figure things out. As a counselor, I led a lot of group-building games.

Second, as a writing teacher, I have run into a few (i.e. too many to count) unmotivated writers in my 29 years of teaching. We’ve all had reluctant writers. One of the many excuses I hear from my reluctant writers is that they have nothing to write about. I make a point to encourage my students to find their own topics, but many of them seem to have a kind academic Stockholm syndrome that makes want to be prompted to death. Sort of like Spike and Rufus below:

Running into student attitudes like these can be discouraging – until you realize that students like Rufus, in the second comic strip, have a perfectly legitimate complaint. My solution was to set my students free of prompts and go full-tilt student-autonomy-writing-workshop mode. But some students were baffled by the freedom.

In addition to claiming writer’s block, they also displayed an unwillingness to take any risks with their writing.

So what do you do if students don’t like prompted writing and claim they have no experiences worth writing about? My solution was to take away their excuse by giving them an experience to write about. And that’s where my camp counselor background came in. I took a stroll down memory lane, found three logs in my backyard, and purchased two 8-foot planks of wood. And then I announced the impending weirdness to my classes.

I took on a persona. I was a bit like Mr. Rogers since I was taking them to the land of make believe. I was also a bit like Dr. Who since I took on the persona of the Wizard of Spacetime. What follows is my comic strip representation of what ensued.

The principal in my comic, Ms. Albright, is a bit baffled – but my real-life principal gave this activity her full blessing! Of course, after the adventure simulation was over, it was time to go back inside to the classroom, which is where I revealed the real wizardry: tricking them into having something to write about!

Some of the students resented my ruse a bit. They thought I’d just given them a day to play outside.

But many students recognized the wealth of writing possibilities before them.

And not everyone decided to write fiction. Some students drew some significant insights out of the experience.

And while some students still had trouble adjusting to the freedom…

…others reveled in the possibilities.

And I encouraged them to begin to the possibilities for writing in the world around them…

The system pressures us to align with standards, get students ready for assessments, and make the data look good. So we dole out prompts, rate student writing on rubrics, and feel like we’re making progress. But what if the system is making everyone (including us at times) forget what writing is. Writing, at its best, is a response to life, to experience, to the world around us. How often do our students get the chance to realize that writing should be… free?

Instead of giving them a standardized writing prompt, I gave them a common experience and let them write about it any way they wanted. And even the experience varied from class to class depending on how they responded the Quicksand River challenge.

A common experience doesn’t need to be as complex as Quicksand River. It could be an in-class challenge like building a tower out of construction paper, paper clips and two piece of tape, playing a survival-box game, or inventing a Rube Goldberg invention. The point is, giving them an experience can help build a class community and give students something to write about.

Of course, there are implications here about teaching itself…

Images via All images copyright David Lee Finkle, 2016.

… but that’s an adventure for another day.

How do you create experiences for students to write about? How do you inspire students to want to write as opposed to being forced to write? You can connect with me on Twitter @DLFinkle or on Facebook at or at

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