I recently wrote in this space about writing as a way to help students remember their lives, and this is an important purpose for writing. But sometimes I think we forget something so obvious, so elemental, so countercultural to the drudgery school-writing has often become, that we need what creativity expert Roger Von Oech calls A Whack on the Side of the Head to remind us of its simple truth.
Writing is fun.
There. I said it.
My teaching career didn’t begin in a traditional classroom. My first teaching gig came while I was still in high school: I taught “Make Your Own Comic Strip” classes to younger kids in the Southern Adirondack Library System. Cartooning is at least half writing, and the first rule of cartooning: have fun. My second non-school teaching gig came when I was in college. I assisted author Steve Burt as a counselor at his creative writing camp at Skye Farm Camps in Warrensburg, N.Y.
I have often said that what I’m really trying to do every time I teach writing is re-create creative writing camp (but with less trees, campfires, and mosquitos.) I want my students to love writing. I want my students to write well. We sometimes act as though those two goals are mutually exclusive. They are not. In fact, if students find joy and fun in writing, they may do it more – and get better at it!
I am not the first to make the case for fun, nor am I the only source for fun writing exercises (obviously), but I think that giving students fun writing experiences is a kind of gift. Fun is its own benefit. So without further ado, here are some of my favorite fun writing activities. For those of you who work for administrators for whom fun is not enough (curses on them!), I will also give you the “rigor factor” for each activity – the element that makes it a legit writing lesson for standards-based classrooms…
The Ten Item Tale (originally introduced to me as Creating a Monster): Have your class generate a list of ten random items. I like to suggest that a couple of them should be living things or people so you have built-in characters. Students then get 10 to 20 minutes (you decide the time frame) to write a story that includes all ten items, either literally or figuratively (“She had a personality like a porcupine.”). The results are sometimes tragic, sometimes hysterically funny, and sometimes just… odd. But creativity is about connecting unlike things, sometimes in unexpected, counterintuitive ways. Confession: My friends and I were nerdy enough in college that we played this writing game for fun on weekends instead of binge drinking. It was probably more fun and also didn’t make you throw up. Rigor Factor: Um… you can have them proofread each other’s papers for run-ons and fragments?
Menu Fiction (adapted from What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers): This is one of my favorite activities. Have students choose 2 random numbers, one from the numbers 1 through 10, the other from the numbers 11 through 20. I then reveal two lists. Their number 1 to 10 is their random person from menu A. Their number 11 to 20 is their random action. Their task? Write a story that explains how their character wound up performing this strange action. I often tweak my lists, but here are my current people and actions.
People: 1. A cashier at a toy shop 2. A movie star 3. An abstract oil painter 4. A mountain climber 5. A plastic surgeon 6. Make-up sales-lady 7. Basketball player 8. A banjo player 9. Fireworks technician 10. An orthodontist
Actions: 1.Digging something up 2. Searching through a junkyard 3.Throwing earthworms off a balcony 4. Kidnapping a hamster 5. Climbing in a drive-thru window 6. Putting on an Elvis Presley costume 7. Yelling at a fire hydrant 8. Chasing a clown 9. Stealing Happy Meal toys 10. Climbing a miniature golf course windmill
If you chose numbers 3 and 7, you have to explain why an oil painter is yelling at a fire hydrant. I have participated in this activity with my students and have successfully written about a fashion model collecting a road kill and an explosives expert holding a guinea pig hostage. This is nearly always a winner. Students can’t wait to share. Rigor Factor: Students must use logic to make their scenarios seem plausible. Well, they might use logic.
Kidnapped! This is an exercise I developed to help students do two things: 1. Write from inside a fictional character’s experience, and 2. Use sensory detail. To do this, I created a scenario where the sense of sight is off-limits. The prompt is simple: He/she woke up blindfolded, bound, and gagged and tried to figure out where he/she was. Before they write, students must invent a place for their protagonist to be held captive, preferably a place with many sounds, smells, textures, and temperatures. Examples include in a light house, a movie theater projection booth, an ice cream truck, under “It’s a Small World” at Disney World, or in the back of a McDonald’s. I then ask them to brainstorm ideas about the obvious four remaining senses: sound, smell, touch, and (where applicable) taste. I then take it a bit further and ask them to brainstorm about some other senses scientists claim we have: sense of motion, sense of space, sense of bodily position, since of pain, sense of temperature, and sense of time. With those preliminaries done, students are now free to write from their character’s perspective as they try to figure out where they are being held captive by noting all the sensory data they can. It should end with “She/he knew where she/he was.” Then let the guessing begin! Perfect for sharing in both small groups and the whole class. Rigor Factor: Students must use sensory detail.
The Mad Dash to Class: This is often the first exercise I do in a given school year. I ask students to imagine their longest commute between classes (or an invented long commute set on our campus). I tell them to pretend they are desperate to get to class on time or they will be in big trouble. We brainstorm strong verbs to use (ran, jumped, swerved, ducked, crashed, fell, shoved, etc.) and concrete nouns in the form of obstacles that might get in their way (golf carts, kissing couples, doors opening, drinking fountains). I play the theme from Mission: Impossible and tell them to write an over the top action scene! Rigor Factor: Strong verbs and concrete nouns are the building blocks of great writing.
Out of Control: This one is a another action scene. Have students come up with what is out of control: A bike? A car? Golf cart? Skateboard? Spaceship? Zamboni? Put a main character or fictional version of themselves onto this out of control conveyance and let the narrative rip! Who knows? They might write the next Speed. Rigor Factor: More verbs and nouns.
Dialogue: Have student brainstorm different characters who might be having a conflict, teach them basic dialogue format, and then set them lose to write dialogue. Or supply them with a scenario. My students often enjoy “Ben Bunny tried to talk Fred Fox out of having him for dinner.” It goes a bit Looney Tunes sometimes, but a good time is had by all. Rigor Factor: Dialogue format, which covers “conventions” standards.
World’s Most Boring Topics: I won’t elaborate much here since I covered it in a previous post. Here’s the link. Rigor Factor: They are writing expository text.
Incident/Irony: Again, I’ve written about this here, but I really think it’s one of the best exercises I’ve ever invented. Here’s the link. Rigor Factor: They are creating irony, which will help them grasp the concept better when they read. Ironically, we try to make irony all heavy and rigorous, when it is the basis of nearly every joke ever told.
Two Word Horror Stories: Look them up. Some examples are better than others. Have students write these on paper with no tech in sight so they aren’t tempted to just plagiarize them. When these work, they are awesome.
I’ll leave my list there, though I have other ideas. We need to let students have fun with writing – even if there is no rigor factor. We need to let joy and play back into writing. We need to let them love writing…
And not because it will raise test scores. Because fun is its own reward.
Consider it your holiday gift to your students: The gift of fun.
Images via www.mrfitz.com. Created by David Lee Finkle.
Do you encourage students to have fun with writing? Share some ideas in the comments below! You can connect with me on Twitter @DLFinkle or on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/mrfitzcomics
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