Writing Outside the Box: Building Students’ Creativity
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had students tell me that they don’t know how to be creative. They think creativity is a talent that you are born with or not. While it’s true that some people seem to be better at creativity than others, I really think being creative is more of a skill that can be practiced and honed. And not all our students need to be super creative all the time. However, creative thinking is a great life skill that helps with problem-solving. And in writing, even academic or professional writing, being able to come up with lots of different ideas is important. A creative person can communicate more effectively by being able to vary how the express themselves. What should we be doing to ensure we are building students‘ creativity?
The easiest way to help students be creative is to give them practice. And the best way to come up with good creative ideas is to come up with lots and lots of ideas. Many of those ideas will not be good. Creativity is really a percentage game.
So building students’ creativity is more about getting students to do the work and not putting obstacles in their way. That means doing lots of writing. It also means creating a classroom environment that is low-stress, experimentation-friendly, and failure-tolerant! There’s a time and a place for correcting students and doing more guided work, but generating ideas is not one of them.
Developing creativity also means avoiding prompts that can actually limit or stifle creativity. What characteristics do prompts that may limit creativity have? While every person and what inspires them is different, here are some of the things to look out for.
Limiting Student Creativity
- Repetitiveness: Teachers and materials writers (myself included) sometimes forget that students do more than one activity. How many times in a term are they asked their favorite color? Or a book they really like? Or even something like the kinds of things you can do in the summer. A story prompt like this might take the form of “You win a million dollars” or “You become President”. These questions may be fine for other reasons like a fluency practice, eliciting vocab, or practicing a grammar structure. However, the same old prompts can fall flat if you are trying to get students to be creative and come up with new ideas!
Note that younger learners may not mind this repetition, or may even like it. Most first-graders LOVE to tell you their favorite color, dinosaur, TV show, friend, food, and chair in the house. And their taste tends to change faster too!
- Limited Answers A lot of prompts and discussion questions really only have one answer. Take a question like, “Do you think protecting the environment is important?” Who is going to say no? Even something like, “Think of 3 reasons why protecting the environment is important,” is fairly limited.
Take a minute and think. I’ll bet you said: Save the animals, keep the air and water clean, preserve the planet for future generations. Or a variation on those three points.
- Expected Answers: In the same vein, a lot of our prompts have fairly predictable answers. If you do ask a student about saving the environment, and they answer that environmentalism is over-rated, or that the environment should be preserved for economic reasons, do you gently guide students back to the “right” answer? Or do your materials have leading questions that push them in one direction? If you give students a story about a conflict between friends, do you encourage them, intentionally or unintentionally, explicitly or implicitly, to write a happy ending where everyone gets along?
There is a time and a place for the predictable or expected. We should always allow students to write their true opinion, but it’s hard to be creative if students feel that one outcome is preferred or dispreferred.
- Too Open: On the other side, there’s the prompt that is too open or too out there and unpredictable. Some people think that being creative means getting really out there and surreal and random. “Write a story about a pencil eraser and a green squid with a mohawk” might inspire some, but many of us might struggle to put those things together, and come up with a reason why a squid has a mohawk. And it’s interesting that some modern children’s books that feature these kinds of wacky characters end up with fairly mundane framings. “Hi I’m Mr. Mohwak, the squid with a mohawk! Are you an eraser?” “Yeah, but I live in the ocean.” “Weird! Let’s get ice cream!”
I think there’s a time and place for these kinds of “be totally random” exercises, but it doesn’t always lead to productive creativity so much as randomness for the sake of being random.
So what does make a good prompt for building students’ creativity?
With the same caveat as above, that everyone is different and that there’s a time and a place for everything, good creative prompts are open enough to push students in a few different directions besides the obvious. A haunted house story holds open the possibility that the house really is haunted or that it’s a criminal hideout, or just a hoax.
Students also need support to fall back on. “Imagine you are a broom in Buckingham Palace” is pretty open and creative, but students may have a hard time imagining that. They know little about Buckingham Palace and the role of a broom can be pretty limited. Support can take the form of guiding questions such as, “What’s the weirdest thing you have to clean up?” or a longer story starter such as:
You are a broom in Buckingham Palace. Normally, you are used to sweep the kitchen and other rooms where the servants live. However, one day, the Queen calls for the maid who uses you.
“There is a huge mess in my bedroom. My crown has shattered into pieces. I need you to sweep up every piece so we can put it back together.”
How did the crown get shattered, what happens while you are sweeping up the pieces, and how can they fix a crown in tiny pieces?
Tell the rest of the story.
Now we have a plot and a location, but there’s still plenty left to the students’ imagination.
Finally, there should be no obvious direction the story has to go in. Sometimes this is implemented in the class. As a teacher, you can make it clear that students can write unexpected things. You can even do an opposite activity, where students have to write the opposite of what they naturally would, or twist the starter around. A romantic prompt turns into a thriller. A funny story starter turns into drama and so on.
Often the easiest way to help students be more creative and less likely to follow the obvious path is to design prompts that are outside the box! Instead of asking why nature is good, ask what would happen if we woke up to find all the trees dead. Or we lived in a world where recycling was illegal. Or make the prompt specific. Focus on a particular region or even species.
I hope this has given you something to think about when it comes to creative writing and building students’ creativity! Feel free to share your own creative prompts in the comments!
If you’re looking for some sample prompt ideas that are a bit outside the box, check out our books:
We also have individual downloadable, printable resources on Teachers Pay Teachers.
How to do Social-Emotional Learning Prompts for ESL
Sometimes the best classroom activities come out of the simplest things. Case in point, these Social-Emotional Learning prompts for ESL students created by Teresa X. Nguyen and illustrated by Tyler Hoang and Nathaniel Cayanan. Each worksheet has a written prompt and an original hand-drawn illustration. It’s simple enough but designed to work for students at any level. It’s a particularly powerful tool, as there are plenty of social-emotional learning activities and prompts for the mainstream classroom.
But what’s unique about these worksheets is that they’re the only social-emotional learning prompts for ESL students and the ESL classroom! Because they’re so simple and there’s so much space on the page, students can respond by drawing, writing, jotting down words and notes, or discussing. You can even scaffold, moving from sketches and single words all the way to a longer piece of writing.
Because these positive activity prompts are so much fun, I couldn’t sharing some of my own ideas for filling them out. I’ve also included some ways to implement them in the classroom! Links to the worksheets on Teachers Pay Teachers are in the captions or check out all our printable, downloadable, or shareable Positive Activities.
I’ll start with my favorite!
New Emotions or Emojis
Students draw expressions to represent new feelings or attitudes and then share their creations with the class. They can get other students to guess their emotions from the drawings or share one emoji they want, or even an emotion they think needs a name! Like that feeling when you’re physically tired but emotionally not ready for bed!
Here’s a list of a few ways students can respond to the Social Emotional Learning prompts, depending on their language level and the logistics of the class. I’ve put the activities in roughly order of complexity. However, what works for your classroom and what is easier or harder for your students may also vary! You can even scaffold the activities and have students start anywhere on the list, then work their way up. Go from a sketch to a short writing in a few simple moves!
- Sketch an response.
- Label the drawing with key words.
- Discuss your response with a partner.
- Write short phrases or sentences as a response.
- Brainstorm ideas with a partner or in a group.
- Outline a longer response, using a graphic organizer or writing frame.
- Discuss the prompt in detail with a partner.
- Write a paragraph or series of paragraphs.
- Share written answers and provide peer feedback
I love this thankful prompt because it really tells you what your students value in others. What do they love about the people in their lives? They may want to name these people, but they don’t have to. This is a great discussion prompt as students can share about one particular person in their lives.
This is a fun getting-to-know-you activity that can be done in a lot of different ways. Students can draw themselves realistically or how they want to appear. They can label the drawing with facts about themselves, the clothes they like to wear, how they feel about their appearance (like their favorite part of themselves). They can draw themselves doing something they love or wearing their favorite clothes or sitting in their favorite place. What do they want to share about themselves? Extend this activity by making a gallery of classmates for everyone to get to know everyone else. Have them do one at the beginning of the term and at the end so they can compare their portraits.
My Robot Social-Emotional ESL Prompt
This prompt is a lot of fun for young learners. They’re probably making their own robots anyway and the activity can give them a lot of vocabulary. Students can learn words for describing machines and electronics including button, gear, switch, click, and more! They can also learn words for the functions their robot performs.
They could focus on a problem and have their robot be a solution to that problem, which helps build vocabulary in a particular area. Or just have them go crazy designing the coolest robot they can think of and labelling all the features. Then they can share with a partner or with the whole class.
You may ask how to use this as a social-emotional learning prompt specifically. Students can design robots to help with social or emotional life issues-a companion robot, a therapist bot, a tool to help with special needs. Your students’ imagination is the limit.
My Rhyming Poem: Writing Prompt for SEL
There are a lot of ways to get students writing short rhyming poems. They can read and copy rhyming poems, including formulaic ones such as limericks or “Roses are red, violets are blue” poems. They can sing rhyming songs and copy the structure. You can even have them imitate a picture book. Let them enjoy flipping through a rhyming dictionary for ideas.
Looking for a whole book of these? Check out the paperback of 60 Positive Activities for Kids, for sale wherever books are sold! We also have them in slide format to make them easy to share in-person or online!
And feel free to share your ideas for using these wonderful creations in the classroom!
Resources for Distance Learning
We know we aren’t the first and we probably won’t be the last people you hear from to talk about our resources for distance learning (or that work well teaching online). But we assume if you’re reading this blog, or getting this email that means you like what we do. And we certainly like what we do and think they’re pretty useful.
Now when I say resources for distance learning, I mean a few different things. First, it could mean resources that are well-suited for online learning platforms like Zoom or Google Classrooms. Some of our resources are on PowerPoint or Google Slides, or single PDF pages so you can share them with your class easily.
Other resources are good for distance learning because students can do them independently. Then they can share their results with you via email or through your learning platform.
Also note that a lot of our books are available as ebooks. So you can have your students buy them, or get them instantly-no waiting to prep your lessons!
Now, we’ll be updating this list as we work to make more and more of our resources distance learning-friendly. We’d also love to hear from you if you’re using any of our Teacher Resource Books and adapting the activities for online use.
Always Look on the Bright Side of Life
If you’re looking for simple and flexible prompts that focus on fun memories, kindness, and setting and achieving goals, then 60 Positive Activities for Kids is the book for you.
Each slide features a prompt that students can respond to in writing, in conversation, or by drawing. Or let students start with a drawing, add labels, share with a partner, and then start constructing sentences, paragraphs and longer writings.
Best of all and much-needed these days, each prompt focuses on the positive side of life. Students will be sharing a joke, talking about a happy memory, inventing their dream home, and discussing their achievements and hopes for the future.
So check out the PowerPoint or Google Slide editions on Teachers Pay Teachers. You can also get individual worksheets as PDFs.
Stuck at Home fun
For distance learning, the online versions of Teresa’s Positive Activities books are best. But if you’re looking for something to do with your own children at home (or to entertain youself), check out the paperback editions of 60 Positive Activities for Kids and 60 Positive Activities for Adults.
Take your mind off the stress of the current situation by designing the perfect meal or talking about your favorite activities for each season. My favorite is the “New Holiday” prompt where you plan a new holiday. You can even celebrate your holidays while you’re home!
The hand-drawn illustrations are great for kids to color in and use as discussion prompts. Turn it into a competition by having everyone vote on the best answer. Or use it as a check-in to see where everyone’s mood is. I’ve been using them with my son as transitions from home-schooling to free time and vice versa!
What if . . .
What Would You Do? is a great activity that requires no prep and that students can do independently. But they generate a ton of great discussion and/or writing. Give students a hypothetical situation and let them discuss what they would do. It’s an easy way to bring up social and emotional issues, ethical dilemmas, and address every day conflicts.
We’ve formatted the book, What Would You Do? by Taylor Sapp as Google Slides and as PowerPoint slides to make them easy to share over Zoom or Google Classrooms, or whatever you’re using for remote teaching!
Each dilemma features one slide that lays out the situation, giving some context to the problem. Then there’s a concise statement of the issue. Finally there are some suggested solutions to help students start thinking of solutions.
The second slide gives some variations because we know our actions often depend on the context. This is a great time to talk about Social-Emotional Learning.
Story Prompts That Inspire
What Would You Do$3.50 – $20.00 incl tax
Stories Without End$3.49 – $16.00 incl tax
We still have print and ebooks for sale too, including Stories Without End. 24 open-ended stories that students can supply their own endings too. There are a lot of other creative projects related to each story, as well, including rewriting stories, adding characters, doing summaries, or even turning the story into a play or movie (or online animation, I guess).
For our remote teaching world, I’d suggest having students read a story on their own, then discuss the comprehension questions via email or your class page/wall/blog. Then they can start writing. This can be done independently or they can brainstorm in groups online!
Finally, have them share their stories on their class blog or classroom or through email. Everyone can share then leave a comment, reflection, or question for each classmate!
The whole book is available in ebook, paperback, or in PDF at Teachers Pay Teachers. We also have individual stories at TpT.
Writing Journals for Every Occasion
We also have a set of writing journals out in ebook form and soon coming out in print! You can find them wherever you buy your books or click the links below. Each one contains 52 prompts, one for each week of the year, making them perfect as a periodic journal or writing prompt!
Inspirations Weekly Writing Journal: 52 Writing Prompts for Short Stories is a collection of fictional prompts and guiding questions to help you come up with an amazing story idea. There’s also a guide to the story arc. And tips for going through the writing process from idea to revision!
Agree or Disagree: 52 Writing Prompts for Opinion Essays is a collection of 52 statements for academic essays, debates, or argument essays. There’s also some sample outlines, including the rebuttal form, and tips for going through the whole writing process.
Reflections Weekly Writing Journal: 52 Writing Prompts About You includes one prompt per week about you. It’s a nice way to get into journalling or do a little free-writing as a transition in your day!
Share a trip you want to take or a nice memory or something you really hate!
New Mindsets and Habits for a New Routine
Teacher Self Care Manual$3.20 – $10.00 incl tax
Of course, with everything going on, it’s easy to forget to take care of ourselves. Patrice Palmer’s book on Teacher Self Care is more relevant than ever, and it even applies to parents or anyone feeling stressed out about our new lives!
The heart of Patrice’s approach is to look at the mindsets that cause you to get stressed out. I know for many there’s a lot of pressure to be creative or productive since we all supposedly have so much free time. But that mindset, “This is my best/only chance to do something great” is pretty stress-inducing. It’s also not particularly conducive to actually being productive, meaning many of us are probably being LESS creative or productive now. And then beating ourselves up for it.
If we give up that mindset, ….. Now if we want to be creative maybe we can set some realistic expectations like, “I’m gong to use the 20 minutes I used to commute to work just doodling/freewriting” or “I’m going to do my son’s schoolwork with him (I’m stuck watching him anyway) and try to learn something new”
Let us know if you use any of these resources, and above all be healthy and keep safe!
And do get in touch if there’s anything we can do to help make teaching and learning easier in these times.
Get Students Writing and Talking!
As more and more teachers are turning to online teaching and distance learning for the forseeable future, and students may be considering self-study options, I’d like to introduce our free prompt generating tool, English Prompts, with three different kinds of prompts: creative writing, speaking, and role-plays.
The first, Stories Without End, generates a random short story prompt that ends on a cliff-hanger. The genres vary from horror to comedy to sci-fi to realistic fiction, so there’s a broad range of topics. Don’t like the story? Click “New Story”! Here are some ideas to use it with students:
- Have students work as a group to brainstorm story ending ideas, then write a joint story.
- As a class, come up with a list of 5-10 questions they think the story ending should address. Then students can individually pick 2-3 questions to guide their story ending.
- Students can also generate and answer questions as a group.
- Have students each write an ending, then share them anonymously. Students read the other endings and vote on the best one.
- Have students write another paragraph and then swap papers. They then write another paragraph that follows from what the previous student wrote. The second student can end the story or students can swap again and keep adding paragraphs till they reach a logical conclusion.
- Got lower level students? They can read or tell their story idea rather than writing it. You can even have them draw a picture or storyboard their idea, then label or write an outline, and then tell it.
Next, What Would You Do? prompts are a collection of hypothetical situations that students answer by telling what they would do in those situations. Some are realistic, some are ridiculous, and some are somewhere in-between. Get a new random situation by clicking “There are a lot of ways to use this flexible resource:
- Think of contextual questions that might change students’ answers. Would you return a stolen wallet full of cash? What if you were homeless and needed the money? What if you saw the person who dropped it?
- Or have students think of contexts where they would do different actions.
- Have a debate where students argue the pluses and minuses of different situations.
- Have students use them as story prompts to write a short story highlighting the situation and their chosen response.
- Ask students to predict what their classmates would do in different situations, then do a survey.
- Have students interview friends or family members or put a poll online and then tally up the results and report on what they learned.
- Get students to come up with their own WWYD?s.
- Watch the show What Would You Do? on ABC (episodes can be found on Youtube) and get them to predict what people would do or discuss how people did react and why.
Looking to do some acting? Start a Scene is an improv or role-play prompt generator. Click “New Line” and get a first line of a dramatic scene. Students can use that to improvise or write a conversation or situation. To make it even more useful, you can also click on the “New Emotion” button and get an emotion to say the line with. This helps draw students’ attention to the way that we use our voices and bodies to show feeling or attitude. It also helps students think about pragmatics. We speak differently to angry people than happy people. If someone says something ironically, we react in a whole other way!Use these prompts to:
- Generate an improv or role-play, written or spoken.
- Ask students to practice saying a line with an emotion while others guess and/or discuss how well the actor did.
- Try the same line with different emotions and talk about how the meaning changes with the attitude.
- Describe the situation. Who is speaking? To whom? Where are they? What do they want?
- Assign inappropriate emotions to lines. Have someone say, “I love you” as if they have the giggles, for example!
Hope you enjoy this tool and we’re always open to hearing what kinds of new features you’d like to see! You can also
browse all our free resources for doing drama in the classroom at Plays and Drama Resources for Students.
New Holiday Activity
I am having way too much fun uploading worksheets out of 60 Positive Activities for Kids on to our Teachers Pay Teachers Store (Click on Build Positivity to find all the worksheets!)
One of the things I’m really enjoying is that it gives me a chance to think deeply about how to use the resources in the classroom. As I was uploading this awesome New Holiday Activity I realized that this could be a one-off creative worksheet as the authors intended.
But it could also spark a discussion comparing holiday traditions. You could even use it as the beginning of a project to design a fully-fleshed out celebration. And then use some of the ideas from everyone’s holiday for your end-of-class or end-of-year party!
Expanding the Project
In the activity as written, students pick a name of a holiday, the date, the reason for it, the activities, any traditions, and the food. However, you can follow-up this up by having students draw costumes or decorations on the back. They might even want to draw out parade routes or traditional dance steps.
Now you can have students share their holidays with each other in pairs or small groups. Be sure that the partners are asking each other questions about their holidays. Students can be asking questions in order to improve their partners’ clarity or to help them include more detail.
Questions that help improve clarity might be, “When do the fireworks happen? Why do people put lights on their houses?”
Questions that help the writer add detail include, “Do the dancers wear special costumes? What kind of food do people have? Can the parade happen any time?”
After talking to a partner, students can revise their holiday ideas. Then they can redo the worksheet or even turn their work into a short essay. If possible, you can even have them do presentations on their holidays. Encourage them to include some “traditions” and activities, within reasonable limits.
Another variation is to use this activity to discuss different ways of celebrating an existing holiday. This works well with one students love to celebrate. Thanksgiving, Christmas, Eid al-Fitr , Hanukkah, Easter, and Sukkot, and New Years, Spring Festival come to mind when I think of my students!
In this case, students would write the name of the real holiday, but then think about how their family celebrates it. They may be surprised to discover the many different ways people celebrate the same holiday. It’s also worth having students compare what they think the meaning of the holiday is. Again, there may be more diversity there than you’d think.
The above activity assumes students are all from the same culture or are in homogeneous groups. Alternatively, you can put students in mixed groups and have them compare events that are usually celebrated, such as weddings, birthdays, or retirements. Or they can talk about a type of holiday such as new years or one where we give thanks. What’s the big holiday where kids get presents? Which holiday involves family sharing a big meal? What similarities and differences exist? I’m always amazed when I do things like this with my students how every culture has special rules for the elderly, for example. Grandpa’s chair or the good chair seems to have a parallel worldwide!
If you use the New Holiday Activity from 60 Positive Activities for Kids, be sure to let us know how it goes. What did you do? Did the students like it? You can leave a comment here or email us.
Prewriting Activities for Young Learners and Lower Level Students
Prewriting is really just a fancy way of saying “planning to write”. For many writers, it includes brainstorming and outlining. But prewriting activities for young learners, who often have lower proficiency in English as well as lower attention spans and writing skills, need to be designed carefully. Young learners often don’t have a lot of vocabulary around a topic. Using a complex outline or graphic organizer can be intimidating and confusing. And it always helps with kids if your classroom activities are engaging and quick.
That’s one reason I really like Teresa X. Nguyen‘s books of illustrated creative prompts. While the activities are highly adaptable to fit almost any classroom or educational setting, they also make really good prewriting activities for young learners and lower-level students. Because the activities take the form of drawings and the style is cartoony and friendly, they’re not intimidating at all. Students won’t even realize they are doing something academic. You can even scaffold by having students color the page or add their own drawings, then add words.
For example, here’s a great sample prompt that builds student positivity (These fabulous illustrations are by the very talented Tyler Hoang):
Turn a Simple Prompt into a Prewriting Activity for Young Learners
Imagine that we’re using the prompt above: good things I’ve done, big or small!
First, make sure that students understand the prompt. They should think about achievements or good deeds in the past that they have personally done. And it doesn’t have to be something big like winning a contest.
You can set your own standards, but I’d tell my students to think of things they are proud, no matter what the size. It could be drawing a cool picture, reading a book, running really fast, or helping out at home. You can also let students use L1 to brainstorm and then translate with a dictionary or the help of their classmates.
Once students understand, set a timer so that students don’t overthink it, get distracted. 10-15 minutes should be enough. Have them try to fill out all four boxes with something. If their level is very low, it might be a word or two, or even a drawing, or some combination of words and pictures. Don’t let them worry about spelling at this point. As long as they know what they wrote, it’s fine.
Put students in pairs to discuss their responses. Again set a clear time limit so they don’t go off subject. They should be doing two things:
- Helping each other with vocabulary and spelling. I like letting students correct each other before they consult a dictionary because it shows the power of social learning, and it also creates natural feedback, e.g.
“Wait, every week you visit your grandmother and help her do what? The crucigram? The puzzle, you mean? I think it’s called a word cross, no, no, crossword in English”
- Choosing the most interesting topic. We write for an audience. So the best way to help students chose a good topic is to open up their ideas to an audience such as their classmates. This also provides a great chance for natural interaction. After all, if a topic is interesting, the other student will ask questions and express admiration: “Wait, you have a black belt in aikido? Cool. How long have you been doing it?”
Now your students have their topic for their writing. They can begin to think about how to organize a longer writing about it.
I like to introduce the 5-Ws (Who? What? When? Where? Why?) to flesh out the story and include details!
- Who in this case is probably the student.
- What might seem equally obvious, but encourage students to break down their activity or achievement. If it’s a good deed, what exactly happened, what was the aftermath? If it’s an activity they excel at like aikido, have them think about what they do at practice, what it means to have done well at it?
- When, Where, and Why speak for themselves, I hope!
They can sketch or make notes at this stage. Alternatively, I’m fond of Draw-Label-Caption. It’s a great prewriting activity for young learners on it’s own and it fits well with many of the prompts in 60 Positive Activities for Kids.
Now they have a lot of details that they can use to start writing their story. Again, I’m a big fan of letting them work with a partner, at least to have someone to check their spelling or discuss words and grammar. However, at this point I would also let them use resources like their dictionaries or their phones or books.
I hope this has been helpful in showing how to move from a simple prompt or even a drawing to a longer piece of writing, scaffolded for younger learners. You can also check out some suggestions for using drawings in language teaching or check out Emily Bryson’s course on graphic facilitation.
But Wait, There’s More….
While they make nice first steps toward a longer writing, you can also use the activities in Teresa’s book as:
- Discussion starters
- Brain-breaks or stress-busters in a long or difficult class
- Fast-finisher activities
- A “diary” where students periodically do one activity in class and get their creative juices flowing
Feel free to leave comments and let us know how you use 60 Positive Activities for Kids in your classroom.
Genre Switching for Better Writing
I belong to a Facebook group for self-published fiction authors many of whom routinely make thousands or tens of thousands of dollars a month. The key to their success? Pick a genre that readers like, read as many examples of it as you can, and then write to that genre. While some might dismiss this approach as putting formula over art, their ability to sell does highlight the importance of genre to readers. When we read a detective novel, we expect certain things to happen. In a horror novel, there are certain things characters will never do or say. And while the boundaries of genre can be stretched or redefined, they can never be ignored completely. Imagine a romance novel where no one fell in love.
In non-fiction or academic writing genre conventions are arguably even more important. The genre-based approach to writing, popularized by John Swales, among others, demonstrates the importance of writing having certain features in order to be effective. Newspaper articles have very particular structures, starting with the unusual grammar of headlines. Grant proposals, business school case studies, reports on science class experiments, and book reviews all have different features and structures that a writer must be able to understand and employ to make the writing effective.
There are a number of ways to teach students to write in genre and genre-switching is one of the most effective. I was first introduced to this activity by Alan Maley’s wonderful book, Short and Sweet. Maley groups the exercise under “Media Transfer”, one of his generalizable activities that work with almost any text. This activity is also found in Stories Without End by Taylor Sapp, one of our own books in the creative classrooms series.
The basic idea is to have students rewrite a text in a different genre. A fairy-tale can be rewritten as a news story or interview (something that you might remember from Sesame Street News). A poem can be turned into a letter or a play. A serious text can be parodied as a comedy! And genre fiction can be rewritten in different genres.
Benefits of Genre Switching
This activity helps students understand genre conventions because they must separate important details from the text from genre conventions. For example, a mystery story tends to begin with a crime and follow the investigation as the detective discovers clues. It would not be surprising to find characters who lie or keep secrets from each other, descriptions of crimes or even violent acts, or a “twist” that causes the reader to question the events of the book. There may be a romance, but it will not be the focus of the story. The focus of a mystery is the crime and the discovery of clues, leading to the solution, and the capture (or attempted capture) of the “bad guy.”
On the other hand, there are romance novels that include crimes. However, the focus of the story will be on the two main characters falling in love. There may be secrets or twists, but these will be related to the main characters and how their relationship is viewed. So to take a mystery story and rewrite it as a romance, students must understand what features of the story are so important that they must be preserved. And what features cannot be transferred to another genre.
This awareness of genre features can also help students become better readers. When they know what to expect in a story, it helps them focus on the plot. And it helps students chose reading material they like. In fact, I had a student who very much enjoyed love stories, and ended up buying a romance novel without realizing it. He was shocked by the sex scenes. It was very helpful to him to sit down and discuss the hallmarks of a romance novel (including conventions of cover design and titles) so that he could avoid them in the future. This may seem like a trivial example, but we forget how much we glean about a book from its genre, as native speakers and cultural natives. It would be very difficult to read a thriller without knowing what to expect, or to read Dickens and constantly be expecting a vampire to appear!
Changing the Medium: Story to Drama
Students must go through the same process if they are taking a speech and turning it into a newspaper article. And the process gets even more interesting if you ask students to change the media itself. Stories Without End by Taylor Sapp contains more than just 24 open-ended story prompts. It also has an extensive appendix with supplemental activities that can be used with any story, not just the ones in the book. And one of the most popular activities is turning a story into a short drama or film.
But to do that, students will have to reimagine the story entirely. A play or movie requires the actors to think about body language and facial expressions every moment. But the story will probably only describe the most important moves characters make. Short stories often describe inner thoughts, whereas a play has to express those thoughts somehow in dialogue or through body language. What’s more, stories may skip over routine details or parts of conversations, something a film can’t do. But throughout the process of adapting the story to a new medium, the students must preserve the plot, and the main motivations and attitudes of the characters. So turning a short story into a drama forces students to understand what is essential to the story, and to think about different ways to express ideas visually.
One side-effect of this process is that students who enjoy TV or film, may find themselves more engaged in reading. Once they realize that they can visualize a book as a movie, the barriers that made them reluctant readers often fall. And I’ve had students go the other way, writing their favorite films as short stories. In the process, they have gained a wonderful appreciation for what can be done in writing and what cannot. That, in turn, makes them much more effective writers!
For creative stories for students and more innovative writing activities, check out:
Ways to Make Me Laugh
Humor can be a powerful tool in the classroom. As I’ve written elsewhere before, Humor plays a large role in my teaching. I use jokes to lighten the mood and make learning fun. I use self-deprecating humor so that students feel comfortable challenging me and so that they understand that mistakes aren’t the end of the world. I use humorous stories to establish rapport. And I make silly skits and demonstrations of words or grammar points so that students will remember them.
But humor is also different from culture to culture and from person to person. And while they say if you have to explain a joke, it isn’t funny anymore, people love talking about what makes them laugh. And some humor does seem to transcend cultural and national boundaries. Look at the universal appeal of Jackie Chain, Mr. Bean or Jim Carrey’s early movies, for example.
All that is to say, that a great warmer or filler activity, is to ask students to share something that makes them laugh. It gets students talking and using the language. But it does more than that. As Teresa X. Nguyen writes in the introduction to 60 Positive Activities for Every Classroom, activities that encourage students to focus on the positive can increase student motivation, help them focus on tasks, and even build resilience in the face of academic challenges. And we certainly know that stress and negative emotions can hinder learning.
Fun and happiness are obviously not the only factor that a classroom needs, but positivity is a powerful tool that can support better learning outcomes. And it’s something every student will have something to say about. And after letting your students talk about humor and ways to make them laugh in the classroom, they’ll be ready to tackle more difficult or less interesting tasks.