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Helping students find their topics

My main objective is to convince children they love writing again. Kindergarteners think they are writers. When I ask fourth graders if they are writers, usually only a couple kids raise their hands. So in the upper grades, I try to re-establish their confidence.

In my classes we wrote leisurely the first month of school. Right after lunch one year, we had writing class. We began by sharing our homework entries with our writing partners, two trusted companions the students selected and kept all year. (Students wrote on a topic of their choosing for a minimum of 10 minutes every night to build writing fluency.) Then I modeled a writing tip. Then we wrote. We recorded how long we wrote each day on a graph just to prove to my students that they were writers! Very quickly, the students discovered they could write 30-40 minutes in one sitting.

Two-week topic study

Since writers need topics, most of my modeling the first couple weeks of school was about how to collect ideas for stories. Author Mem Fox challenged me to grow at the NCTE conference in Charlotte MANY years ago when she said, “I’m lucky if I find one or two topics a year! And, we ask students to write on a new topic every day!”

What could be more important than finding what you want to write? So, just as kindergarteners play with periods until they learn how to use them correctly, my students play with find writing ideas independently.

Devote the first 2-3 weeks of the year to teaching students how to find writing ideas. A popular strategy for finding topics is freewriting. Write down everything that comes to mind for 3-5 minutes without censoring. No fair lifting pencils as students put them to paper the whole time! They ramble on about things that bug them (always a popular idea), things they love, books they've read, questions, people they know and other brainstorms. Nothing is wrong. The students generate story ideas by reviewing the freewriting and circling potential topics. They record their best ideas on a “Topic Page” or “Story Ideas Page” to jog their memories when they have longer periods of time to draft.

Tell stories before putting pencil to paper

Tell stories. One of my favorite series of lessons is sharing my family stories. (They pay me to do this?) From my telling, students beg to share something they thought of while I was entertaining them. From listening to others, we think about similar experiences and record the ideas on our topic lists, as well. By the way, I teach students to make their lists specific enough to remember what they meant. One time, I showed the students that I recorded the word “connections” on my topic page. I had absolutely no recollection of what I was going to write when I first saw that in my daybook weeks later. Luckily, the next line said, “Michael – 3 yrs old – flowers.” I remembered that day! I’d written enough to jog my memory and now I could write that story. (Download a plan for teaching storytelling and finding narrative or poetry topics: story-idea lessons. For opinion topics, go to opinion-argument topics.)

Make lists; look at what others write

  1. Another idea that works well is making lists. For example, create a Writing Territories page (Nancie Atwell):
  2. List what you’ve already written (letters, emails, stories – all the kinds of writing we do).
  3. Write who or what you’ve written about (my new dog, my brother Tom).
  4. Write your favorite audiences (mom, friend, buddy).

From these lists, search for favorite subjects and “fallback” topics – subjects you feel confident writing about over and over again (like Mem Fox). Explain that writers can learn just as much about writing by creating many genres on one topic – a story, then a poem, then a biography, then a letter, and an imaginative story – as they can by changing topics every day. As a matter of fact, all entries can be about the same subject. Over time, writers will have a book.

Also look at what other people have written – books, titles of books, others’ daybook selections – to springboard off others’ ideas. Read poems and stories and try to imitate the structures you study. To make remembering easier, type lists of the suggestions generated by these rich conversations for your students. Create handouts in landscape mode so students can cut the paper in half and glue the sheets easily into their daybooks.

Release responsibility

From here the children are on their own to develop and organize their daybooks. The most exciting development for teachers is seeing their children develop the habit of preparing to write. Since students know they will write on self-selected topics most of the time, they actually create longer lists of possibilities than we have time to produce. They search for ideas, think about them throughout the day and record them on their topic page. In addition, since writers know they will share, they try to collect interesting topics and compete with friends to see who will come up with the best ideas.

NEXT: Ways to discover narrative topics

To start the year, we freewrite to find topics; we write down everything we can think of for 3-5 minutes without censoring ideas. Nothing is wrong. The students generate stories by looking at their lists.

"Everything they find that they read or find interesting goes into their daybook, because you use it every day." 4th-grade teacher

Her home for topics

I have mostly stories I made up in my daybook but I have other things, too like stories that I glued in and lots of main topics and little topics that are specific. And I also keep a topic list where I keep the ideas for things I'd like to write about. – Anna, 3rd-grader

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MINILESSONS

Copyright 2016 by Karen Haag

A resource for people passionate about helping students write well, compiled by Karen Haag

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