Sometimes all it takes to improve writing skills at K 12 grades is to plant some seeds, or ideas, to spur kids' imaginations.
Here are some writing tutoring suggestions from three books: Writing Down the Bones by writer, poet and teacher Natalie Goldberg (1986, Shambhala Publications Inc., Boston), Where Do You Get Your Ideas? by novelist, playwright and poet Sandy Asher (1987, Walker Publishing Co. Inc., New York) and To Be a Writer by children's book author Barbara Seuling (1997, Twenty-First Century Books, New York):
- Eavesdropping. Ask children to pretend they are riding on a bus and overhear one person say to another person, "I'll never forgive you as long as I live." Have them write a story that tells who these people are and what happened before their conversation. Suggested by Seuling, this is a great story starter that can be modified in many ways. You can change the overheard sentence to almost anything. You can even have writers explore ideas by writing a story using the above scenario, and then writing another story about the same sentence, but this time pretending it was overheard at a grocery store.
- Invent your own country. Have children describe in detail an invented country. Make sure they include information about its government, culture, transportation system, water and energy distribution, etc. Seuling suggests posing questions such as, "Who is in charge and why?" "Does it have any enemies? Who are they, and what do they want?"
- Messy thinking. Asher suggests describing a room so messy that the occupant has disappeared into the mess. Ask children to describe what's cluttering the room in detail and tell about the room's owner and how he or she got into this predicament. They can also tell what happens to the room's occupant over time. Does he or she ever get out?
- Another time. Choose a date somewhere far in the future or past, and have children pretend that they are in that time and describe a complete day. Ask them to tell what they eat, what they read in the newspaper, where they work or go to school and what changes they've seen in their lifetimes. Suggested by Asher, this is a great way to get kids thinking outside of their own everyday experience, which is a key to great writing.
- Culinary imagination. Have children describe in detail a meal that they particularly like, suggests Asher. Don't forget to have them include smells, colors and textures in their descriptions, and even describe where they usually eat the meal.
- Setting the scene. Have children describe their favorite place in detail, including how they feel when they are there, what it looks like, what it smells like, etc. Suggested by Asher, this is a great way to get kids to imagine scenes and learn how to use words to tell others about them.
- Talking it up. Seuling suggests exercising dialogue-writing skills by having children write exchanges between two or more people. Some examples are: a dialogue between a child and a grown-up involving a snake; a dialogue between two people stuck in an elevator together; and a dialogue with a friend after they've broken their friend's favorite possession.
- Brainstorming. As a way of generating topics for writing, Seuling suggests writing down events of the day. Have children jot down everything that happened to them in a day-in note format-and look for situations that could become interesting stories-either fact or fiction. This is a great way to increase creativity. Have them write down everything-what they had for meals, a fight they had with their sibling, an unexpected grade they got on a test.
- Comparisons and metaphors. Have children exercise their descriptive writing by comparing two sets of nouns. Seuling suggests writing two columns of words and having writers choose one word from each column and write a sentence or two about how the items are or could be alike. For example: a puppy and a new pair of shoes; a kite and a flower; fingers and a waterfall; jumping on the bed and singing.
- Trading places. Seuling suggest writing an essay about trading places with someone. This can be someone famous or someone who lives down the street. Have children describe their day as that person, and that person's day as them.
- Remembering. Goldberg suggests beginning writing with the sentence "I remember" and writing down any memories that come to mind. Tell children that it doesn't matter if a memory happened five minutes ago or five years ago-just to write down what they remember. The point of this exercise is to generate ideas without worrying about how the words are coming out or analyzing them. If a memory is particularly vivid, a writer can stick with that memory and add detail about it. Later, writers can go back to their memories and choose those that seem most interesting to write larger pieces about.
- Firsts. Goldberg suggests writing about a first memory, but this idea can be modified to include all kinds of firsts. For example, ask children to write about the first time they rode a bike, the first time they remember laughing or the first time they spent the night at a friend's house. This exercise can be a powerful way to get kids thinking and writing about their own experiences, which leads to self-awareness.
- Writing off the page. Choose a popular line of poetry or a famous saying, and ask children to write it down and continue writing about it. Goldberg says that if writers get stuck, they can begin anew by rewriting the sentence or phrase and taking a different approach.
- Different perspectives. Ask children to think of something they dislike and write about it as though they love it, then change perspectives and write about it as though they dislike it, and then write about it as though they didn't care one way or another about it. Suggested by Goldberg, this exercise is a great challenge for kids' imaginations, and a means for getting them to explore different writing perspectives. This helps especially with fiction writing.
- Color their world. Goldberg suggests choosing a color, going for a walk and then writing about everything you see on the walk that is that color, or everything that reminds you of that color. This is a great exercise for kids because it not only exercises their writing skills, but their bodies as well.