by Kathleen Brigham
Director, The Learning Consultants of Manhattan
For many middle school students, putting ideas on paper or computer is not an easy task. You ask them to write about anything and they cannot come up with a single thing. I use the following techniques to help my middle schoolers with writing blocks, but really you can use these ideas with any age.
Often the idea of brainstorming is too vague and open ended. Students need some structure and guidelines around brainstorming. I ask a student what he wants to write about, if he doesn’t know, I ask him what he likes to do outside of school. If he can’t answer that or those ideas do not excite him, I ask him what he did over the weekend. Usually this conversation sparks something of interest, such as “I had a sleepover”. This conversation then turns into a story itself and I ask the student to start writing down what we are talking about. I often have to point out that they have just brainstormed their way into a writing topic.
If a student is just too stuck to even speak, I tell them to get up. I get a tennis ball and start throwing it back and forth. They look at me like I am crazy and then I start to ask them questions. The only rule is that they have to throw the ball back right away and can’t hang onto it. I then throw the ball and ask them what they did yesterday (or over the summer or last weekend) and they tell me. I keep throwing the ball and asking more questions and they start to laugh and loosen up. Soon their ideas are flowing and they are telling me what they did, how it looked and what they felt. Changing the way they focus and having them think about something else often helps a student to become less stressed and therefore less blocked. Usually my students are begging me to do this with them every time. I tell them to do it with a parent or friend or I explain that even throwing the ball with themselves can do the trick.
STARTING TO WRITE
Now that we have the idea, once I ask the student to now start writing the story, they turn blank again. This is when I turn to the list idea. I ask the student to simply list what happened at the sleepover. Where did he go, what did they have for dinner, what movie did they watch, what time did they get to sleep. They look at me in disbelief and tell me that this story is not interesting. I tell them to keep listing. Once the list of events is down, I then ask them to go back and add in detail. Describe the house you went to, what was the dinner like, where did you sleep? And then I ask them to go back and tell me how they FELT in those situations. Was dinner something you had never eaten and was it gross? Was the room you slept in creepy and too dark? What did your sleeping bag smell like? Were you nervous? Excited?
This idea of show, don’t just tell, is a difficult one. But I find by going back to the story once it is organized into beginning, middle and end, the student has an easier time adding these details of description. Often it is just too overwhelming to try to do all of that at once.
Somehow when a student speaks about something that happened to them, all kinds of descriptive and interesting words are used. Ask that same student to write down what happened and the same words are used again and again and the sentences are all list form. I went to my friend’s house. We had dinner. Then we watched a movie. It was fun.
I give my students a few options here to help with their word choice and sentence structure. The first is to write the story and then go back and switch up and change words. For instance, if they say something was fun, I tell them that they have to tell me why it was fun. In telling me that it was fun because it was exciting or scary, they can change the sentence to use these words instead.
As far as sentence structure goes, I tell the students to change the order after they have written the sentence. For instance, if they write, “I was so excited to go to John’s house for a sleepover” I tell them to change the order around. “Sleeping over at John’s house made me so excited I could hardly sleep the night before.” This helps students stick with their ideas but makes the structure more interesting and varied for the reader.
Most of these exercises really help students when it comes to getting unblocked. But I have found for a few students, that none of this helps. This is when I offer to become the typist. I have the student come out of the room with me and turn his back to me. We then start talking about anything. I ask him about school and what sports he likes, he tells me what he did the night before. Invariably, some funny story is triggered and he starts chatting. I start typing and before you know it he is dictating a story to me! Now this is labor and time intensive, but for the student who really cannot get out of his own way, this approach illustrates to him that he has the ability to write a story, he just needed the bridge to get there. I see myself as the bridge. It is not to be done often or every time, but to do it once and show the student that the ideas are in there, gives them the confidence to try it the other ways next time.
Middle school aged children have a lot of ideas and like most things they do, they have a hard time breaking ideas down and organizing their thoughts. These tips can help break the ideas down into manageable pieces and show the student that he can in fact write.