Limbering up in the ELA Classroom: The Serious Fun of Writing Warm-Ups

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Note: For those of you just looking for the warm-up ideas, click on the links below to take you directly to them. Thanks for returning to this post and if you have a moment, let me know what you think. 

Writing Warm-Up Ideas

# A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z Other Warm-Up Ideas

Over the years, I have had teachers ask me if I had a comprehensive list of the writing warm-ups that I do with students. This post is my attempt to get that list started. The goal of the writing warm-up is to provide a space at the beginning of the class for my students to limber-up and consistently practice being a writer. I learned after several years of teaching that just because my students walk into my classroom and sit down in their desks does not mean that they are ready to take advantage of the time. Just like a musician or an athlete, we need to warm up our writing muscles to be ready for the work ahead. We also need to signal our brain to be present in the moment instead of lingering on what happened in the hall or what happened the night before. Once I started warming up through writing, I found that my students were more awake, more engaged, and more excited about the rest of class. Most importantly, I found that they were becoming very skilled writers. In fact, I would argue that there are few better ways to get more skilled at writing than to dedicate five to ten minutes every day to just putting the pen to paper.

I intentionally throw my students challenges so that they are thinking and acting in divergent and convergent ways. I want them to surprise themselves on the page because if they do that, their sense of what is possible in writing, in their writing, expands exponentially. I work hard to never schoolify the warm up. It is rarely a time for students to show me what they have learned in some artificial way. Instead, we are being real writers, playing around with words on the page, often in a collaborative way.

Collaborative writing is just plain fun. Collaborative writing is creating texts together one word, one phrase, one sentence at a time. The piece is constructed by passing paper between two, three, five, ten, 26 people. While it can be done on a screen, it is a heck of a lot more fun to do it the ol’ fashion way – with paper and pencil, pushing it back and forth across the desk, seeing your partner gasp, laugh, or just pause with what you have offered him/her. Collaboratively building a text takes the burden of the whole off of the individual and frees him or her up to throw something down on the page, knowing that others will pick up the offer and build on it. Collaborative writing also pushes writers to think and act strategically, a skill that makes for interesting writing. Jack Collom beautifully describes what happens when we write collaboratively:

As you trade off, you note with renewed amazement how different your thought process and speech rhythms are from those of your partner. Your attention is thus plunged into language as something to dance with, not just as the means of expressing your opinion. You don’t have to worry about what to say; there’s always something to respond to. You become conscious of your own ‘voice’ as it adapts to, opposes, ignores, or imitates the other ‘voices’ present in the poem.

Isn’t this exactly what we want our students to be able to do – dive into language, swim around in it, play with it, and in the process become more skilled at how to use their voices on the page? So, I suggest to you that you try many, if not all, of these writing warm-ups as collaborations. Have your students get out pieces of paper, give them the constraint (one word, three word, four words and pass) and then let them go to town. You will be surprised by the results. I also recommend that you read a bit more about collaborative writing. Jack Collom is the master, and you can find his thoughts on the form here.

I have divided the warm-up ideas into Collaborative Warm-Ups, Five Minute Quickies, and Other Ideas. Most of the collaborative warm-ups can be done individually, though you won’t get that wildness of energy and thought that you would by doing it in small or large groups. All of the ideas on the list have been road tested in actual classrooms, with actual students, grades PreK through Graduate School. When writing with young kids, I suggest being the conduit for the writing by writing what you hear the kids say on a big sheet of paper or the board. More on that below. My hope is that you will add to the ideas for great writing warm-ups. In the comment box below, include your idea for a great writing warm-up, with a description of how to go about doing it, and I will add it to the list with your name attached, if you would like.

Important note: writing warm-ups, particularly collaborative writing, get better over time. Students need to develop the skills associated with it. So, don’t be surprised if the first few weeks are difficult and result in so so writing. Like any form, students need to practice warming up to get good at it. There are a few moves you can make as the teacher to ensure that your students develop the foundation for deep skills very quickly.

Move 1: Stick to it! Make the promise to yourself and your students that you are going to take the first few minutes of every class to warm up, and don’t back down, no matter how slow the start is. Your students will thank you and the benefits of the warm up will spill over into the rest of the class as well as across disciplines (for you self-contained teachers out there).

Move 2: Write with them! Sit right down amongst your writers, get out that pencil and write along with them. Let ‘em see you take on the challenge. There are fewer teaching moves more powerful than students seeing their teachers genuinely getting involved in the work that they are doing, struggling and enjoying with them along the way.

Move 3: Share the writing! In all of its glorified messiness. Our minds are manipulative beasts. They will make us think that what we have written is junk. It isn’t until we read it aloud, and let more than one sense in on the action, that the possibilities of the writing emerge. Sharing doesn’t need to take a lot of time. Break ‘em up into groups of two and let them share. And you should share your writing too!

Move 4: Talk a bit about the writing! We get better as writers when we talk about the craft of writing, the moves that the writers is making on the page. Once folks have shared, spend a few minutes talking about what makes some of the pieces work. Listen to your students articulate for themselves why a particular piece was funny or surprising. Focus on the moves that the writer is making in the piece, not what the piece means. This is not a space for interpretation. It is a space for appropriation. We are becoming writers, not critics!

Move 5: Don’t grade it! This is an evaluation free zone. Students should feel like they can throw anything down without reprisals. That is the only way that we can get a sense of the impact of our writing and feel that we can experiment unfettered.

If you have all of these things in play, you and your students will be firing on all cylinders very soon, and chances are that they are going to come to your class begging for the next warm-up. And after a time, you are going to see how rich these warm-ups are. You will see how the warm up itself is a fantastic mix of intense reading, writing, and thinking. You will begin to think to yourself, “That warm-up could be a whole lesson!” And you will be right. The warm-ups will also reveal to you numerous ways to extend them into longer pieces and larger projects.  And when that happens, you have achieved what I like to call “Serious Play” – learning that is filled with deep skill and conceptual development, challenge, wonder, discovery, and joy.

Now, on to the warm-up ideas…in alphabetical order and indicating which are particularly good for individuals, partners, small groups, and/or large groups.

Collaborative Writing Warm-Ups


6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 (individual, partners)

You are probably familiar with  6 word memoirs where you tell a personal story in 6 words. This experiment takes that idea and expands it…or shrinks it as the case may be. The overarching question for this series of experiments is “Can you tell a story in six words? 5? 4? How about three or two or one?” For the first day, share some examples of 6 word memoirs or stories. You can click on the link above to find some good ones. Here’s an example:

Wanted mohawk, got a bald spot.

Talk for a minute or two about what makes them tic: Establishing the who, what, where, when in very few words; concreteness and specificity in terms of word choice; surprise, the well-placed comma. Then, let them go to town. Have them write as many six word memoirs or stories as they can in the amount of time that you have. The more they write, the better they will get. Once time is up, have them look through the pieces they have written and find one or two that seem to stand out. Have your students read them aloud to each other in pairs or small groups.

Next day, change the constraint to five words. See what they can do with one less word. Go through the same process. Once they have read one or two to each other that they really like, have a brief conversation about the difference between 6 and 5 words. What changes? Does anything change? Are you forced to do something differently as a writer?

Next day, change the constraint to four words. You get the idea. Go all the way to one, having brief craft conversations at the end of each experiment to develop an understanding of what the word limit does to the writer and to the writing.

This experiment in the form of a series encourages all kinds of writerly behavior. The constraint of the word limit pushes strategic thinking. Students will spend time considering what words will convey the most meaning and the most multiple meanings. They will scrutinize the use of grammar for effect. And when you put the added constraint of taking a word away each day, you provide your students the chance to see how the stories change because of the amount of words one has to use. “Can you tell a story in one word” becomes a highly debatable topic and a conversation your students will definitely want to have once they have experienced writing in the form.


Acrostics – (individual, partners, small groups, large groups)

Ah, the thousand year old form that gets mangled in schools. Do it justice and let your students play with it! Come up with a bunch of great “spine words.” Those are the words that the lines of the poem are created off of. Then, do one together so that you can show them the freedom in the form. Throw a word up on the board and have them riff off of it. Acrostics can be stories. They can be riddles. They can be omens. They can be definitions. They can be pretty much anything really. Lines in acrostics can have many words. You don’t need to just write to the right of the letter. You can break the spine, writing on both sides of the spine letter. So many ways to experiment! Then, have each student decide on a word, have them write it vertically down the middle of the piece of paper several times, and let them experiment. You can create a constraint to add intrigue – line trade-offs, one word trade-offs, three word trade-offs, etc.





                So long


         Urban nature is


         Beautiful, grit.

         Always changes with the times,

it Never stays the same.

         Not for a second.

         Ask yourself-is the world we live in really

         The image of deer prancing

throUgh a meadow, or is it

diRty beauty

that Everyone must learn to embrace?

Acrostics – Doubled! (individual, partners, small group, large group

Amp up the acrostic, and have the spine word be at the beginning of the poem and at the end! It can be the same word, like this:

H                                                                     H

I                                                                     I

S                                                                     S

T                                                                     T

O                                                                     O

R                                                                     R

Y                                                                     Y

If you want to be a purist, you could challenge your students to begin each line with a letter from the word and end each line with the letter from the word. You could also just encourage them to work the word or words into the poem, freeing them to break the spine. The two spine words can be the same or different, and it doesn’t matter if they are the same length. The idea here is to create challenging constraints that encourage young writers to think anew about language and its use. Explore all of the ways that they could play around with this form.

Answers with no questions – (partners)

Swap line for line with writing imaginary answers to unknown questions: Turn right at the 7-11. Simply pause for one moment. It’s behind the bookshelf! See Questions without Answers for a similar form.

Aphorisms – (partners, small group, large group)

Pithy sayings – they hold all kinds of wisdom ie: Ben Franklin’s “Life’s tragedy is we get old too soon, and wise too late”.  Read a bunch of them to your students. Talk about them a bit. What makes them tic? Notice how each aphorism has a “turn” at the end, a little surprise. Once you feel that they get the gist, try this as one word trade-offs.  Each person writes one word and passes it until the wild, made-up aphorism is complete.

Authors’ Notes (individual, partners, small group, large group)

The perfect warm up for when you have come to the end of a writing project. The students have workshopped their pieces. They have elaborated and crafted. They have done the polish, and you are moving toward publishing their pieces. Now it’s time to write an author’s note. Authors’ notes tend to be pretty formulaic and stale: what the author has written before, where they come from, the kind of dog they have, blah, blah. This time around, spice the authors’ notes up by writing them collaboratively. First, take a look at a few examples of authors’ notes.. Read them aloud. Talk about what makes them tic. Then, tell your students that you are going to write your own authors’ notes for the anthology you are publishing, and you are going to write them collaboratively. Coach them to keep the spirit of the author’s note, but work to warp it in as many interesting ways as possible. Do them in the form of a three word trade-off  (see below) and watch the zaniness and creativity that comes out! Here is an example:

Laura Fornwald: Laura Fornwald wants to know – Is your gnome home? A glutton for punishment, she’ll usually end up talking about her cat. Loves apples and tomato soup. Time will slip into California- free the wood into ashes and air! On the crest of morning, breaks for roadkill.

Avalanche (individual, partners)

With a tip of the ol’ chapeau to the OULIPO, this experiment is a doozy, and kids love it. It truly is the linguistic equivalent of an avalanche. Here is the constraint: the first line and first stanza is a one letter word; the second stanza’s first line is a one letter word, the second line is a two letter word; the third stanza’s first line is a one letter word, the second line is a two letter word; and the third line is a three letter word. And so on and so on for as long as the kids can go! The poem visually tumbles down the page. Here is an off the cuff example:














The longer it goes, the better it gets. I have had fourth graders take it out to an eleven letter word! See here for another great example. Another way to do it is to have the avalanche consist of number of words rather than word length. For example,




dirt path



bends left

between a split



tree across

two paths with

lingering scent of pine

Coach your students to go on their nerve. The avalanche doesn’t have to be linear or literal. Remember, the energy for writing comes from specificity, concreteness, and detail.

Avalanche – Story Form – (individual, partners, small groups, large groups)

Ron Sillliman, contemporary language poet, wrote a really interesting book titled “Ketjak.” The premise? I’ll let Ron describe it:

[Ketjak is] written in a series of expanding paragraphs where the sentences of one paragraph are repeated in order in subsequent paragraphs with additional sentences inserted between them, recontextualizing them. As the paragraphs double, the space between the reoccurrence of the sentences doubles and the context from which they reemerge grows thicker. In this, they have reminded some in the language movement of characters in a novel. But the narrative effect is more peculiar as the sentences keep reappearing against different sentences.

You can read the book online here. The gist is that each paragraph doubles in number of sentences. Give this a try: like a poetic Avalanche, have each student start a story. The first paragraph consists of one sentence. Pass the paper. The second writer writes the second paragraph consisting of two sentences, maybe repeating the first for effect. Pass the paper. The third writer writes the third paragraph, consisting of four sentences. Pass. The fourth paragraph has 8 sentences. And so on. Amp it up by coaching your students to repeat certain sentences at different times for surprising effect. As Silliman writes, the form highlights context and narrative effect – great things for writers of all ages to think about.

Big Swap, The (partners, small groups, large group)

Once your students and you have several warm-ups down on paper, it’s time to think about all of the other things that you can do with them. Remember, good writers reuse, recycle, and repurpose. To get your students into the habit of doing this, have them choose one of their warm ups ( it could also be a draft of a story, poem, play, or speech that they are working on for you). Then, have them select a section from it – a couple of contiguous sentences or a paragraph, for example. They can do this by cutting the section out with scissors or typing or writing it down on a different sheet of paper. Once they have done this, have them pass the cut out section to a partner or someone else in the class. Have the lucky recipients read the section to themselves. Then, challenge them to use the cut-out section as a whole in some way in a new piece of writing. Ask them a few questions: What would happen if you started with the section? Could you write in a way where it was in the middle of a new piece? What if you challenged yourself to make it the last few sentences or the last paragraph of a new piece? Let the cut out section guide you in terms of what needs to happen. Again, remember not to talk for too long about the challenge. Always spend a little time up in the head and far more time down on the paper trying to figure something out when it comes to writing. Give them 10 minutes or so to play, and end of course by sharing in pairs or larger groups.

Ok, so what does this do? It requires your students to be nimble with text. It pushes them to read carefully. It also creates an active writing moment where your students have to write themselves out of a corner, proving once again, that there is no such thing as writer’s block if you are willing to put pen to paper. Finally, it helps your students see that the original intention for a piece of writing can change or can be used for other purposes. All really good things to learn if we are going to help develop flexible, fluent, and precise writers!

Bout Rime – (partners)

French for “End Rhyme.” Have your students take out a piece of paper. Then have them write 14 words down on the page in this rhyme scheme: abab cdcd efef gg. For example:


















What you have here is the last word of each line of a modern sonnet. Once your students have written down their words, have them switch with someone else in the room. Then, challenge them to write a poem where each line ends with the corresponding word that has been given to them. Don’t constrain them with iambic pentameter or anything like that. The constraint of the rhyming 14 words will push the students to explore rhythm naturally.

Build A Monster (individual, partners, small group, large group)

Great warm up to do around Halloween, but can be done at any time. Spend ten or fifteen minutes…or longer…building a fantastical monster with your students.

First, ask your student “What are some parts of a monster?” Have them suggest parts: e.g. head, mouth, eyes, nails, hair, teeth, feet, legs, horns.

List these body parts on a big sheet of paper or the board. Each part getting it’s own line. Like this:










Once you have a decent number of body parts, 10 to 15, write a monster poem with them where each body part is a line of the poem. You could have them do this in several different ways. You could do it collaboratively as a whole group where each student is responsible for one line. You could do it in groups of two where they pass their papers back and forth with each other, trading lines. You could have each student do their own. To make it easier for your students to get into the spirit of it, turn each line into a simile, like this:

Head like

Mouth like

Eyes like

Nails like

Hair like

Teeth like

Feet like

Legs like

Horns like

This warm up can do wonderful things for opening up your students’ imagination and wildness with use of language. Encourage them to create a monster never seen before! Surprise us with your rich, detailed language. Encourage them to be funny, disgusting, and scary all at the same time. Here is a line trade-off Monster Poem, written by a group of teachers:

Hair like a green and purple shag rug

Eyes that are yellow and red

Nose of flaring smoke and bubbling fire

Mouth that is open ready to eat something yummy

Barely any neck at all, like a pigeon

But perfect shoulders that everyone envies

A large stomach protrudes from beneath her shirt

Knees that knock together as she walks

Feet are swift but smell of rotten cabbage

Clown like red shoes that she does a tap dance with

Ankle bracelet jingles with every step

Bumper Stickers – (individual, partners)bumper_stickers_02

Akin to fortune cookies, see below, creating bumper stickers are a wonderful exercise in concise and witty writing. Make sure to share several really great bumper stickers to get the juices flowing. See here for some great environmental bumper stickers Jack Collom wrote with his students or go online and find images like the one to the right. Like any form of writing, spend a bit of time exploring with your students what makes bumper stickers tick. Listen for your students saying things like – brevity, a twist, humor, sarcasm. It can be good to provide a theme for bumper stickers – the environment, school issues, political issues. It can also be good to provide a word limit, say, no more than 8 words. Finally, encourage your students to write many of them in the time that they are given. The more they write, the better they get. Then, when time is up, have them select their favorite one and then put it up on the board in the form of a bumper sticker. Have the class vote on them. Next step? Choose one or two to actually turn into real bumper stickers!

hallwayCaptured Conversation – (individual, but could be partner)

Special thanks to Dan Kirby for this idea. Have your students pick up their writing notebooks and a pen or pencil. Then, tell them that you are going to give them five or ten minutes (you decide) to walk through the school and capture what they hear down on paper. Encourage them not to worry about getting things down verbatim. Instead, capture voices in snippets, samples, having each thing that they hear be a line on the paper. Tell them to keep moving slowly through the space so that they can capture as many voices as possible in the time that they have.  Challenge them to try to fill a page. Could be a tall order, but always a good thing to say as you launch your students off to write. The more material, the better!

When they come back from their mission, you could just have them sit with a partner and read aloud what they captured to hear the wonderful raw poetry of it. Or, if you had a bit more time, you could give them five minutes to go back through what they captured and craft it a bit, focusing on how the piece flows (e.g. tenses, plurals, etc.). Tell them not to lose the wonderful wildness of the piece because the wildness is a true account of the moment – all of these different voices swimming around in space at the same time. That is the beauty of this experiment. In a way, you are having your students capture a moment in time through sound. You could also have students trade their pieces and let the partners tinker around with the material to see what they come up with. This warm-up coaches students to listen carefully and to strategize how to get what they hear down on paper – two important skills for a good writer.

Extension!: A cool way to utilize this warm-up during class is to appoint one or two or three students to wander around the room, capturing what they hear on paper as the rest of the class is having a conversation. The conversation could be about a book, about a math problem, about a project that they are engaged in. Then, at the end of the conversation, have the one, two, or three students read back to the larger group what they heard as a way of echoing and deepening the learning. You could have the students type these up and post them in your room as a record of that learning moment.

Cento – (individual)

A very cool experiment to do once your students have written or read a lot in a particular form. The Cento is a form of found poetry where the writer takes words, phrases, lines, sentences from other texts and combines them into a completely new form. See here for more explanation and a few examples. Think sampling, mashing-up, or remixing.  There are many many ways to do this. One is to have your students go through a collection of their own work and poach different pieces from each to create a new text. Another way to do it is to have students share their writing with each other so that the writer is building a new text out of the pieces of his or her peers. The example below is from a high school class. I’ll let the teacher describe what they did:

So I’ve been noodling around with catalog verse as a warm up… that’s not that interesting… but after students do the normal thing, read share etc… I ask for a volunteer to collect everyone’s paper and ask them to use the students work to make a class compilation… to start out, many students would make a representative list picking one or two from each student… sort of an all-star list poem… they have now sort of evolved into something a little more unique… this one is really tremendous… the student using the other students work, came up with something quite interesting and doesn’t have a Frankenstein feel at all… check it out…

Things That Drive Us Crazy

When people think they’re above me


Feeling inferior

When someone takes a joke personally

Being excluded

My family

My friends


Bitches, man

High School

College talk



My stupid mistakes

When I can’t solve a math problem, or a problem of any kind

The uncertainty of my future

My anxiety


When they just don’t shut up


Arrogance and opinionating


A bad loss in anything

Having to be an adult about it


Ambiguous directions

Double Standards

Foggy Brain


I drive myself crazy

One of the qualities of the Cento that makes this a must do warm up or writing experiment is the opportunity it provides for students to revisit writing, to look at it with new eyes, to experience how they can manipulate it, and to realize that writing begets other writing. Students must think strategically for Centos to work. Plus, it privileges surprises through juxtaposition – a move that energizes writing.


Definitions – (partners, small groups, large groups)

The challenge is to collaboratively write definitions for common words. Begin by showing students a few definitions from a dictionary: what are some common moves that are made in definitions (parts of speech, multiple definitions, examples of use, synonyms, antonyms)? Then, ask the students to suggest a few common words that would be interesting to define (e.g. desk, smile, run, lettuce, crime). Write ’em up on the board. Partner the students up or organize them in small or large groups and have them each get out a piece of paper. Have them choose a word from the list or one they have in their head and put it at the top of the paper. Next, have them collaboratively build definitions for the chosen words in a three or four word trade off. Coach the students to use the moves that are commonly made in dictionary definitions, but surprise us with new and surprising definitions, uses, synonyms, and antonyms for the words (e.g. Lettuce: Common contraction of the two words “let” and “us.” “Hey, lettuce entertain you!”. 

Dice – (partners, small groups, large groups)

Throw a dice and write as many words as show on the dice for that line. Good, strategic fun!

Dueling Voices – (individual)

Great warm up for flexibility and for cultivating what Burroughs called the “Third Mind.” To start, choose two seemingly unrelated texts: A compendium of film reviews and a field guide to North American birds, or Great Expectations and a computer users guide. Choose one of your students who is a good reader or have a parent, student teacher, or colleague be your partner. Have your students get out a piece of paper and a pencil. Then, challenge them to write down exactly what they hear as you read the two texts aloud at the same time. When the students are ready, have your partner and you read the two texts aloud simultaneously so that the words from the two texts blend in the air. Read slowly, clearly, with emotion. As you read together, you will begin to hear when to emphasize and when not. Have fun with this. Meanwhile, your students will be channeling what they hear down on the paper. At first, they might try to only get down what they hear from one text, but that will soon fall apart, and instead, they will start to let the blur of language flow on the page. That is what you are aiming for. Read aloud for five minutes or so. You’ll know when to stop. Then, have the students read what they wrote to themselves. Suggest that they can add punctuation to help with flow. Next, have them read the piece to someone else so that they can hear the real possibility in the writing. What should happen is this otherworldly, often times quite funny, mash-up of the two texts. Like many of the experiments on this list, the more you do this, the better you get at it. While on the surface it seems like a pretty simple experiment, the work that is happening is quite deep and sophisticated. It is not easy for students to open up and allow a cacophony of language to spill out on the page. Here is a cool example. This dueling voice piece comes from a colleague reading David Crystal’s Dictionary of Language and me reading from the Philadelphia Film Festival film descriptions. This particular piece was written by a 10th grader.

The Dying Surviving Talking Head

The peas in the 18th century was construed by dollops of language, nasal liquids, large frittatas connected inside, drenched in abstract tactile experiences.  Stability and founder of snare of avant-garde  present active teacher, Lilly, comprised recognition for the row of his dying surviving talking heads.  Tone muscle movement stage deadpan techniques.  Eroticism bowels vowels body parts fricative arousal blade waitress in the palette.  Bully of bicuspids soap opera.  Production of vocal Australians dangling behind that minimal cinema mirror.  Religious cults in one such case dispossession of thought. Where did the pursuit of cross Aldon Brown occur?  I left carry of cats and Canadian wars and the thinking cap of the lustful bluebell daughter, a wit rose.  Sydney stringing satirical. Sydney spending too much time focusing on us. You shouldn’t even focus on pen.  Glory performance, touch knockdown but David is at odds with Humpty-Dumpty and this confrontation between sickness and honor could lead to so many deserving dispossession and conclusions.

Nick Dekker


Erasure – (individual)ronald Johnson

No not the New Wave group. Instead, it is a chance to have your students interact with a published poem or excerpt from a short story or novel. The idea comes from Ronald Johnson’s RADI OS poems where he took poems from Milton’s Paradise Lost and blacked out certain words, phrases or whole lines to create entirely new poems. The title “RADI OS” is extracted from Paradise Lost. You can check out some of Johnson’s RADI OS poems here. And here is an excellent article on the art of erasure from Jacket magazine with numerous examples. This is an excellent warm up to have your students read a section of text, or a poem, deeply. Basically, what you do is handout a published poem or an excerpt from a story or novel. Every student needs to have their own copy, and they need to be able to write on it. Once you have handed out photocopied excerpts or whole poems, challenge your students to black out sections of the text to make a completely new text. Sharpies are helpful here, but you can always use pencils or ball point pens. This is a visual as well as textual experiment because the way they black out single words, phrases, and lines creates an interesting image on the page. The crafting of a new text out of the old develops fertile ground for deeper understandings and new interpretations of the original piece. Could be a great thing to do with student writing as well. Give it a shot!

Exquisite Corpse – (partners, small group, large group)

Ah, the granddaddy of collaborative writing! Everyone starts with a piece of paper. Coach each student to write a line, and then fold the paper over the line to conceal it. Then pass. The next person writes the next line, not being able to see the line(s) before, and so on, until the paper is all folded up. Then, have each student grab a finished one and read it for her or himself first, to get the inner logic of the piece. Then have them read them aloud in small groups or pairs, depending on time. It is best for you to read one aloud first so that they can hear what it can really sound like to read an exquisite corpse with meaning. Important tip: what gives exquisite corpses their energy is to not write in complete sentences. Instead, coach your students to write in phrases and single words. Encourage them to leave their line hanging, right in the middle of a thought. See what happens.


family circusFamily Circus one liners – (individual)

Go online and find a few Family Circus comics. Once you have found a few that you like, print them out and make copies of them without the caption. Then, the morning of the warm up, hand out these caption-less Family Circus comics and have the students come up with as many crazy and surprising captions as possible. Another way to do it is to show one on your smartboard without the caption and have all the students come up with captions for the same one. Share!

Fill the void – (individual, partners)The_Void

This is a great warm up or writing experiment to push strategic thinking, and deep, close reading. Take a poem, short story, or excerpt from a novel, essay or play and remove a section of it (see below for an example). If it is a poem, remove a stanza. A short story, remove a small paragraph. You get the idea. Share the poem, story, novel, essay, or play with the section missing with your students, telling them that you have removed a section. Make sure that they can see the void that is left. The visual aspect of this is important. Read the piece aloud. Once you have read it with the gap, challenge your students to fill that void. Prompt them with the question “What is missing?” Give them ten or so minutes to fill the void. If there is a short section that you have removed, push your students to write several different versions. Then,  give them a chance to share what they created with a partner so that they can hear it aloud. If they have written several versions, have them chose the one that they think is the strongest to share. Once your students have shared their ideas aloud, reveal to them the piece as it was originally written. Read it aloud.

Here is an example, using Franz Kafka’s A Little Fable:

franz-kafkaFranz Kafka

A Little Fable

“Alas,” said the mouse, “the whole world is growing smaller every day. At the beginning it was so big that I was afraid, I kept running and running, and I was glad when I saw walls far away to the right and left, but these long walls have narrowed so quickly that I am in the last chamber already, and there in the corner stands the trap that I must run into.”

I have removed the ending to Kafka’s fable. It is a separate paragraph, one sentence long. What would you write for the ending? What’s missing?

An added challenge: Kafka’s original ending to this fable is 14 words long. Can you write a 14 word ending?

Did you give it a shot? Ok, here is the piece with Kafka’s original ending:

Franz Kafka

A Little Fable

“Alas,” said the mouse, “the whole world is growing smaller every day. At the beginning it was so big that I was afraid, I kept running and running, and I was glad when I saw walls far away to the right and left, but these long walls have narrowed so quickly that I am in the last chamber already, and there in the corner stands the trap that I must run into.”

“You only need to change your direction,” said the cat, and ate it up.

What you will find with this experiment is your students working really hard to imitate Kaka’s style, thinking deeply about what a good ending would sound like, and reading the piece over and over and over again to really understand it. The writerly conversation once they see the original ending is fantastic too. Have your students share their thoughts about the original ending. Is it what you expected? Why? Why not? Do you like your or your partner’s ending better? How did you decide to write your ending?

Fortune cookies – (partners, small group, large group)

Not sure where I got this idea. Share a few fortunes from fortune cookies first. Talk about what makes them tic. Then, have your students come up with their own – word for word, trade off style.

Four word trade-offs – (partners, small groups, large groups)

Same as three word trade-offs but with four words. See three word trade-offs.


Gibberish – (partners, small group, large group)

Special thanks to the improv game Gibberish (see here). The goal and fun here is to write something that makes absolutely no sense. Do so in three or four word trade-offs. This is a great warm up for keeping students on their toes the whole time, working hard to not make any surface sense. Added bonus: pass the gibberish to another partner team, small group, or large group, and have that group translate the gibberish in three or four word trade-offs.

the-gleaners-and-i_movieposter_1379615322Gleaning – (individual, pairs, small groups)

Gleaning: extracting information from various sources; collecting gradually and bit by bit. The term gleaning is traditionally used in relation to the collecting of left-over grain or fruit or vegetables after the harvest. Farm workers and others comb the plowed field or plucked orchard for the left-over wheat or fruit. For more on this, check out the fantastic film – The Gleaners and I (Les Glaneurs et la Glaneuse). You can watch it here in its entirety. We can apply this practice in writing as well. For this warm up, first collect odd scraps of text – bits of newspaper, flyers, junk mail, pages from old books, old letters salvaged at garage sales. You can collect these or you can have your students collect them and bring them in. Make sure that there is enough collected that every individual, or pair, or small group has a good collection from which to work. The day of the warm-up, put the gleaned writing in a pile in the middle of the room. Have your individual students, pairs, or small groups go to the pile and select a random assortment. Once this is done, challenge your students to create a new text out of the gleaned scraps in ten minutes: a word here, a phrase there, a sentence or two from another source. Don’t give too much direction more than that. Let your students figure out what to do.  Of course, have them share their results.

Amp it up!: Provide scissors and glue so that your students can cut out the words, phrases, and sentences that they want to use and then have them paste them on a large sheet of paper to create a work of art.

Glen Baxter riffs – (individual)newyorker

A particular favorite with middle and high school students. First, Go to Glen Baxter’s site and take a look at all of his great paintings. Notice how surprising the non-sequitur captions are. Then, pick one that is appropriately zany for your students. The morning of the warm-up, show them the painting with the caption. Have them talk a bit about it. Ask them what they see. Have them be specific. This will help with the writing. Then, challenge them to write the story of the painting, and the story must end with Glen Baxter’s caption. Give ‘em 10 minutes to do it. The added constraint of the time ups the creativity and surprise.

Alternative: Have your students write down something that they heard at some point in the day before coming to class. Push them to make it as close to verbatim as possible. They don’t need to be serious, or funny, or profound. They just need to be real and genuine. Once they have written down a quote, have them fold it up and then pass it to the person next to them. The challenge is to write a story in five minutes that ends with the quote that has been handed to them.


Ice cubes – (partners, small group, large group)

A la Kit Robinson, a wonderful poet. These are four line stanzas with one word per line. Have students try these in pairs. The “cubes” can stand on their own or link together to form fantastical stories or thoughts. See here for some examples.

Ingredients – (partners)

Special thanks to John Ashbury and Kenneth Koch. Have your students come up with five ingredients. For example, a piece of furniture, a sense, the word “fabricate,” a famous animal, and a condiment. Then, challenge them to write a poem or story where each line or sentence needs to contain the five ingredients. Trade off line for line or sentence for sentence.

Initials – (individual, partners, small group, large group)

Cool form of acrostic poem. Do it with everyone’s initials! Great in partners, small groups, or whole classes. Trade line for line.  Here is an example. The initials are LCG:


If you Can

             Gargle the Magna Carta

I Know/ I don’t know – (partners)

Line trade off. First person writes a line starting with “I know…” and completes it, then passes. The second person writes the next line starting with “I don’t know…” and completes it. Coach the students to be wild, unpredictable, funny, serious, specific and concrete.

home_r2_c4I remember/I don’t remember – (partners)

A tip of the hat to Joe Brainard. Same as above, only using “I remember and don’t remember” instead.

I used to/ but now I… – (partners)

You are probably getting the idea now! A form of catalogue verse. First person writes a line starting with “I used to….” and completes it. The paper gets passed. The next person writes the line “But now I…” and completes. it. Remind your students to stay on their toes. The two lines do not have to relate! Surprise us!

Illot Mollo – (small or large group)download

Thanks to Jack Collom. This is an individual game, but it is played in a group. To set up, have everyone take out a piece of paper. Explain that when you say go, you want everyone to start writing. It can be a letter to a friend. Directions to a secret location. A rant about the lack of choice at lunch. Then, after about 10 seconds, one person is going to shout out a word. Determine who is going to start this ahead of time. When that word is shouted out, everyone in that moment must incorporate that word into what they are writing. Then, after 10 more seconds (about the equivalent of writing two lines on a page), the next person shouts out a word. It cannot be a word that they just wrote. It must be from another place in the person’s brain! And so on until everyone in the circle has shouted out a word. In the set up of this, coach the students on a few things. First, shout out your word loudly and clearly. Second, do not ask the person to repeat their word. It messes with the flow. Instead, write what you think you heard. Third, do not get in a rut. For example, the first person says “sand.” The next person says “sun.” The third person says “beach.” This is a deadly pattern. The words should come from the deep recesses of the brain. They should not be connected to what was said before. Four, you keep tabs on the pace. If the words are coming too quickly, slow the group down. Too slow, up the tempo a bit. Oh, and let ‘em read these aloud. They can be incredibly inventive and funny!


Love Poem, the Worst – (individual, partners, small groups, large group)

Challenge your class to write the worst love poem in the world. You can look at an example or two of love poems to prime the pump, but it isn’t necessary (see here for some models). There is something inherently understood about what makes for a bad love poem so not a lot of set-up is necessary. What is wonderfully surprising about this warm-up is that you will find that the poems that you and your students write aren’t bad at all. In fact, they will probably be pretty darn good because of the surprising language used, the funny images created, and the light touch that the students will apply. In fact, often what happens is that the students come to realize that they have actually written a pretty darn good love poem. But don’t reveal that surprise ahead of time. Just whet their appetite with the idea of writing a really bad love poem and see what they produce. Other ideas: worst poem in general, worst jokes, worst one-liners, worst excuses, worst menu items. This can be done collaboratively as well, trading line for line, for example.


One word trade-offs poetry-style alphabet – (partners, small group, large group)

Everyone starts with their own paper. Each line is one word and follows the order of the alphabet. Swap line for line and see what happens.

One word trade-offs prose-style -(partners)

First person writes the first word. Second person writes the second word right after it in narrative form, and so on. Coach them to stay on their toes and to accept the offer and build on it. This results in a wonderful, stream of collective-conscious story.

One word trade-offs prose-style alphabet – (partners, small group, large group)

Quite a challenge, particularly if you make it a practice in your class. Everyone starts with their own paper. First person writes the first word starting with A and passes. Second person writes the second word starting with the letter B right after the A word in narrative form, and so on, following the order of the alphabet. Challenge your students to work to make the narrative “make sense” and to not take the easy way out with letters like Q, X, and Z. The more they do this form, the more they will realize all of the choices they have for words. This experiment also opens up an opportunity for the class to collect words beginning with certain letters. Here’s an example:

“Avast!” Bruce cantered delicately entering France, gesticulating heretically, “Infadel!” Just knowing, let Monsieur Nunchucks open posthumous queries regarding succession. Tyranny usually voluntarily wanes xylyls, yawned zealots.

Punctuation is always fair game.

One word trade-offs, single letter-style (individual, partners, small group, large group)

A great way to raise the stakes with one word trade-offs. Introduce this experiment like the other versions of one word trade-offs, but this time, challenge your students to only use one letter (e.g. B). This means that every word in the piece must begin with the letter B. This is a fantastic way to push your students to dig deep into their vocabulary reserves as well as to see all of the different ways that a word can be used in context. Here is a great example:

Bert Battles Barry

Behind boundaries of Bert’s bar, Barry bellowed behind Bert’s barmaid. Barry bombastically bequeathed berries. “Boy,” Bert began before being berated by Barry, “Berries before bed become bastardly.”

“Bah!” Bert belted before basking by Barry, “Berries… Barf!” Barry’s battle by Bert beleaguered Bert’s bartender badly. “Banish Barry, Bert!” Bert’s bartender back-talked. Bemused, Barry befell Bert beneath Bert’s bar, beating Bert by barraging back-punches before backstabbing Bert with Bert’s beaten boards. Barry buried Bert beneath Bert’s barn. Being bereaved, Barry blubbered by Bert’s body before becoming born-again. Barry’s bulls bent Bert’s bones.

Nick Dekker

One word trade-offs, slo-mo (individual, partners, small group, large group)

Really slow the process down here. This is an experiment to do over the course of a year. Each day, have the students get out their one word trade-off, and add one new word to it, building the text over months. Slowing the experiment down in this way really gives students the chance to focus on how the story is developing, word by word. The choice of the word each day becomes paramount. Not for the faint of heart. This form of the collaborative exercise reminds me of what some piano instructors will do with their students. They will have them play a song extra slow in order to truly understand it. In this case, instead of notes, we are playing words and in the process really coming to an understanding of how the writing of a story evolves over time. Added bonus: students appreciate time in a new way – 180 words equals a school year. Pretty cool!


Piece it together (individual)

Bring in a box of assorted found objects: buttons, string, old lightbulbs, ceramic shards, business cards. The more the merrier. Put the box in the center of your room. Have your students come up and pick three or so objects from the box. You can have each of your students do this for themselves, or you could have one student pick three objects for the class as a whole. Then, have your students put them in an order on their desk or in front of the class (e.g. button first, business card second, torn glove third). Next, challenge them to write a story where they uncover how the first object led to the second which led to the third. To put this in the form of a question: “How did we get from a button to a torn glove?” Don’t spend a lot of time explaining it. Give them 5 to ten minutes to write, and then have them share.

Postcards (of apology, giving directions, providing clarification, of frustration) – (partners, small group, large group)

Begin by asking your students if they even know what a postcard is! Then, ask them what the qualities of a postcard are: pithy comments, highlighting a particular moment, “wish you were here.” Then tell them that they are going to warp the postcard form. Challenge them to write a postcard as a three word trade off. Make it even more challenging by telling them that the postcard is in the form of an apology. Have each student get out a piece of paper. Turn it horizontal. Draw a line down the middle. Draw three lines for the imaginary address on the right, maybe put a square in the upper righthand corner for a stamp. Then, have each student begin the postcard by writing the salutation to a person or thing: Dear epiglotis or Dear anxiety or Dear my ninth grade teacher, Ms. Maunbraut or Dear Lone Ranger. Once they have done that, have them write the first three words of the postcard, keeping in mind that it is an apology, and then have them pass to the next person. When the time is almost up, challenge them further by having the last person come up with a great sign-off and a three word PS! Make sure to read aloud! This experiment should be done prose-style, meaning that the next three words should come directly after the three words before on the page to read more like a narrative than a poem. Encourage them to play with punctuation!

psychicballPredictions – (individual, partners, small groups)

Beginnings of schools years, right before breaks, and end of school years are perfect times to warm up with Predictions. Challenge your students to make as many predictions as they can in 5 or ten minutes. You can do it in the form of a list poem, starting with “I predict…” or “that…” Or you can let your students find their own form for this idea. As always, it can be good to prime the pump by cranking out a few of them on the board as a whole group. Then, at a later date, you can return to them and see if any of their predictions have come true! These can be done individually or in groups, trading off line for line. Push your students to make wild, serious, funny, poignant, and predictable prognostications. The back and forth creates surprise and humor.

Extension: Have your students swap their predictions. Then, have them choose a prediction that they are particularly intrigued by and have them write the story/explanation of what, how, and why it happened.


Questions without answers – (partners)

Swap questions, line for line. Can you grow smaller? What if we had 800 teeth? Do birds ever get sore throats? Coach your students to play with tone: some serious, some playful, some funny, some sad, etc.


Radio Poems – (individual)

This is a fun one! Bring in a portable radio to school one day. Ask your students to take out a sheet of paper and a pen or pencil. Challenge them to write what they hear, capturing snippets down on paper. Each snippet can be its own line. Then, turn on the radio, and flip the dial, landing on a station for only a few seconds at a time so that the students and you can only hear a fleeting moment. The goal isn’t to write down everything you hear, just tidbits. This will create a wonderful pastiche of a poem that will make surprising sense. Do this trip around the dial for 5 or so minutes. Then, have your students read what they have aloud to a partner so that they can hear the possibilities. This is an excellent experiment to build careful listening  skills and to grow flexibility in writing. The quest for perfection stifles good writing. In this experiment, it is impossible to write down all that one hears so students must be flexible, giving themselves the freedom to only capture snippets and then allowing themselves to move on to the next soundbite. This can be quite liberating and can influence the way they approach the page in other writing projects.


Story Machine – (individual)

A fantastic writing game to keep students on their toes and to help generate great story ideas. This will take longer than 15 minutes, but it is well worth it! Consider it a lesson that builds on convergent and divergent thinking/writing. Follow these simple steps to have your students scrambling to put pencil to paper!

Everyone gets 10 index cards. On five of them write down an occupation or character label (e.g. cat lady, circus clown, computer repair woman) On the other five, write down an interesting, mildly unusual behavior or action. For the action, avoid the commonplace (reading a book, shopping) and the outrageous (curing cancer, murder). Examples might include, punches people in the nose, steals small things from people’s houses, breaks light bulbs, hordes rubber balls, reads other people’s mail).

Once the students are finished making their two piles of five, have them switch their piles with a partner. Each person should get five cards from the two piles – five character cards, and five behavior cards. Have the students flip over one of each type of card, one at a time, looking at the pair. Encourage them to imagine the possible story behind it. Why did the Mall Santa punch someone in the nose? Have your students continue flipping pairs of cards until they find a combination that really sparks their imaginations. Once they’ve found the combination they like, have them write story behind the combination. Ask your students: What brought your character to this moment? What are the consequences of this action? Have fun!

This can be an excellent game to begin the process of writing a story that is a project in and of itself. It can also be a good game to play to add a new dimension to a story that students are already writing. For example, students in fourth grade write stories about the Gilded Age. In the middle of the process of writing their stories, Debbie used Story Machine to challenge her students to introduce a new character into the story. This instantly added a new energy to the stories, making them more immediate and interesting to read.

For younger students, consider playing this game as a group. Have the group come up with the two piles and then choose a pair that seems intriguing. Tell an oral story as a group based on the pairing. Have the students draw the picture behind the pairing. You could even have them act out the story behind the pairing! All kinds of possibilities!


Take One, Take Two, Take 3  – (partners, small group, large group)

Each writer writes a line on a page. Pass the paper. The next writer approaches the same line from a different angle, a different take, similarly to taking a picture from a different perspective. Pass the paper. A different take. Pass the paper. Another take. See how many different takes, different perspectives, can be made on any given line. Great for opening up and practicing the skill of perspective and empathy in writing.

Ten Thousand Years (individual, partners)

I got this idea from a great episode of 99% Invisible. I highly recommend that you listen to it. Here’s how to set it up. Tell your students that they have been contracted to create a simple sign warning people to stay away from the radioactive waste buried in the ground. The catch is that it needs to be able to be read and understood 10,000 years from now.  Tell them you will give them 10 minutes to come up with the design…maybe 15. After they draw their ideas and share them, I would highly recommend listening to the 99% Invisible episode about this exact project. It will take the whole period, but it will be worth it. Oh, and send me some of their designs. I would love to see them!

Things that go away and come back again – (partners, small group, large group)

Again, a good line trade-off, but can be done word for word. This is a form of catalog verse. Have students or partners or groups make a surprising list of things that go away and come back again (e.g. Nose whistles, cravings for kalamata olives, the electric bill, my memory of where I parked the car)

Three word trade-offs – (partners, small group, large group)

This is a classic. Everyone has a piece of paper. Everyone writes the first three word line and then passes for the next person to write the next three word line. Coach the students to write three word lines that are not complete thoughts. Instead, let them hang there so that the next person has something to play off of.

tristan_tzaraTzara’s Hat – (individual, small group, large group)

Named after Tristan Tzara, the Romanian/French poet a performance artist. Everyone in a group writes down a word (alternative: phrase, line) and puts it in a hat.  Poem is made according to the order in which it is randomly pulled from hat.  (Solo: pick a series of words or lines from books, newspapers, magazines to pTzaras Hatut in the hat.) Another way to do this is to cut up words or phrases from texts – newspapers and magazines, and throw them into a hat. Hat gets passed around the room and the poem is built from each word, phrase that is pulled out. Tzara said that when you do this, you see into the future! See my earlier post on doing this with kindergartners.


Unplanned Collaboration – (large groups)

This idea comes with a tip o’ the writing chapeau to Geoff Hewitt, a fantastic writer-teacher who documents this warm-up in the equally fantastic book Old Faithful. This is a great warm-up for pushing students to ‘start anywhere,’ for creating order out of writing chaos, for seeing the possibilities in words and phrases, and for acting strategically as a writer. Once your students have settled into their seats, have them take out a piece of paper and something to write with and ask them to write down the first phrase that comes to them from something that happened to them that morning or day. Might be helpful to show them an example from you: ‘strawberry jam and peanut butter on toast’ or ‘hit snooze twice’ or ‘sunlight through blinds.’ Coach your students to capture something that happened to them that day in the form of a phrase, not a complete sentence. Don’t spend too much time on this. Like always, you want to keep it light. Then, have them write the first phrase that comes to their mind. Once they have done that, choose students to read their phrases aloud. Write them down on the board, one phrase for each line.  Stop once you have 14, same number of lines as a sonnet. Now the fun starts. Have your students write down the 14 lines that you put up on the board on their pieces of paper. Then, challenge them to make those 14 seemingly disparate, unconnected lines, into a poem in about 10 minutes. Important rules: students can remove words, alter words in terms of tense, part of speech, or number, switch lines, and add grammatical choices. They must use all 14 lines in some way. In other words, they cannot remove one or more of the 14 lines completely. The key here is to design a challenge for your students to make sense out of text that has been given to them. After ten minutes is up, have them share with a partner what they have created. Of course, if you have more time – which you should make because this experiment is so great! – have your students share the strategies that they employed to make poetic meaning out of what they were given. This step deepens the learning significantly. Final thought: like with all of these experiments, the more you and your students do them, the better they will get and the deeper the impact will be on their overall writing.


Writing On Other Things (individual, pairs, small groups, large groups)

This warm up can be done as a collaborative experiment or an individual one, and it gives you the chance to go out and hunt for interesting and unusual things for your students to literally write on. Think: leaves, bark, menus, old calendars, workshop evaluations, Leaf2rocks, pieces of glass (if the students promise to be careful!), plastic, cheap figurines, action figures, utensils, you name it. Find enough of this stuff – or better yet, have your students hunt and gather and bring stuff in – so that there is enough for everyone in the class.  You can hand out the items to your students, or you can place them in the center of the room and have your students select them. Once your students have an item, and an appropriate writing implement (remember, some of this stuff may be hard to write on with a pencil or ballpoint pen, so a thin point Sharpie may be more appropriate), have them look at the 5053-glass-bottleobject for a minute or so. Ask them to look closely at it, hold it in their hands, feel the texture of it. Then, challenge them to write on the object. They can write about the object. They can write a letter to the object. They can talk to the object. The object can talk to them. They can write a story, a poem, a speech. Whatever floats their boat. Coach them: “Let the object tell you what needs to be written right at this moment.” Give them ten or fifteen minutes and then let them share in pairs or the whole group if you feel there is real energy there.Pet_Rock

This warm up is powerful for many reasons. Often, writing on something other than traditional paper can unfreeze a student.  Writing on objects opens up other possibilities for expressing oneself in writing. There is a tactile quality to it that isn’t found when writing on paper – the student can hold the object, turn it, write all over it, feel the texture, etc. Objects can be “anthropomorphosized” more readily than paper which encourages students to talk to them or from them – all good stuff when it comes to coaching students to be flexible, fluent, and precise in their writing.  Finally, this experiment can be done collaboratively as word trade-offs, or done individually, or maybe both. Remember, the more you do this kind of stuff, the better the writing gets. Also, at the end of this experiment, you can then have the students set up their objects in a gallery and have them walk around and look at them.
Other Warm-Up Ideas

5 Minute Quickies

Have your students write for five minutes at the beginning of class. Coach them to find the flow and to not correct spelling or cross anything out. The idea is to follow the ink. You can provide them with a prompt or not. I recommend that you provide a prompt for the first few weeks or months and then the students may be ready to write for five minutes without a prompt. Prompts can connect to the work you will be doing later in class (e.g. if you had one chance to write a letter to the main character in this novel, what would you write?) or they may be completely random (e.g. an alien is about to eat you. Convince it not to).

Other prompts that are connected to the work of the class

  • What colors does this story make you think of? Why?
  • Make a list of ways that you are like the main character
  • Convince your friend why you should read this book
  • Draw a picture of the main character. What does he/she look like?
  • Make a list of sounds that this book makes you hear
  • What questions does this book make you ask?

Other prompts

  • Why does 2 plus 2 equal four?
  • What would it feel like to be born inside a tree?
  • What color is rain?
  • Write a letter to your pencil
  • Speak in a completely made up language
  • Draw the inside of your mouth
  • Write as many questions as you can
  • Make a list of people you would never want to meet
  • Make a list of names you wish you could be called (Coach your students to think realistically and unrealistically here. It gives them a chance to put down actual names they wish they had as well as fantastical and ridiculous ones. Potential next step: Choose one of these names and write a short  short story about him or her)
  • Challenge your students to write one-side of a phone conversation. It’s trickier than you would think! What you leave out is just as important as what you leave in. Before jumping into this, you might want to transcribe a short and interesting phone conversation and show it in dialogue form and then show one side of the conversation to reveal the interesting moves that can be made in representing one side of a conversation. Lots of room to explore tension, mystery, and intrigue.

Another idea

List poems are fantastic warm up exercises. You can do them collaboratively or individually. The idea here is to allow your students to be wild, fantastical, and surprising. It’s good to read a model or two before sending them off to do list poems. Here are a few ideas:

  • Lists of words you know
  • Lists of books never heard of
  • Lists of newly discovered body parts
  • Lists of apologies I’ve made
  • Lists of never before seen colors
  • Lists of things I’m afraid of
  • Fifty things I like a great deal
  • Things that give an unclean feeling (a la Sei Shonagon)
  • Things that give a clean feeling (a la Sei Shonagon)
  • Monster poems
  • List of clouds I have seen
  • List of movie titles never heard of before
  • List of names you wish you were called (push them to be literal and also fantastical)
  • List of names you would never want to be called (same here)

Great resources for warm-up ideas

  • Poetry Everywhere – Jack Collom
  • The List Poem – Larry Fagin
  • The Teachers and Writers Handbook of Poetic Forms – Ron Padgett
  • The radio
  • Your crazy thoughts that happen usually right before you fall asleep

Special Note for our youngest of writers: For our really young writers, I have used the first part of the day as ‘writing time.’ Each student has their own box (I have used cigar boxes that the kids decorate). In these boxes are paper, pens, pencils and other things that the kids collect over time. The idea here is to provide the students with 15 or so minutes of uninterrupted writing time. I may provide a prompt (e.g. one of the ideas provided above) or not. I coach them to keep the pen, pencil, or crayon moving. They can draw, write, draw/write. At the end of the time, I have them share what they have created with a partner. I make sure to do this with them, modeling the kind of writing behavior that I want to see.

What Fuels a Writing Culture In Your Classroom?

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Tell Your Story Camp72.JPG McKyln Madsen, reads her writing to the group, including Poet, Jack Collom, center.
Area middle school students participated in the "Tell Your Story" camps, using multimedia, art, poetry and writing, at the University of Colorado.
For more photos and a video of Tell Your Story, go to
Cliff Grassmick  / June 20, 2013
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What drives the work/learning?

  • Identifying a goal/product/performance/culmination that you want to achieve with your students that is connected to the world outside the classroom
  • Figuring out all of the ways that you and your students can be writers to accomplish that end (writing reflectively, analytically, and creatively)
  • Modeling the writing life through the design of the unit and the way you think, talk, and act with your students.

What does the writing life look like in the classroom?Qui vive

  • Catching thoughts, ideas, questions, solutions, passing fancies down on paper/screen to create a reservoir of potential writing material
  • Reading models to help you think and do your own writing
  • Discussing models to figure out the moves that make the writing work
  • Engaging in idea generating conversations to figure out what you might want to write
  • Writing….a lot!
  • Returning to a piece of writing to elaborate and craft it based on the understanding you’re developing around the moves
  • Sharing works in progress for feedback
  • Putting the writing out into the world for impact
  • Keeping all writing work to be able to access and use at a later date

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhat are the kinds of writing that should be happening in a unit?

  • Reflective writing: thinking in writing about life and work; post product analysis; question posing; answer seeking
  • Analytic writing: writing about reading; reports; essays; criticism; speeches; technical; informational
  • Creative writing: stories, poems, plays, memoir, blogs, hybrid-texts

What are potential culminations?Canon EOS Digital Camera

  • Performances: plays, public readings, debates, websites, shows, live museums, installations, works of art
  • Publications: books, anthologies, individual pieces, newspaper editorials, letters to officials, websites, blogs
  • Actions: meetings with significant people (physically/virtually), rallies, service

Developing An Understanding Of How And Why We Write

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jack kerouac on the road
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One of the important aspects of a writing-based practice is exploring with your students the way writers talk about their craft. Fortunately there are many books and websites out there that feature all different kinds of writers talking about how and why they do what they do. These windows into the idiosyncratic ways that writers get words down on the page open up the possibility for your students to appreciate and strengthen their own idiosyncratic writing processes and to find writers that they want to emulate. We know from research on talent that a key element in skill development in youth is connected to whether or not they develop strong affiliations with people that are particularly good at something that they themselves want to get good at (think Lionel Messi, Serena Williams, and Lebron James). When youth identify with someone, they adopt their moves. So, just like a young soccer player may spend ours out on the pitch practicing the moves of Lionel Messi, a young writer enamored by the writing of Steven King may spend hours imitating the moves that Steven King makes on the page as well as emulate the habits of mind and body that King embodies as a writer.

Below you will find a pretty basic Google presentation of a variety of different writers sharing their practice – the how and why of what they do as writers. There is loads of good advice in here. The way I use it in the classroom is to simply display a slide or two, read it out loud, and then ask my students what they find interesting about it. I also ask the question, “How can we use what this writer says in our own practice as writers” or something to that effect. This kind of craft conversation lays the groundwork for both affirming writing practices that your students have formed and introducing new ways of being as a writer. You will find over time, if you make this a semi-regular ritual in your class, that certain advice given by writers will become part of the language of the class. For example, one of Jack Kerouac’s beliefs and techniques for modern prose is “You are a genius all of the time.”  This mindset when facing the blank page can be tremendously liberating. It would not be unusual for you to hear students referencing this when talking to each other about their writing or to hear me suggest it at the beginning of a writing experiment.  You can reinforce particular writerly advice by putting it up on big sheets of paper around the room, collecting an electronic list that you and your students collaboratively build over time, or including it in handouts associated with writing projects in class.

A beautiful way to extend this classroom practice of exploring how writers talk about their craft is to have your students take pictures of themselves in the act of writing, and then to have them write an accompanying piece that discusses why they keep a notebook or how they see themselves as writers or why they write. You could then hang these portraits along with the pieces around your room or throughout the hallways to celebrate your students as writers. And, in true writing-based practice style, you, of course, should take a picture of yourself as a writer and write a piece as well!

If you choose to do this activity, please send some of them my way, I would love to build a slideshow of images of young writers talking about how and why they write.


Ten Teacher Things To Do This Summer

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The summer is upon us! You have worked tirelessly for ten months. You deserve this break. Breaks aren’t only important because they give you the chance to decompress and recharge. They also create the space and the time to renew your enthusiasm for teaching and to replenish your reservoir for creative new ideas for your classes. Here are ten of my ideas for how to truly embrace your summer as a teacher and to return next year ready to take on the world. These ideas are in no particular order. I challenge you to make all 10 happen over the next two months.

Quotation-Jack-Kerouac-life-Meetville-Quotes-1106741. Take a trip not knowing exactly where you are going to end up

Sometimes, a school’s approach to teaching and learning can feel scripted, predetermined, controlled. Don’t let your summer feel that way. At least once over the next two months, get in a car, in two shoes, on a bus, on a train…heck, on a plane even…and go on an adventure, not knowing exactly where you are going to end up. Keep the map in the glove box. Turn off your phone/GPS. Open yourself up to the possibility of finding something incredible and unexpected. You’ll be surprised by what this does to your senses and by the ideas, people, and places you find along the way that will influence what you want to do next year in your class.

2. Read a book that is different from what you would normally choose51K5VnpM1PL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

Great teachers get ideas for their classes from disparate sources. At least once this summer, put this in to practice by finding a book that you would normally not read.  Here is a short list of oldies, newies, and goodies:

  • Nisid Hajari’s – Midnight’s Furies
  • Italo Calvino’s – If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller
  • Amy Krouse Rosenthal – An Encyclopedia Of An Ordinary Life
  • Patricia Madsen’s – Improv Wisdom
  • William Upski Wimsatt’s – Bomb The Suburbs
  • Sasha Abramsky’s – The House Of Twenty Thousand Books
  • Jessica Abel’s – Out On The Wire: The Storytelling Secrets Of The New Masters Of Radio
  • Joy Williams’ – The Visiting Privilege
  • Marlon James’ – A Brief History of Seven Killings

dsc063503. Make a new friend

Wow! Does this get harder as I get older! What I love about this idea is that it pushes us to get out there in the world and into spaces where other people are – bars, museums, races, wineries, parks, concerts- so it is a double whammy. Making a new friend again, pushes us to use “muscles” that may have atrophied and will be put to really good use when you warmly greet your new class(es) of students come fall. Plus, new friends open up new worlds to us. Worlds that will find their way into our classrooms.

4. Take napsnapping+in+a+monet+landscape+detail

Do I even need to mention this one? Naps are so important. You have lost sleep over this past school year. While the science is out about whether you can actually ever make up that sleep, naps are always a good thing. Naps give your body a chance to recharge and your brain a chance to process and imprint experiences. In fact, our brain is the most active while we sleep! Never feel ashamed about taking a nap!

5. Write a letter to one of your former teachers

Summer is the perfect time to look up one of your teachers and reconnect. Share with him or her what you are up to and how much you appreciate what they did for you. To make this an even better experience, why not go and visit the teacher if you can? Take her or him out for coffee or lunch. Spend some time talking about ideas that you have for your classes. See what your former teacher thinks. If your former teacher is still teaching, what about striking up a partnership and connect your two classes/schools? William Upski Wimsatt says that we need to “water (our) mentors.” This is one of those times.


If you haven’t done it before, now is the time to do it. And don’t make a big deal about it. Journals can take many different forms. The great thing about keeping a journal as a teacher is that it is a conduit for all of the ideas that are in your head, and it allows you to practice what you want your students to be doing as well. I have this image in my head of teachers all over the country coming back in the fall with the journals they kept this summer as models for the kind of journal writing they would like their students to be practicing.

Journal writing should be fun, surprising, low-stakes, and personal. It is important that you make a commitment to it because the benefits of journal writing come from developing it into a practice. If you only do it once in a while, you will never truly realize its potential. I would recommend starting by literally setting a timer each day. Start by writing for ten minutes. If the timer goes off and you want to keep going, keep going, but be satisfied with writing for ten minutes. Then, as you develop this writerly muscle, extend the time. You may get to the point by the end of the summer where you no longer need the time as a prompt.

Here are some really fantastic journal ideas from Bernadette Mayer, a great contemporary poet/writer. You may want to try out these journal ideas out with your students too!

7. Try something out of your comfort zoneleap3

This one may be a bit redundant, particularly if any of these other ideas already do the job, but it is worth mentioning. While summer is definitely a time for familiar rituals and routines, it is also an important time to take risks…particularly as a teacher. Teaching at its heart is a creative endeavor. The teacher’s job is to design meaningful, interesting, challenging, and joyful learning experiences for and with students. This means that we must embrace the unknown, the unusual, and the new. Truly inspiring learning comes from taking a deep dive into new territory with both mind and body.

8. Say Yes And for a whole day

Here’s a way to put the last idea into practice. Come to think of it, you would need to say Yes And to do any of the ideas in this post. It comes from the world of improv. In improvisational theater, actors are encouraged to always accept and build on the offers of their co-actors. When we say Yes And, opportunities open up, people are drawn to us, problems are solved, and we strengthen connections. For one day this summer, put this principle into practice. Spend an entire day saying Yes And to your friends, your family…anyone you run into really. Note that I am not suggesting that you only say Yes. The And is incredibly important in this equation. The And allows you to accept the offer of the other person and build on it. See what happens. This will be excellent practice for when you start the new year with your students. Go here for a post I wrote on the power of Yes And in teaching and learning.

void-of-silence9. Make one day a week a no-connection day

I am amazed at how powerful of a distraction my computer, phone, or tablet is. Just when I feel like I am being productive, Facebook, Twitter, Footytube, Netflix or a whole host of other sites pulls me away with incredible ease. It is insidious and kind of frightening actually. And the amount of time it can suck away! Hours just evaporate like they never even existed. And the end result of it for me is wondering what just happened. No lasting impressions. No meaningful experiences. A void.

Ok, I may be being a bit hyperbolic, but there is truth in what I say. So, for one day a week this summer, put the electronic time-sucks away, out of site and out of mind. Open yourself up to the sites, sounds, and information that is around you in people, places, and things. You’ll find that time changes, intriguing thoughts enter, and opportunities emerge. Distraction is the scourge of contemporary life and is particularly dangerous for teachers. It’s dangerous because in the moment it feels good and right, but in the long run, it fritters away a priceless commodity – time – and narrows our perception of what reality is. Don’t let that happen this summer.

10. Invite a colleague to plan a unit together

I would recommend doing this last one after you have put a number of the ideas above into practice. Now your mind is nimble, your body is rested. You are ready to jump back into being the creative curriculum designer that you are. Redesigning curriculum shouldn’t be an individualistic exercise. Bring a colleague or friend into the mix. Your friend or colleague can help you figure out how to overcome a seemingly insurmountable issue or can ask just the question you needed to be asked to figure out how to implement an excellent idea that you have.

When doing this kind of creative work, don’t forget to implement the ethic of Yes And. All curriculum ideas are great ideas. They just need to be massaged, played with, thrown around, and crafted to be brought down to the ground and implemented. Employing the Yes And allows you to do the tinkering needed to polish the rough idea to a high sheen.

There you go! Ten ideas for how to throughly embrace the summer as a teacher. Do you have other ways? Comment below to add them to the mix. I wish all of you a fantastic summer filled with enriching experiences, amazing naps, and intriguing ideas!

How To Put The Learning To Work, Part 5: Rememberance of things past

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Wouldn’t it be great to give your students the chance to revisit who they were as a writer as a way of developing an understanding of who they have become? Wouldn’t it be cool to connect writing work that they have done the year before with the writing work that you have done with them? How can we design an end of year piece that enables students to witness their own growth over time? Here’s an idea for how to make that kind of end of year, meaningful work happen.

This culminating activity idea will take a bit of forethought and planning, requiring that your students have access to writing that they did the year before, but that shouldn’t be too difficult. You could accomplish this requirement by either working with your students previous year’s teacher to make sure that they hold on to a particular piece of writing from that year, or ask your students to find a piece of writing that they did the year before. The second option is a bit risky, I know, but it would be interesting to see if your students held on to writing they did last year of their own volition. The key is that they are able to find a “finished” piece of writing that they did they year before.

Once your students have found a piece of writing that they did in the previous year, have them choose a piece that they wrote this year of which they are particularly proud. Now they have two pieces of writing – one from the year before and one from their year with you. Have them compare the two pieces of writing in a semi-structured thought piece guided by a few critical questions. Introduce the questions with something like:

We have been exploring what it means to be writers together this year – what it looks, sounds, and feels like. Let’s honor that work by taking a little time to recognize how much you have grown and changed as a writer over this year. To do that, read the two pieces that you have chosen – one from last year and one from this year. Then, use the following questions to help guide your reflection. As always, work to fill the page.

  • What surprises you when you compare the two pieces?

  • How would you describe your voice in the two pieces? How has it changed?

  • What are some other ways you have changed as a writer?

  • What does this work make you want to focus on in your writing moving forward?

This culminating activity provides your students with a chance to see for themselves how they have changed as a writer over the course of the year, does the important work of connecting who they are across grades, and encourages them to read their own writing deeply and critically. Do not grade this thought piece. It’s more important than that. Making this piece an evaluation-free zone, opens up the possibility for truthful, genuine reflection which ultimately leads to enduring learning. I would also recommend giving your students a chance to share what they learned with a partner, not necessarily reading their thought piece aloud but instead sharing what they learned in the process, maybe guided by one simple question: What surprised you?

Plan to have your students complete this assignment with enough time for you to respond to it before the end of the year.

As always, I would love to see examples of these. If you choose to do this kind of end of year writing, please share it with me.

Modification: If having your students find a piece of writing from last year seems a bit daunting, have them select a piece of writing from the beginning of the year and the end of the year with you.

Extension: Give these thought pieces to next year’s teachers so that they have a sense of how their incoming students think of themselves as writers.


12 Essential Questions for Designing a Writing-Based Curriculum

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When designing your class to truly position yourself and your students as readers, writers, and thinkers, have these questions in mind.

  1. How am I living a writing life with my students?
  2. What are all of the different kinds of writers that I am being with my students over the course of the year?
  3. How are we writing reflectively, analytically, and creatively?
  4. What skills and concepts are we developing through the writing?
  5. How does the writing work culminate into meaningful, real-world products?
  6. How is coaching and mentoring part of the writing work?
  7. How does the writing work build and grow over time?
  8. How is writing work, reading work?
  9. How is writing a source of play?
  10. How am I connecting my students to other writers?
  11. What resources do we have at our disposal to support the writing-based work?
  12. How are we evaluating writing in ways that gets at the craft of the writing and that reveals and builds off of the strong moves that my students are making in their writing?

How To Put The Learning To Work Part 4: Transform The Classroom Into A Gallery

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Over the past week, I’ve been sharing some ideas for how to end the year meaningfully with your students. The goal has been to design interesting ways for students to resee and remember the learning that happened. The first post suggested having students remix their work to see it again in an interesting way. The second post focused on creating a self-assessment that pushes students back into the work from the year. The third post offered up several different kinds of end of year letters that teachers and students could write to look back on the work as well as look forward to next year. In this post, I explore the idea of transforming the classroom into a gallery of student work as a way to culminate the year.

Idea #4 – Create a Gallery of Your Students’ Work

When I say gallery, I’m thinking of an art gallery, a place where fine art is hung, and in this case, the fine art will be student work from the year. Imagine redesigning your classroom to resemble an art space, clearing all of the walls, making tables available for display. Ask your students, “If you had one piece of work that you did this year that you would like to share with others, what would it be?” This question will prime the pump for the piece of work that the students will eventually hang in the gallery. This gallery should be a collaborative effort. Everyone should get involved in how the gallery will look. What pieces would look good next to one another? Who needs a table or a particular place in the room? One of the things that makes this particular kind of culmination meaningful is having students take ownership of it. They should clear the walls, reorder the space, figure out a way to know what works are going where, etc. This will take a bit of time, but it will be well worth it. Plus, the whole time they are planning for the gallery, they are reminding themselves of the work that they have done over the year.

Once the students have selected what pieces they are going to display, to deepen the learning of the gallery, have your students write the equivalent of an artist statement that will accompany the work. To begin, share a model of an artist statement, maybe something like this:

artists statement


There are others online that are more appropriate for elementary and middle school students. To prepare the students to be able to write their own, talk about the moves the artist makes in the statement and how the students could use those moves in their own statements about the work they are displaying. Basically, a good artist’s statement does the following:

  • Shares a bit about where the piece came from. What inspired it?
  • Talks about how the piece was made. How did the person create it?
  • Discusses what the piece means to the creator and how it has affected his/her practice.

Depending on the time you have, you could have your students work on a draft of this statement and workshop it in class to really polish it up. Again, the dedication of time to this is well worth it because students will be reseeing and discussing the work that they did over the year, reinforcing the learning that happened. The day of the gallery, have your students hang their pieces of work with the statements right next to them, and a blank sheet of paper next to that for viewers to respond to the different pieces.

When the gallery is hung, prepare your students by first talking a bit about what it is like to walk through an art gallery. How do people act? I tend to highlight the fact that it is not entirely quiet in a gallery. People talk with one another in hushed tones as a way of deepening the appreciation of the work. Encourage your students to have those kinds of conversations. I would also stress that the goal is not to make it around to all of the work. That would be impossible. It is much better for students to spend the time really looking at a few pieces than trying to look at all of them superficially. When it comes to the comment page, coach your students to leave a comment about something that surprises or interests them about the piece. Point out something specific in the piece that stands out to them. Most importantly, do not repeat something that has already been written, and do not leave a comment like “this is really good.” Depending on where your students are with this kind of commenting work, you may want to develop a few examples of strong comments with them and put them up on the board for reference.

Then, let them go to town! Walk around with them. Get involved in real work conversations. Enjoy reliving all of the great work that happened throughout the year. Oh, and by all means invite others! Invite last year’s teachers, next year’s teacher, administrators, parents, friends. The more the merrier! The added benefit of the gallery is welcoming others into the fantastic work that you are doing with your students.

The hope is that you have time after the gallery walk to be able to get back together as a group and debrief a bit. Ideally, you would get into a circle with your students and seed the conversation with a few questions: What does this gallery/work make you think about? What stuck out to you? What do you want to make sure I, as the teacher, don’t leave out next year? If you were to give some advice to my students next year, what would you say? You get the idea.

Take pictures of this event. It will be worth it. And send a few to me if you get the chance. I would love to see them.

How To Put The Learning To Work Part 3: Writing An End Of Year Letter

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In the first end of year post, I wrote about having students remix their work in order to resee it and remember it. In the second post, I explored the idea of designing an end of year reflection that plunges students back into their work from the year and encourages them to critically think about it with an eye towards what happens next. In this post, we’ll play around with the idea of letter writing as a way to culminate the year.

Idea #3: Writing An End of Year Letter

There are a few different kinds of letters that I suggest would be useful in bringing the year to a meaningful close: teacher to student, student to self, and student to next year’s teacher.

Letters are great because they are personal. They are different from emails. They stretch time. They open spaces to be honest. The physicality of them makes the receiver want to keep them. Letters are like gifts. You look forward to opening them. Often we’ll read them, or part of them, more than once. Letters also push the writer to think carefully before writing because the audience is immediate. For all of these reasons, letter writing is a great way to end the year.

Write a letter to your students

The kind of end of year letter that probably comes first to mind is the letter from the teacher to the student. This may seem daunting at first, particularly if you have 150 students! Let’s look first at the kind of letter you can write if your student load is more manageable. If you have a class of 26, you can write individual letters to the students. They don’t have to be long, but make sure that you are specific to each student. Highlight a specific aspect of their work that you think was particularly strong. Reveal a way that they were in the class that contributed to the success of the whole. These letters are a time for celebrating great work and for pushing students to keep going in that direction. I would end the letter with exactly that kind of push. Help each of your students see what could possibly happen next for them. Finally, it would be nice to leave them with a quote that you think is particularly relevant. Maybe the whole class gets the quote in their letters. Maybe it is a quote that has become part of the ritual of the class over the course of the year so that when the students read the quote in their letters, it reminds them of the class.

If you have 150 students or more, I would still write a letter, but it would be one letter to the class as a whole. I would still make it personal by pointing about specific things that the students did that made the class meaningful, interesting, and fun. I would include a quote, and I would address the letter individually to each student, placing it in an envelop for each student. Envelops are key. The students have to be able to open the letters up. That is part of the specialness of it.

Have your students write letters to their future selves

This is a great idea. Has a bit of the time capsule element to it. In this case, have your students write letters to their future selves. Let them know that you will hold on to these letters until they graduate from high school. Make sure they include their address on the envelop that you provide for them just in case they leave the school. I know that this does not guarantee that the letter will make it to them, but it is a step in the right direction.

In terms of the letter, coach them on what they could write by asking a few questions:

  • What would you want to say to your future self?
  • What about this year would you want to remember?
  • What are things that are important to you now?
  • What are you proud of?
  • What do you wish could change?

The foil of the future self really helps free the writer to say things they normally wouldn’t say. Once they have written the letters, have them seal them in an envelope, addressed to themselves, and hold on to them. Hand them back the day of graduation or shortly before or after and see what happens.

Have your students write a letter to next year’s teacher

What a wonderful opportunity – the chance to share a bit of oneself with next year’s teacher. For this form of letter, I would introduce it to the students by asking the question, “If you had a chance to write a letter to your teacher next year, what would you want to say?” This question would hopefully open up a pretty interesting conversation that would then prime the pump for the letters themselves. Tell the students that this is a chance to share a bit about yourself, about the work that you have done, and about what you would love to be able to do next year. Questions that they might want to address in the letter:

  • What work have you done that you are particularly proud of? Why?
  • What are some questions you have about next year?
  • What do you really hope you get to do next year in class?
  • What is something that you would like to get better at?

For younger students, this kind of letter is a great way to work on learning the form of a proper letter. For all students, this kind of letter provides an unusual opportunity to make initial contact with next year’s teacher in a meaningful way. All letters should be placed in envelopes and addressed to the teacher(s). Who knows, maybe the teacher(s) that receive(s) it will either respond back over the summer and/or in the way they design the following year.

How to put the learning to work part 2: The End of Year Reflection

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Idea #2: The Summative Reflection

These few posts focus on how to bring the school year to a close in a meaningful and interesting way that also, most importantly, deepens the learning. The first post explored using the form of the Cento Poem to push students back into their work over the year and to remix it in a creative way. Go here to see how to make that happen in your classroom. In this post, I open up the idea of having students do a summative reflection at the end of the year to remind themselves of what they did, highlight particular strengths in that work, analyze areas for growth, and plan for what they would like to do next.

The summative reflection that I am going to share with you is connected to a portfolio, but it doesn’t have to be. The key is to identify questions that you want your students to address that give them the chance to do the following:

  • Take stock of what they have done over the year. Often times, learning is designed in such a way that it is easy to forget. Quizzes and tests are taken and then thrown away. Books are read and not revisited. Notes are taken, put to use once, and then not used again. The summative reflection gives students the chance to go back through that work, whether it is for the year, the semester, or the quarter and remind themselves of what they have done. This is an essential first step in reflecting on one’s work.
  • Identify work that they think is particularly strong. Students need to develop the ability to think critically about their own work and to recognize when they have done something well and why. Chances are, if they can do that, they will repeat the kind of work over time.
  • Think about what they could do differently. It isn’t enough just to praise oneself for particularly strong work. Students also need to be able to be honest with themselves and point out particular work or a skill that could be improved. They then need space to think in writing about that and come up with a plan for how to improve.
  • Project forward. Learning should not happen in prescribed time allotments. Learning should also not happen in siloed classes. Real, enduring learning is connected across time, across classes, across subjects. Students need a space at the end of the year to be able to write about what they want to do next with what they have learned. This summative reflection helps them do that.

Semester Reflection

Click the image to see the Summative Reflection

Ideally, a shorter, targeted form of this kind of reflection would be happening throughout the year so that students would be skilled in this metacognitive practice. If you are interested in that, click here to see my form of a weekly audit. But, even if that isn’t happening, the end of the year reflection is worth doing. To set it up, the last week of your classes, introduce the idea to your students. Take the template I have provided, manipulate it to fit your context, and hand it out. Give them the week to do it. Encourage them to take their time. Have this be the last piece of work that they do for the year.

I have my students send it to me electronically. It is a lot of emails, but I can respond more quickly. Plus, I want to make sure that they get it back. In terms of feedback, I approach it like a conversation. I either track changes or use the comment tab to ask questions, highlight really interesting things, connect them to resources, and encourage them to make something happen. I have my coach’s hat on when I do this. The feedback is always constructive and encouraging. When it comes to grading these, I normally do not grade them. I tell them that this final piece of work is more important than a grade. Teachers often question whether students will turn it in if there isn’t a grade. When I have established a culture of reflecting over time in this way, and my students are receiving regular feedback from me, it is very rare that a student does not turn it in. Even if you have not been having your students reflect on their work over the year, I think you will be surprised by the number of students who will turn it in even if it is not graded. But, if you want to grade it, I would tell the students that they receive an A for this assignment if they turn it in. If they don’t, they fail the assignment. Enough said.

This summative reflection is not only important for students, it is also important for you, the teacher. It provides a great window into the year, the semester, or the unit, depending on how you frame it. You will get ideas for how you might design next year. And, maybe most importantly, they are going to make you feel good about yourself and about your teaching. I can’t emphasize this enough. Teaching is tough, challenging work. It is crucial to design some kind of vehicle in your class to receive positive feedback. Without joy, we don’t have the energy to overcome the challenges.

How to put the learning to work, part 1: End of Year Ideas for Reflecting on and Reinforcing Learning

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As the school year draws to a close, it is really important to think about how to design a quality ending for both you and your students. What kind of work can you do to end the year in a meaningful and enduring way? The end of the year is a time for taking stock of the work that has been done, thinking critically about it, acknowledging accomplishments, and planning for what needs to happen next. Here are some ideas for how to make all of that happen in the last few weeks of the school year. We’ll start with the Cento.

Idea #1: The Cento

Remember that one of the goals of the end of the year should be to push students back into the work that they have done, remind them of that work, and have them resee it in new ways to reinforce the learning. You want them to think and act in divergent and convergent ways when it comes to the learning that they did earlier in the year as well as remind themselves of what they did and why. This helps the skills and conceptual understanding stick in their brains. The Cento is a creative way to do just that. The Cento is a form of poetry that is completely made up of lines taken from other poems. There is a long and rich history of this kind of work. Here is an interesting example from Simone Muench:simone muench

Wolf Cento

Very quick. Very intense, like a wolf

at a live heart, the sun breaks down.

What is important is to avoid

the time allotted for disavowels

as the livid wound

leaves a trace      leaves an abscess

takes its contraction for those clouds

that dip thunder & vanish

like rose leaves in closed jars.

Age approaches, slowly. But it cannot

crystal bone into thin air.

The small hours open their wounds for me.

This is a woman’s confession:

I keep this wolf because the wilderness gave it to me.

Sources: [Anne Sexton, Dylan Thomas, Larry Levis, Ingeborg Bachmann, Octavio Paz, Henri Michaux, Agnes Nemes Nagy, Joyce Mansour, William Burroughs, Meret Oppenheim, Mary Low, Adrienne Rich, Carl Sandburg]

In order to make this poem, Muench rooted around in the writings of the poets above and pulled lines that she liked and that she thought meshed well together. The Cento is a wonderful experiment for close reading and writing, strategic thinking, and play. And that is exactly what you want your students to do with the work that they have done over the course of a quarter, a semester, or even a year.

To set it up, share with your students the idea of a Cento poem. Show them Muenche’s example or create one on your own. Talk a bit together about what you notice, how it works, etc. Then, challenge them to go back into their own work from the quarter, the semester, or the year, and create their own Cento poem out of found lines from their work. You can decide the level of constraint that you want to put on this project. You could limit the work to the creative writing that they have done, or maybe you want them to pull lines from the essays they have written, or maybe you want to open it up to everything (creative writing, essays, notes, etc.). You might want to figure out the constraint with the students. Ask them, “What work should we dig back into to make our own Cento poems? And remember, a Cento poem does not need to be created out of other poems. It can be created out of all kinds of found texts. In fact, the more diverse the texts, the better!

Give them several days to do it. It would be a really good thing to actually do in the classroom. I like the image of students with their work sprawled out on their desks or on the floor, digging through it, finding lines that they like. As they do this process, make sure to tell them to keep track of where the lines are coming from so that they can reference them at the end of the poem – footnoting their own work if you will. This requirement sets up a really nice opportunity to talk about how to cite one’s own work.

I would encourage your students to make the poem a half a page to a page long, depending on the amount of work and the developmental level of the students. You want it to be long enough so that the students have enough space to really play around with the material, but not too long so that it becomes tedious rather than challenging. Urge them to think about the following:

  • Line length – make sure to vary it so the poem looks interesting on the page
  • How can you link the lines together so that the poem reads like a unified idea coming from many different sources?
  • How many different sources can you use?
  • Variety of material – try to pick a phrase from one source, a single word from another, etc.
  • Have fun with mashing found phrases and words together to create new meanings.

When they have completed the poem, make sure that they have a chance to share it either with the whole class, in small groups, or in pairs. You might want to collect them and publish them in an anthology. This could start a ritual in your class where your students always publish their work Centos at the end of the year. Over time, you could have a shelf filled with Cento anthologies that your present students can look through. Another idea is to hang them up around the room, gallery style, and have your students and invited guests walk around and read them.

One final reason why I love this idea is because it reinforces for students the idea that the work that we do is malleable and organic. It can transform into other things, other forms. Turning their work into a Cento poem encourages them to always see their work as useful, interesting, and filled with the possibility of becoming something else.