Category Archives: General Writing Ideas

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

Qui vive

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.

Developing An Understanding Of How And Why We Write

Posted on by 2 comments
jack kerouac on the road

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.


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

Posted on by 3 comments
remix (1)

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.

Turning the Olympic Creed into Poetry: Hacking the Olympic Creed, part 2

Posted on by 0 comment

If you haven’t had a chance to see my post describing the cut-up experiment we did, click here and check it out. This post highlights some of the great poems that PreK-fourth graders did.

William Burroughs once said, “Cut up Rimbaud, and you are in Rimbaud’s place.” We embarked on this poetry experiment to put us more in the place of the Olympics broadly, and the Olympic Creed specifically. In the process of cutting up the creed and playing around with it word for word, with the goal of making a poem out of those words, really powerful learning happened. Students PreK through fourth grade were  carefully studying words, exploring the different meanings of words, discovering different ways to use words, creating sophisticated poems where the meaning was below the surface, and using the shape of the piece to create that meaning. 

This poem, Norway, is from a kindergarten class. They wrote the poem together. The teacher teacher started the process in true Tristan Tzara style by putting all of the cut up words in a paper bag. The students picked a word our of the bag, laid the word down on a big board on the floor, and then passed the bag to the next students who did the same. The students used the dimensions of the board to determine line-length. Then, once all of the words had been picked, the teacher made a brilliant move by creating a set of constraints for the next phase of the experiment: the students could either move a word, remove a word, or leave the poem the way it was. The game continued with each student scooting out of the circle and deciding what her next move was. They would read the poem aloud to get it in their head before the move and then would read it again when the move had been made. Gasps, oohs and ahs, and laughs filled the room. Some students would express their disagreement with a move. Other moves were met with universal approval. They were all being close readers, thinking creatively and strategically about the next move that they wanted to make. This process went around the circle three times. And is it progressed, more and more words were removed. I was reminded of Niedecker’s “no break from this condensery.” The students paired the poem down to its essentials. What made it even more interesting and funny was the addition of the title, Norway. One could read the poem as a commentary on the country as well as the Olympics. Once the process went around the circle three times, the poem was complete, the group read it aloud again to hear the music in it, and then decided to hang it on their classroom door.

norway The other kindergarten class did it slightly differently, more of a prose approach, keeping all of the words in and shuffling them around on the magnetic white board. After a while, they were stumped, they had a few words that just didn’t seem to work with the poem that they were creating.

cut-up kindergarten

They tried and tried, but adding the words just didn’t sound right. Should they just leave them out? The group worked to answer that question and in the process came up with the idea of using those words as the title for the piece. Hence, the title of the piece:  To Take In The Olympic Games. Below, you’ll see one of the kindergarten students pointing to the words as the group as a whole reads it aloud.

Other students took a narrative approach as well, some to greater affect than others. The trick with the narrative turn is that it encourages the reader to read it like any narrative, and the choppy, broken, style of the text can be a bit off-putting. At other times, this move can be used to create some rather interesting pieces.


cut up third grade 1It’s important to remember that this writing game is a mix of deep literacy learning and artistic creation. Sometimes the works of art turn out more artful than others, but at all times, this experiment plunges the students into language at the word, phrase, and sentence level, encouraging them to think about how they make meaning on the page.

Here is an example of a version that I think works pretty well. It was created by a group of three second graders who truly embodied the spirit of making a poem out of the cut-up words.

cut-up second grade (2)


Not only is it interesting to look at since the young poets chose to roughly use three word lines, but if you read it aloud, you can really hear the possibility in the piece. The rhythms come out in the wonderful use of the repetitions. When read aloud, it sounds as if the speaker is thinking out loud, trying to articulate something profound about life. At times, it captures the cadence of real life. The ending in particular feels a bit like an idiom.




Hack the Olympic Creed with your Students: The Art of the Cut-Up

Posted on by 2 comments
ski jump

If you are like me, you’re always looking for a way to bring the here and now into your class in as creative and interesting a way as possible. So what to do with the Olympics? Here’s a great writing (and reading) experiment that will have your students looking at the Olympics and the meaning behind the Olympics in a whole new way.

Take the Olympic Creed:

The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph, but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered, but to have fought well.

Paste it into a document and blow the creed up to 24 or so point so that you can really see it. Something like this:

The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph, but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered, but to have fought well.

Make enough copies of the creed so that a group of four or so in your class can use it: e.g. 24 in a class, make six copies. Cut out each word so that it is independent. Put the individually cut up words for one creed into each envelop.

The next day, get your students into the requisite number of groups, and hand out the envelope to each group. Tell them that the challenge is to use these words, and only these words, to create a poem. The only other constraint is that they must use all of the words. The way that they construct the poem is completely up to them. They may add punctuation.

IMPORTANT: when describing the challenge, do not show them the original Olympic Creed! If you do that, it will suck all of the creativity out of this experiment. Another important point: the goal is not for the groups to try to recreate the creed in the exact original wording. Instead, the students are using the words like material, like paint, to create a whole new work of art, a la Gertrude Stein.Gertrude Stein-996e11046cc60620a5e89c3a4491d5222249be35-s6-c30

Depending on the age of your students, give them 15, maybe twenty minutes, to mess around with the words and to create the poem. When I tried this, I took a good half an hour, so this could be a good use of an entire period. The amount of time that you dedicate to it will determine the kinds of poems that are produced. Less time: probably more abstract. More time: probably more narrative in form. Any time spent is well worth it. This experiment encourages your students to think and act strategically, carefully reading the words and critically thinking about the meaning that they want to create by connecting the words to each other. They will also come to appreciate how many different ways they can use the same word, particularly prepositions, articles, and conjunctions. Not only that, they are also honing their skills of interpretation and persuasiveness by working as a group to make their poem happen. While your students are creating their poems out of the found material, sit back and enjoy listening to and watching the divergent and convergent thinking that goes on.

Once the students feel that they have their poems constructed, have them write them down on pieces of paper, exactly the way that they look on the tables. While they are doing that, you might want to go around and take pictures of each poem in its cut-up form. There is something aesthetically interesting in the way in which the cut out words look pieced together on the table. Give them a chance to read it one more time out loud to their group so that they have it in their head.

Then, reveal the original creed on your smart board or written on the blackboard or handed out on a different sheet of paper to each group. Tell them that this is the original Olympic Creed. You can even use the moment to share the story with them about how the Olympic Creed came to be:

coubertinPierre de Coubertin got the idea for the phrase adopted as the Olympic Creed from a speech given by Bishop Ethelbert Talbot at a service for Olympic champions during the 1908 Olympic Games.

Not much of a story, but it is always good to know where something comes from.

The comparing of the original Olympic Creed and the cut-up versions that the students do should create a very interesting conversation. What is the difference between the original and the new versions? What do we notice about the way the original creed is written? What new meanings are created in the new versions? What do we see differently in the original creed because of our cut-ups? Which do we like better? You get the idea.

For the coup de grace, Have the students type up their cut-up versions with a title and the names of all who contributed to it, and then create a gallery in your room or in the hallway outside of your room where you display the original Olympic Creed and then all of your students’ versions to invite folks to see the Olympics in a new and refreshing way.

This writing and reading experiment is beautifully simple and wonderfully deep in terms of the literacy skill development and learning that happens. As noted above, through this writing game, similar to Burrough’s cut-ups or Tristan Tzara’s Tzara’s Hat, your students will scrutinize individual words, interpret word pairings for below surface meanings, read what they put together many many times, work to convince others that their construction is the best, surprise themselves with what happens when seemingly disparate words are connected, and be ruthless in their editing. When they see the original creed, they will then be encouraged to do some pretty sophisticated comparing and contrasting. They will revisit their own piece and evaluate it for its effectiveness, its uniqueness. They will also come to appreciate how words and phrases can have multiple meanings, depending on how you use them.burroughs&Typewriter(1)

If you give this a shot with your students, please leave a comment and let me know how it goes. Better yet, leave me a comment and share one of the poems created. I’d love to see it. Here is a version I came up with:

But well-conquered Olympic struggle?

Not important

But is the most essential triumph fought to win?

Not important

Take the life games

as not just to have

the most in the thing

But have

the thing in part is

the is

Writing Fairy Tales with Third Graders

Posted on by 0 comment

Fairy Tales. What a cool form to explore with third graders. Magic. Good vs. Evil. A terrible problem that works out in the end. Right up the alley of 8 and 9 year olds who are more than willing to live in secondary worlds. I recently had the chance to open up the idea of writing fairy tales with a third grade class. The class was in the midst of writing various forms of short stories involving a classroom character that they had developed by the name of Kaitlyn Rose Anderson. The teacher wanted to challenge the students to write their own fairy tales involving Kaitlyn Rose, thus transferring what they know about the character into a completely new context – lots of potential for convergent and divergent thinking and writing to happen.

We started our exploration by doing a quick writing warm up: Make a list of names you’d like to be called. Here’s mine:


The Stitler


Das Leifster


Nutty Nut



Stinky the Nudge

Partical Man




Nimble Thimble

Of course, some students made a list of a names they don’t want to be called. Always good to break the rules in meaningful ways! Here are a few that made me pause:



If that isn’t a window into where the third graders are right now, I don’t know what is!

After we wiggled our elbows for a good three or so minutes, I asked the students to pick their top three names off the list and to share those names with the person next to them. Laughter ensued along with many students saying how much they liked a name that was offered. We were definitely headed in the right direction. Our minds and hands were warmed up, and we had a good laugh. Once students shared their top three names, I mentioned how writers will often make lists of potential names for characters in their stories. I hinted that they may want to use some of these names in the story that we were going to write.

From there, we moved into exploring fairy tales specifically. I asked them what a fairy tale was, and with very little hesitation, hands raised. Through this conversation, we came up with a pretty sophisticated list of fairy tale characteristics.Characteristics of a Fairy Tale

I then asked them to come on over to the rug so that I could read them a fairy tale. They all scrambled over and we strategized together how to sit so that everyone could see – a classic challenge for young kids. Once folks were settled, I asked them to listen closely to the story to see if our list of characteristics stood up and to see if we needed to add anything to the list. I picked up Rumpelstiltskin by Paul O. Zelinsky, showed the front cover, read the acknowledgement, and began the story. The students loved it. I got the sense that several of them had never heard Rumpelstiltskin before. They pleaded with their classmates to not give up what happened next. They identified the king as a bad man but then wondered if the beautiful daughter would be able to change him over time. The room was mixed in terms of whether the daughter should marry the king. The students thought Rumpelstiltskin was pretty scary.

RumpelstiltskinWith a turn of the final page and a show of the back of the book, I then asked them if there was anything that we wanted to add to our list of fairy tale characteristics. The students identified two: The challenge or problem grows, and there is repetition. One student pointed out, “And the repetition can be things that characters say or do.” Good point. I added those two important qualities to the list.

I could tell that the students were itching to get started. Before we could jump to writing our own fairy tales, though, we needed to spend just a few minutes talking about this great classroom character that they had created. I wanted to make sure that she was in the front of their minds as they took on the challenge of writing their own fairy tale. We put the classroom character up on the smartboard, and I asked them to tell me a bit about Kaitlyn Rose Anderson. The students shared particular character traits that stuck out. They talked a bit about the stories that they had already written. I asked them to tell me the names of some of the other characters in those stories. The students mentioned Kaitlyn’s sister. I suggested that they may want to include these characters in the fairy tale. I also suggested that they may want to take a fairy tale that they know and write Kaitlyn into it. I posed the question: What would happen if Kaitlyn was in Rumpelstiltskin? There was a buzz. One student asked, “Can I write the next chapter of Rumpelstiltskin?” I nodded. Another student clapped her hands together, “Can I mash a bunch of fairy tales together and see what happens?” The class loved that idea. And with that, I sent them back to their writing tables.Kaitlyn Rose Anderson

Just before we got started, the teacher piped up, “What other fairy tales do we know?” The group came up with a long list. Fairy tales were definitely in their minds. They were ready to write.

I posed the challenge to them: write a fairy tale that involves Kaitlyn Rose Anderson as a main character in the story. Before I sent them off to their writing spaces, I mentioned that one of the great things about fairy tales is that they kind of supply the opening line for us, so we don’t need to spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to start. I encouraged them to literally take the first line out of Rumpelstiltskin, Cinderella, or Kate and the Beanstalk, and see where the writing takes them.

Once there was a poor X who had a beautiful X.

Long ago, a girl named X lived with her mother in a X.

In a time not too long ago and in a land much like our own, there lived a X and a X.

Students were already scribbling away, so I stepped aside, got out my own pad of paper, and let them write.

At first there was a bit of chatter. Students were looking at each other’s writing, pointing out how to spell a word, asking a question, flipping through the pages of Rumpelstiltskin for inspiration or just to figure out how to spell the name. After a bit, I coached, “Let’s put all of that talking energy down on the paper. Work to answer your questions through the writing. See if you can fill a page.” The room quieted down, and you could practically feel the focus in the room.

About ten minutes in, I broke the silence, and suggested some ways to keep going: “If you are finding yourself thinking a lot instead of writing, take a look over here at our list of fairy tale characteristics.” I pointed to the list.  “They might give you some ideas on where to go next. For example, is your problem growing? Where is the repetition? Do you have a bad character? Another thing to do is to read what you have written. Just by doing that, you will probably find what needs to be written next.” I looked out over the group, “I also like how some of you are going back to your first story and reminding yourself of what you wrote. I can see how that might trigger an idea or two as well.” I clapped my hands, “Alright, back to it. Let’s see if we can write for another five minutes or so.” The students put their heads back down and went back to writing.

Writing Fairy TalesBefore we knew it, the time was up. I needed to leave, and the kids needed to go to lunch. On the way out, I touched base with the teacher, and the plan is to give them a chance to read what they had written so that they can immediately hear the possibility in the writing. Looking beyond that, the students will get a chance to choose one of three drafts of different stories involving Kaitlyn Rose Anderson that they will get the chance to revise, edit, and publish. Not a bad use of an hour of class time if you ask me!

What does it mean to be a writer? Ask a fourth grader

Posted on by 0 comment

What does it look like, sound like, and feel like to be a writer, reader, and thinker in the world? This is the overarching question that fuels teachers who design writing-based curriculum. They are constantly scheming and planning how they can design learning environments where students and teachers become many different kinds of writers over the course of the year. One of the rituals of the writing-based classroom is  to think critically about the writing work that has been done over the year as a way to process the work, deepen the learning, and set future writing goals. The questions that teachers ask their students are pretty simple:

What have you learned about being a writer?

What is your favorite piece and why?

What do you like about writing?

Bonus question: What do you want to get better at as a writer?

The way in which students reflect on these questions depends on their developmental level. Pre-K students talk about the questions as a group with the teacher writing down what she hears. 4th graders write down their own answers to the questions. Teachers collect the responses and use them to reflect themselves on the year and to plan for next.

As this school year quickly comes to a close, teachers and students are in the throes of this ritual, and I wanted to share a particular class of fourth grader’s responses to the questions. For me it shows what can happen when we design learning environments where students and teachers are living a writing life together, where they are writing reflectively, creatively, and analytically out in the real world. Specifically, what I love about these responses is both the sophisticated writerly-sense that the 4th graders have developed over the year and the sense of play that they connect to the act of writing. The responses are also a guide for how we should be designing writing environments if we want students to truly be engaged and to feel that writing is a part of who they are.

1. What do you like about writing?

  • exciting stories from my imagination
  • making up fun awesome stories and characters
  • I like the part where you are kind of just thinking what you’re going to do.
  • I like when I try to put my own self in the story
  • I like when I’m about ready to go to the next chapter but before that I may leave a little “Cliffhanger!”
  • I like to have a sharp pencil.
  • I like when the teacher gives us topics.
  • I like to write stories about fairies.
  • My favorite part of writing is the editing because I get to go back and reread my stories and make sure everything is the way I want it.
  • A fun activity you can do pretty much everywhere.
  • Writing gives you the chance to write down what you’re thinking or about what happened today.
  • Sometimes I like to think about a book that I want to read but hasn’t been written yet, and then write it myself.
  • I love writing fiction stories.
  • What I like about writing is that I can just be free. I can just express how I feel while I am writing.
  • I love that you can pick your characters and their personalities.
  • You can use your imagination to create someone else’s reality.
  • Writing is a new way to let out your emotions on paper

2. What have you learned about being a writer?

  • have fun
  • use your imagination
  • get creative and write about  what YOU want to write about
  • you need correct punctuation and uppercase letter
  • write about what you think you will like
  • all stories don’t have to be true – it can have talking bugs or whatever
  • you can always add people in it if you don’t have the people you want
  • Plan your story before you start writing
  • Don’t ever pick something you don’t like.  Don’t pick it just because your friend is doing it.
  • Write a story that fits your personality.
  • An author should remember the Steps of Writing: Peer conferencing, editing, revision
  • Don’t get frustrated if writing a story takes a long time.  Writing takes a long time.
  • Start with a good beginning.
  • Your book has to make at least a little sense.
  • Choose to write about something that you know a good amount about.
  • Be proud of what your wrote even if someone else does not like it.

3. What is your favorite piece and why?

  • Persuasive letter to Channel 10 – I had fun writing about it and used my imagination from my Robotics team
  • Friendship story – I worked hard on it and at the end it has this thing where it’s like a fable.  Some parts were funny and some were sad.
  • My Dress story because this is the first time I actually wanted to keep writing all day long.
  • I liked my Time Travel and Special Place stories. I like them because they are very different than any other story I wrote.
  • I like my story about my dad because I feel like I got all the details from when he was 10 to when he is 50.
  • My favorite was my time travel story because I put a lot of detail in it and big adventures. I felt that I had a really good connection with the story and the characters.
  • My animal story because it’s different than anything else I’ve written. This story did not have a happy ending which is different for me.
  • I am proud of Chloe’s Dress Visit because when I wrote this I felt like I was a professional author.



Warping the Traditional Author’s Note

Posted on by

A great ending to writing a piece is crafting a clever author’s note to go along with it. I tend to have my students write these whenever they are going to publish a piece of their writing. Author’s notes can sometimes be rather dull and formulaic, but there are some interesting and fun ways to write author’s notes that students enjoy and that push them to be strategic and artful with their writing. Here are a few ways to write author’s notes.

Idea # 1: Author’s Note as Cento

The Cento is a form of poetry where the writer pulls lines and phrases from other poems and puts them together to create a new poem. Have your students do this with their own writing! Have them go in and pull great lines and surprising phrases and have them think strategically about how they may want to put them together in the form of a wild author’s note. When you do this, you get something like this:

Delight I invoke, Run down, between ocean and gorge to myriads of transcendence in the star-flash of the underbellies of blue cars and other worlds that float off like foam Into the sea.

Or this:

Girl in water

bottle section(better

suited for light

around the edges)

developing a tendency

 to make the

unbearable tedium of

 regular writing. As

specified in Tour

Guide, this is

her second workshop.

An equation for

this exists: 15 + 240 =

this girl(me) at

Cliveden. The figures

change from year to year.

These two Centos were built out of lines and phrases that the students pulled from the stories that they had been writing over the course of a short story unit.

Idea #2: Author’s Note as Remix

Another way to create an interesting author’s note is to dig through the writing and find quirky and funny things that it says about the writer. Remix that material into an author’s note, like this:

Leah is someone with no rhythm. She hates Remax commercials. She has never traveled to Missouri and wishes never to go there…EVER. She likes jet planes, especially when flying to Europe (where, I forgot to mention, she also has never lived). She has heard the “then there was light” story too many times to count, but wonders when there was water. Maybe her next novel will analyze that. Leah did not write “The History of Anonymity.” She has, however, written the defunct book, “Swimming for Dummies.” She is furious that the publishers did not consider it. She currently has “writers not,” a mentality similar to “writers block.” We hope (or do not hope) to see her work again soon.

Or something like this:

Nick feels like croaking on in the morning on the way to school. His mother tries to play the Dixie Chicks and roll down the window. This makes Nick’s eyes go cross.

Good author’s notes can be short and sweet.

Idea #3: Author’s Note as Collaborative Writing

Get students and teachers together in groups of three or so and have them build author’s notes for each other collaboratively. Each writer gets out a piece of paper. Make the constraint three words and pass, meaning that each writer puts down three words and then passes the paper to the next writer. That writer picks up the author’s note from where it left off. Keep passing the papers around, writing three words at a time until you get something like this:

Eli envies the deaf, wears chucks, and hates Axe body spray. Currently he is adrift in a jar, buried under a rock, with the glass painted black. He’d love to talk about his family dynamic, but thinks it might be a bit of a personal subject at this juncture.

Or this:

This long wage of vast palette, which builds its range by adoption of hues in Tijuana of futuristic squirrels. Holy hell’s bells avenge Baltic buffoons. Eyes like saucers let me go! Tattooed tramp! My Mom’s got nothing but leaky boots.

Idea #4: Author’s Note as Identity Theft

Have your students go online and Google themselves. Have them jot down all kinds of interesting things that they learn about people that have their same name. Then have them write an author’s note using all of that information. You’ll get something like this:

Leif Gustavson sometimes lives in Massachusetts. He actively uses his Dropbox to collect electronic music under the artistic name Leify-Greenz. When not in Massachusetts, he returns to Kyle, Saskatchewan. While pursuing his Master’s Thesis in Cognitive Science, he won the Children’s Wish Foundation Home Lottery and secretly wished that his first name was Thor.  He has a propensity to take pictures with his shirt off. Leif often eats lunch at a shelter set up by the Spencer Emergency Management Agency at Knox Trail Junior High School.

The point of all of these forms is to warp the conventional author’s note, to push students to think and act divergently and convergently about the form. I would start this experiment by sharing a traditional author’s note or two with the students. Talk about the craft: what makes them tick? What are the moves that the writer is making in them? Then I would say, “For our author’s note, let’s warp the form a bit” and share these other ways of creating interesting, artful author’s notes. This way, they get the conventions of a traditional author’s note and then can twist it in fun and challenging ways.

All of the examples, with the exception of the identity theft one, are real author’s notes crafted by middle and high school students.


Words To Write By

Posted on by 0 comment

There are a number of writers that have made lists of maxims for writing that they use to help guide them, push them, encourage them to get words down on the page. As part of the writing-based curriculum, I share these maxims with my students. I print them out and have the students read them, picking out the maxims that most resonate with them, surprise them, inspire them, or just plain confuse them. We talk about the maxims that are chosen guided by the question, ‘How can these maxims help us with our writing craft?’ This kind of craft conversation enriches the language of writing and helps to create the kind of mindset needed to approach the blank page and to get stuff down that has potential. These maxims also help students see the playfulness of the act of writing, always a good thing.

I have collected a few of these kinds of lists below. Two are from Jack Kerouac. One is from Allen Ginsberg. One is from Emma Coates, Pixar’s Story Artist. Let them fuel you. Let them fuel your students. Put them to work in your writing-based classroom.

Jack Kerouac’s Rules for Spontaneous Prosekerouac

1. Scribbled secret notebooks, and wild typewritten pages, for yr own joy
2. Submissive to everything, open, listening
3. Try never get drunk outside yr own house
4. Be in love with yr life
5. Something that you feel will find its own form
6. Be crazy dumbsaint of the mind
7. Blow as deep as you want to blow
8. Write what you want bottomless from bottom of the mind
9. The unspeakable visions of the individual
10. No time for poetry but exactly what is
11. Visionary tics shivering in the chest
12. In tranced fixation dreaming upon object before you
13. Remove literary, grammatical and syntactical inhibition
14. Like Proust be an old teahead of time
15. Telling the true story of the world in interior monolog
16. The jewel center of interest is the eye within the eye
17. Write in recollection and amazement for yourself
18. Work from pithy middle eye out, swimming in language sea
19. Accept loss forever
20. Believe in the holy contour of life
21. Struggle to sketch the flow that already exists intact in mind
22. Dont think of words when you stop but to see picture better
23. Keep track of every day the date emblazoned in yr morning
24. No fear or shame in the dignity of yr experience, language & knowledge
25. Write for the world to read and see yr exact pictures of it
26. Bookmovie is the movie in words, the visual American form
27. In praise of Character in the Bleak inhuman Loneliness
28. Composing wild, undisciplined, pure, coming in from under, crazier the better
29. You’re a Genius all the time
30. Writer-Director of Earthly movies Sponsored & Angeled in Heaven

ginsbergHere are Allen Ginsberg’s Mind Writing Slogans

“First Thought is Best in Art, Second in Other Matters.”
— William Blake

             I Background (Situation, Or Primary Perception)

  1. “First Thought, Best Thought” — Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche
  2. “Take a friendly attitude toward your thoughts.” — Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche
  3. “The Mind must be loose.” — John Adams
  4. “One perception must immediately and directly lead to a further perception.” — Charles Olson, “Projective Verse”
  5. “My writing is a picture of the mind moving.” — Philip Whalen
  6. Surprise Mind — Allen Ginsberg
  7. “The old pond, a frog jumps in, Kerplunk!” — Basho
  8. “Magic is the total delight (appreciation) of chance.” — Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche
  9. “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes.” –– Walt Whitman
  10. “…What quality went to form a man of achievement, especially in literature? … Negative capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” — John Keats
  11. “Form is never more than an extension ofcontent. — Robert Creeley to Charles Olson
  12. “Form follows function.” — Frank Lloyd Wright*
  13. Ordinary Mind includes eternal perceptions. — A. G.
  14. “Nothing is better for being Eternal
    Nor so white as the white that dies of a day.” — Louis Zukofsky
  15. Notice what you notice. — A. G.
  16. Catch yourself thinking. — A. G.
  17. Observe what’s vivid. — A. G.
  18. Vividness is self-selecting. — A. G.
  19. “Spots of Time” — William Wordsworth
  20. If we don’t show anyone we’re free to write anything. –– A. G.
  21. “My mind is open to itself.” — Gelek Rinpoche
  22. “Each on his bed spoke to himself alone, making no sound.” — Charles Reznikoff

II Path (Method, Or Recognition)

  1. “No ideas but in things.” “… No ideas but in the Facts.” — William Carlos Williams
  2. “Close to the nose.” — W. C. Williams
  3. “Sight is where the eye hits.” — Louis Zukofsky
  4. “Clamp the mind down on objects.” — W C. Williams
  5. “Direct treatment of the thing … (or object).” — Ezra Pound, 1912
  6. “Presentation, not reference.” — Ezra Pound
  7. “Give me a for instance.” — Vernacular
  8. “Show not tell.” — Vernacular
  9. “The natural object is always the adequate symbol.” — Ezra Pound
  10. “Things are symbols of themselves.” — Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche
  11. “Labor well the minute particulars, take care of the little ones.
    He who would do good for another must do it in minute particulars.
    General Good is the plea of the Scoundrel Hypocrite and Flatterer
    For Art & Science cannot exist but in minutely organized particulars.” — William Blake
  12. “And being old she put a skin / on everything she said.” — W. B. Yeats
  13. “Don’t think of words when you stop but to see the picture better.” — Jack Kerouac
  14. “Details are the Life of Prose.” — Jack Kerouac
  15. Intense fragments of spoken idiom best. — A. G.
  16. “Economy of Words” — Ezra Pound
  17. “Tailoring” — Gregory Corso
  18. Maximum information, minimum number of syllables. –– A. G.
  19. Syntax condensed, sound is solid. — A. G.
  20. Savor vowels, appreciate consonants. — A. G.
  21. “Compose in the sequence of musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome.” — Ezra Pound
  22. “… awareness … of the tone leading of the vowels.” — Ezra Pound
  23. “… an attempt to approximate classical quantitative meters . . . — Ezra Pound
  24. “Lower limit speech, upper limit song” — Louis Zukofsky
  25. “Phanopoeia, Melopoeia, Logopoeia.” — Ezra Pound
  26. “Sight. Sound & Intellect.” — Louis Zukofsky
  27. “Only emotion objectified endures.” — Louis Zukofsky

III Fruition (Result, Or Appreciation)

  1. Spiritus = Breathing = Inspiration = Unobstructed Breath
  2. “Alone with the Alone” — Plotinus
  3. Sunyata (Sanskrit) = Ku (Japanese) = Emptiness
  4. “What’s the sound of one hand clapping?” — Zen Koan
  5. “What’s the face you had before you were born?” — Zen Koan
  6. Vipassana (Pali) = Clear Seeing
  7. “Stop the world” — Carlos Castafleda
  8. “The purpose of art is to stop time.” — Bob Dylan
  9. “the unspeakable visions of the individual — J. K.
  10. “I am going to try speaking some reckless words, and I want you to try to listen recklessly.” — Chuang Tzu (Tr. Burton Watson)
  11. “Candor” —Whitman
  12. “One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.”  — W. Shakespeare
  13. “Contact” — A Magazine, Nathaniel West & W. C. Williams, Eds.
  14. “God appears & God is Light
    To those poor souls who dwell in Night.
    But does a Human Form Display
    To those who Dwell in Realms of Day.” — W. Blake
  15. “Subject is known by what she sees.” -A. G.
  16. Others can measure their visions by what we see. –– A. G.
  17. Candor ends paranoia. — A. G.
  18. “Willingness to be Fool.” — Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche
  19. “Day & Night / you’re all right.” — Gregory Corso
  20. Tyger: “Humility is Beatness.” — Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche & A. G.
  21. Lion: “Surprise Mind” — Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche &A.G.
  22. Garuda: “Crazy Wisdom Outrageousness” — Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche
  23. Dragon: “Unborn Inscrutability” — Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche
  24. “To be men not destroyers” — Ezra Pound
  25. Speech synchronizes mind & body — Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche
  26. “The Emperor unites Heaven & Earth” — Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche
  27. “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world” — Shelley
  28. “Make it new” — Ezra Pound
  29. “When the music changes, the walls of the city shake” — Plato
  30. “Every third thought shall be my grave — W Shakespeare, The Tempest
  31. “That in black ink my love may still shine bright.” –– W. Shakespeare, Sonnets
  32. “Only emotion endures” — Ezra Pound
  33. “Well while I’m here I’ll
    do the work —
    and what’s the Work?
    To ease the pain of living.
    Everything else, drunken
    dumbshow.” — A. G.
  34. “… Kindness, sweetest of the small notes in the world’s ache, most modest & gentle of the elements entered man before history and became his daily connection, let no man tell you otherwise.” — Carl Rakosi
  35. “To diminish the mass of human and sentient sufferings.” — Gelek Rinpoche

Naropa Institute, July 1992        
New York, March 5, 1993        
New York, June 27, 1993 


These rules were originally tweeted by Emma Coates, Pixar’s Story Artist. Number 9 on the list – When you’re stuck, make a list of what wouldn’t happen next – is a great one and can apply to writers in all genres.

  1. You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.
  2. You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be very different.
  3. Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.
  4. Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.
  5. Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.
  6. What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?
  7. Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.
  8. Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.
  9. When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN’T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.
  10. Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.
  11. Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.
  12. Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.
  13. Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.
  14. Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.
  15. If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.
  16. What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.
  17. No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on – it’ll come back around to be useful later.
  18. You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.
  19. Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.
  20. Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you DO like?
  21. You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way?
  22. What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.