As long as I live, I will remember a student sitting in one of the front desks of my classroom, left side, who sized me up on the second day of the semester and let me know exactly what he thought. When he realized that there would be a daily journal entry required, he said, “Man, I thought I was going to like you.” He continued to explain that he didn’t know I was going to make him write, to which I responded in a quizzical manner, “It’s an English class.”
At the beginning of a new semester, I would often ask students in my high school English courses to stand or raise their hands if they expected to hate the course. Usually about half of the students, or more, would respond. The reasons why they expected to be miserable ranged from not enjoying reading, anticipating poor relationships with a new teacher and busy work that would mean nothing to them, and almost always the most dreaded component of all – writing.
Over the years, I’ve tried to assign readings and writing prompts that would engage students and if I was lucky, change the minds of the students who hated the subject I loved. I didn’t always succeed. I regret the times I didn’t, and I’m thankful for the times I did. If you have a student who hates to write, I encourage you to try my favorite writing activities and prompts below. They are all easily customizable for students of different ages.
1.) This I Believe
The This I Believe essay series comes from National Public Radio (NPR) and it remains my all time favorite writing assignment. Over the past 15 years, I have had the best student responses to this prompt. An idea with a long history, the series actually started in 1951 when Edward R. Murrow asked people about their personal philosophies and beliefs. When the series was revived, so many called in to say what they believed that the phone lines crashed. The essays are spoken and written, and, simply beautiful.
Some students are challenged by this essay prompt because it is a product of choice, and they are often used to being told exactly what to write and how to write it. That prescriptiveness is helpful to build technique and practice, but you don’t want students to lose the fun and freedom that writing can possess. Writing personally makes writing matter, and when something does not matter, students don’t want any part of it. If your students get stuck selecting a topic, help them brainstorm. Ask them to write down the first two things that come to mind when they heard the topic. Ask them what they care about. Ask them what makes them angry. Ask them what their friend or parent would say they care about/believe. I always give students examples to help start the creative process, but find the balance between oversharing. You want students to have mental space left to create their own original ideas.
A few of my favorite essays to explore on the site are below and I can promise that you will enjoy them, whether you are sharing them with students or not.
I Am Still The Greatest by Muhammad Ali
Always Go To The Funeral by Deirdre Sullivan
My Husband Will Call Me Tomorrow by Becky Herz
Finding Freedom in Forgiveness by Ronald Cotton and Jennifer Thompson-Cannino
Whether you decide to have students create podcasts or present traditionally, this assignment is a great way to practice public speaking. The classroom will be silent with all ears listening for their peers beliefs. One final consideration to mention is that some students will write very private experiences in these essays and no one should be forced to share publicly if that is the case. You could advise students not to write anything they don’t want to share, but I always preferred to let them write passionately from the heart, encourage them to share, and ultimately give the freedom not to share if needed. Students may also need to be reminded, before beginning the assignment, that if they share information about abuse and other concerning situations, it cannot be held confidential by the teacher and must be reported for the student’s own safety.
Resources for Teachers and Parents:
2.) Soundtrack of My Life
In the beginning of my classes, rather than have students stand up one by one and introduce themselves, I would have them complete this assignment instead. Students choose 5 songs that represent their lives and write a paragraph about each one to explain why. They can choose chronologically, such as:
“Hush little baby, don’t say a word, mama’s gonna buy you a mockingbird…”
“Down by the bay, where the watermelons grow, back to my home, I dare not go…”
Middle school (Am I the only one who remembers this?)
“One day I was walking, walking to the fair, I met a senorita with flowers in her hair, she said shake it, shake it, shake it, shake it if you can, shake it like a milkshake and do the best you can…”
“I wish somebody would have told me babe, someday, these will be the good old days…”
If chronologically isn’t your thing, that’s fine. Give the option of choosing any songs that are meaningful to the student but they can’t just be a favorite song. The student has to be able to write about what the song is all about and how it relates to their life. There has to be reasoning behind why they choose each song. It’s so much fun to have students present these as a welcome to the class, a break in the middle, or even an end of semester celebration. Allow each student to share their list and play one of their songs (or 30 seconds of a song if you have a really large class). I honestly can not remember a single student ever complaining about having to write these 5 paragraphs. The assignment for me served two purposes; it gave me a glimpse into who each student was and it showed me where they were in the development of their writing skills.
3.) $100,000 Essay Contest
Maybe extra, I know, but taping a fake $100 bill on a writing prompt can work wonders for motivation. This prompt was always so much fun. I never told students what the prize was going to be for this essay contest, and I think some of them actually thought it was going to be $100,000. Unfortunately, my teacher salary didn’t allow me to give that much or even $100, but I did try to give some sort of prize whether it was $10 or a bag of really good candy. Check with your administration in case there is a school policy that doesn’t allow you to give money to students as a prize, or just do it and ask forgiveness later and don’t quote me on that.
During the semesters I really got it right, I’d plan so that this prompt would be left with a substitute while I was absent. It was fun, so the substitute had a pretty good day without students refusing to work and misbehaving. And…believe it or not a rumor would always quickly surface that I wasn’t there because I had won the lottery and gone to pick up my money! Hence the belief that I might actually give one of them $100,000. I wish I could have been a fly on the wall in my classroom! Students were burning holes in their notebook paper they were writing so fast.
The prompt itself required students to plan out exactly what they would do with $100,000. This ended up being a major reality lesson. High school students would plan to buy a house with a pool, a Lamborghini, and a new truck and a vacation and I’d have to kill those dreams. $100,000 is awesome but it’s not doing all of that. And then there would be the one essay where the student described giving it all away to their mom as a thank you for all she had done for them in their lives and seeing the look on her face as they told her she could take a break, and the next essay would be about donating the money in full to charity to help sick kids have normal lives again, and hello, where are the tissues? It was always tough to choose winners. To build suspense and include more students, I would choose a 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place winner for each class. That fake money from Dollar Tree – one of the best purchases ever.
4.) 6 Word Novel
6 word memoirs are somewhat a genre of themselves. The first time I heard about this idea it was paired with Ernest Hemingway and I was told that he created his own. However, this is probably completely false and just an urban legend. The story goes that Hemingway was eating with friends and made a $10 bet that he could write an entire novel of his life in just six words. He wrote his 6 word novel on a napkin, passed it around, and got paid. His novel was:
For Sale: Baby Shoes Never Worn
Similar phrases had actually been printed in newspapers when Hemingway was just a child so did he borrow or steal the words as an adult during a bet? There’s no proof this ever happened; no proof of the bet or of the meeting or the napkin writing. Most people believe that this story of the 6 word novel was created by a literary agent. The legend lives on, nonetheless, and now it inspires students to think of what their own 6 word novel would be. What six words can represent your entire life up to this point? It isn’t as easy as it might sound! Humor me – try it and share what your 6 word novel would be! Maybe mine would be something like…
In the summer, life is won.
The girls were gems and jewels.
She dreams of writing and rest.
5.) A Letter to Myself
No matter the age of your students, this can be a really special writing activity. Have students write a letter about what they think will be important to them at different stages in their lives, framed as a letter to themselves. They can describe their current personality and hobbies, hopes and beliefs. You can think of this in ages (10 years from now, 20 years from now, 50 years from now) or in stages (graduating high school, first job, starting a family, retirement). Ask students to consider the “mystery of happiness.” Instruct them to think about what made them happy at different ages (5, 10, 15) and what will make them happy in the future (ages 20, 25, 35, 55, 70, 90). If you know that you will maintain contact with your students or teach in the same district they will likely graduate from years later, you can save the letters and return them or you can let the students keep the letters with the instruction to tuck them away and pull them out years later.
6. One Kind Thing
This was definitely the most simplistic writing assignment ever, and it was more about kindness than it was about grammar, sentence structure, or anything “official” I had to teach. I heard about this idea on the news. A young man passed away in a car accident and a folded up piece of paper was found in his wallet. The paper was from his classmates, with one kind thing written about him by each of them. The paper was worn and old as the young man had kept it with him for many years. Anyone who works in a high school knows that students group themselves and some students are excluded and picked on. I felt this activity was important. Years after I did this for the first time, a student came back to visit me and said, “Guess what I still have?” He unfolded his paper from his wallet, one kind thing from each of his classmates, and I was so thankful I had taken the time to do that assignment. I would have each student write one kind thing next to a list of their classmates names. Then I would collect them all and type a document for each student, adding each comment that was meant for them. I can remember typing and thinking I would never finish. It was time consuming (some of my classes had 32 students) but it was worth it and a nice way to end the semester.
7.) Local Problem/Solution
This assignment is a simple way to help students transition into research writing and citing sources appropriately. Allow students to choose a problem in their community and research it (online research, local interviews, books, etc.). Finding 2-3 sources is a good amount. The focus isn’t on how many sources a student can find, but rather on finding a few high quality ones and creating the citations correctly. The goal is for students to choose something they care about, are frustrated or angered by, and/or want to change. I saw a lot of “there’s nothing for teens here” over the years. Some students were passionate about national issues and you can let them write about those as well. From my experience, the more locally they could focus the better the results were. Recent student choice topics have included homelessness, COVID concerns, abortion, gun violence, programs for children and teens, and business policies and practices.
8.) Cultural Awareness Infographics
Geography is one of the most lacking skills I have seen in students. I’m no expert at it myself, but I do believe students should at least have basic knowledge of where places are in the world and what makes those places special. To begin this unit, I always pass out strips of paper with statistics from around the world. They are sobering and students often ask me if I have made them up, which of course I did not. Next, I give each student a card that has one big issue in the world written on it like healthcare, education, transportation, economy, environment, food, poverty, human rights, religion, and war/conflict. Students take their cards and line up in a circle (there will be repeats of cards of course depending on how many students and how many issues you use). I start a roll of yarn and give each student a piece to hold around the circle, as we crisscross the yarn by tossing it back and forth in no particular pattern. When every student has yarn, I instruct them to be very still and quiet. When I call out an issue, if they have that card then I want them to very lightly pull on their string. Then I want everyone who felt that pull to raise their hand. It’s always surprising who feels the pull. Sometimes it’s not who we expect. Everyone who felt the pull will say what is on their card and then we will discuss how “education” pulling on “poverty” and “economy” and “human rights” all relates to each other. After a while in the circle, students will then choose one big issue and one country to research the impact of that issue. The final product is an infographic they present to the class. The result is many different countries that everyone gets to learn about in a deeper way than if I just pointed them out on a map, and you get to infuse technology to grab the attention of students who love design and tech elements.
9.) Ecphrastic Poetry
You can make this as silly or as serious as you want. You can give students silly images and illusions or you can give them pictures of people in some of life’s toughest situations. I tended to do a mix, sometimes matching the image to what I thought the student would do best with. I would always put the pictures face down on student desks. They weren’t allowed to look until it was time to start writing and they had to keep their pictures a secret from everyone else in the room. When writing was finished, students would read their poem to the class and the class would have the opportunity to guess what the picture might be. Then the student would reveal the image. You prompt students to look at their image silently, then proceed with Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) recommended by the North Carolina Museum of Art (2015). Ask questions like the following:
What is going on in this picture?
What do you see that makes you say that?
What more can we find?
How does spending more time looking at the image affect your perception?
What do you wonder when looking at this image?
What words, thoughts, images, or sensations (sounds, smells) come to mind as you look at this?
Who might be standing just outside the image?
What would this person say if they could talk to you?
I hope that you will try out some of these prompts. I know that they will work for students who hate writing, and for those who love it as well.