The Blank Page Helping Reluctant Writers and Students Who Can’t Get Started

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The Blank Page

Helping Reluctant Writers and Students Who Can’t Get Started

August 2008

Erin Ergenbright

Writing comes easily to some students and is utterly terrifying to others. In this session we’ll talk about (and try) many activities and exercises to win over even your most resistant students. This packet contains some tried and true resource materials you can use right away in the classroom.

1. Jumpstart Your Writing

2. Trains, Forests, Oceans

3. Underwater World

4. Lists

5. Photo prompts/Character Exercise

6. Story Machine

7. Show, Don’t Tell

8. Truth is Stranger than Fiction

9. Classroom Strategies

10. Writing Prompts: Working with Words

11. More Prompts for Free-writes

12. And Still More Prompts for Free-writes

Erin Ergenbright

The Blank Page


List some common sayings in your family, then write about one, or use all of them in a piece of writing.
Write a thank you letter to something you don’t usually thank: a light bulb, a bed sheet, a spoon.
Write a letter you’d never send to someone you hate, someone you love, or someone who’s died.
Choose two pictures or faces from newspapers or books. Write alternating paragraphs or verses about the people, or write in their voices (use your imagination!).
Write in great detail about something you do all the time (doing the dishes, walking the dog, riding the bus, brushing your teeth).
Describe an obnoxious kid you once knew. Or someone scary or strange.
Use lines from a song or a prayer to start a story.
Take the first or last line from a poem you like and use that to begin a story.
Write about a favorite food, the best meal you ever ate, or something you love to cook.
Touch a piece of fabric and write down what comes to mind.

Start with a strong image: a broken window, the sound of a baby crying, the smell of ammonia…

Erin Ergenbright

The Blank Page

Trains, Forests, Oceans

I like to prepare students for this free-write by telling them I’m going to ask them a very strange question, one that should be answered from the gut or the heart. Then I ask them to answer: Am I more like a train, a forest, or the ocean? Why?

Again, emphasize that it might not be a logical question, but to just have fun with it.

Have students write for seven minutes.

There are a couple great options for sharing. You can ask, “How many of you are trains? How many of you are forests?” and so on, and it’s always fun for them to see who chose what (and it’s usually pretty evenly split). Then have people share—with a more reluctant class, or if you don’t have a lot of time, you can have them underline their favorite sentence, and then share it, which is less threatening. Or, you can have them pair up and try to guess what their partner chose, and then share one on one.

Erin Ergenbright

The Blank Page
Underwater World

I ask the students to close their eyes and put their hands flat on their desks and feet flat on the floor (if they can reach), ask them to notice the temperature and texture of the desk. “Now think about how your body feels—sleepy, full, itchy, hyper). Now, even though it’s quiet in here, there are many sounds to notice. Listen to all the different layers of sound in the room.

This is the writing zone, the feeling and listening place you want to be when you’re telling a story. I’m going to tell you the beginning of a story, and I want you to keep your eyes closed so you can picture it.

“It’s a sunny summer day, and you are out in your garden, watering. Near you is a little pond, and the quacking of ducks on the water catches your attention. You watch one little white duck dive under the water the way ducks do, and then you realize, after a few minutes that the duck hasn’t come back to the surface. Curious, you go to the edge of the pond to wait. He doesn’t reappear. You take off your shoes, and the cold mucky soil squishes between your toes as you wade into the water. Without knowing why, you keep walking deeper and deeper until your head is under the water, but suddenly you realize you can breathe! And looking around you see there’s a whole world down there—an enormous, strange world….”

Now, write what you see, and what happens next. Write at least one to two pages, paying attention to sensory details—sight, sound, smell, touch, taste. This is your world you’re creating—be as specific as you can.

Erin Ergenbright

The Blank Page

LISTS: Have students free-write on the following “opening-up questions.”

Objects on top of your dresser and/or nightstand
The scars on your body (and where they come from)
If you had to get a tattoo tomorrow, what would you get, and where, and why?
The weirdest and/or nastiest meal you’ve ever had (describe why)
The pets you’ve had (or friends/family/neighbors have had)—names and species and any other details you can think of
Things you’ve lost / misplaced
The most interesting person you know
Three impractical but wonderful jobs you’d like to have (ice cream taster)
Countries you would like to travel to
Languages you would like to know how to speak fluently
Things you get in trouble for

Erin Ergenbright

The Blank Page
Photo/Character Exercise

People are natural storytellers, and this exercise is a fun way to build your students’ confidence in writing.

1. Hand out pictures of people you’ve gathered from magazines. Ask your students to write down the character’s name (and here you can talk about how names sometimes define people), physical description (body and clothing), and why they were kicked out of the family. This works very well in groups, and if you have several students write about the same picture, their sharing will reveal how very skilled they are at creating stories (and how creative and different each of their stories are, even though they’re working from the same photograph).

If you want to take this further, you can have students “ask” their characters some of the following questions:

What’s in his/her pocket?
What would he/she do with $50?
What does she/he do for fun?
Your character’s best friend is mad at him/her: Why?
What is your character’s best Halloween costume ever?

To work on plot-building, have students answer the following questions about his/her character:

What is his/her dream?
What does he/she need to do to achieve this dream?
What stands in the way?
Is the problem overcome? How?
What is the outcome/end of the story?

Erin Ergenbright

The Blank Page
You have received two index cards, one listing a vocation, and one listing a mildly strange behavior. Your task is to write a story that answers the question “Why did A do B?” The ending, or the last scene, is where this mildly strange behavior will occur. So you’ll want to ask yourself what the motive is, who the character is, and where the story takes place before you start. Use your imagination! Nothing is too wild or weird, as long as you’ve included specific details.
1) It’s important to show your reader who your character is—What do they look like? What does his/her voice sound like? What kind of a person is he/she? Where does he/she work? And finally, why did A do B?
2) Your story should have at least two scenes. The last event to occur is the “B” card.

Erin Ergenbright

The Blank Page
Write a few of these sentences on the board and have students write a paragraph that conveys the meaning of the sentence by showing what it looks like, for example, when a teacher is strict. What would a strict teacher look like? What would she sound like? What would she do that would lead someone to think, Wow, that teacher is strict?
1. The teacher is strict
2. She wore a very interesting costume.

3. The house looked haunted.

4. The puppy is cute.
5. Winter is here.
6. My mother is annoying,
7. This is a good school.
8. School lunches are terrible.
9. He is shy.
10. It was a fun party.
11. My sister doesn’t trust me.
12. The children were bored.
13. My father was really mad.
14. It was a pretty day.
15. She’s such a snob.
16. He’s a good athlete.
17. She has a nice car.
18. The room is a mess.
Erin Ergenbright

The Blank Page

Choose one of the following headlines, and do a free-write that includes who the characters in the story are, what the setting of the story is, and what really happened. Try to be as specific as possible. Put yourself in the story, if you want.













Erin Ergenbright

The Blank Page
1. Hand Story
Students trace their hands on a piece of paper, then write a story/poem inside the image, for example, something the hand used to do, something it does now, and what the hand will be doing in 20 years.
2. Window Story

Using washable pens, let students write on windows—for example, what they see; the weather outside, what they would do if they were outside; why it’s good to be inside.

3. Paper Plate Story
Students pick a food and try to describe on the paper plate how it smells, feels, tastes and looks. Others try to guess the food.
4. One Word a Day Epic
Class writes a story, with one student contributing a word each day.
5. One Word per Student per Poem/Story
Class writes a story, with each student contributing one word (class may rewrite, changing a selected number of words).
6. Two Truths and a Lie
Students write three detailed sentences about themselves—two are true, and one is a lie. Other students try to guess which is which.
7. Lunes on the Playground
Students write lunes (three lines—first line is three words; second line is five, third line is three) on the playground in whitewash (or chalk).

Something bothers me

but I don’t know what

it is yet

Think of me

as an interesting young lady

as I sing
8. Word Star

Select a sentence or two from students’ work each day and post it on the wall.

9. Castle Stories
Bring cardboard boxes into class and have pairs of students decorate them as castles. Then write a story about their castle and the people in it (this helps create ownership of the story).
10. Words Going South
Students write a two or three sentence story vertically.
11. Blindfold Poems
Students wear blindfolds and write about what they hear and feel. The teacher can make sounds and provide items to feel, too.

12. Comic Strip Stories

White out the words in comic strip/cartoon balloons and have students create their own stories.
13. Place Poems
Give students a place (for example, Mount Hood, their backyard, the playground, grandma’s house) and have them make a list of all the images of that place. Then have them take the items on the list and add details. Have them write three lines, then repeat the place, then three lines more.

Erin Ergenbright

The Blank Page
Writing Prompts
Word Prompts
Freewrites based on prompts are a great way to warm up and establish the connection between the brain and the page. The main point is there is no wrong way to do it. Choose words that are slightly loaded (like father, home, hair, love. principal, war, bully) or phrases that stir the imagination (Never again; Where I’m from; you can’t tell by looking). You can also let the students pick words and put them on the board, or open any book in the classroom and choose something at random. I find giving at least two choices is best, but have students write for five to seven minutes—anything that comes to mind. The trick is to keep the pen moving, so tell them to write “I don’t know what to write” instead of stopping. When sharing, have them share their favorite sentence, or even underline their favorite sentence and then have their neighbor share so there’s less pressure.
Sentence Prompts

Find lines that students can jump off from--I lied; she sat straight up in bed; it was the last time; Anthony Roberts was never my friend. It’s a very different thing writing from a sentence than from a word or concept, and it will work better with some students than with others (like all strategies). Some students will feel limited and some will feel freed up. Experiment. Keep a bag of sentences that students can draw from, giving them a little choice in the matter. You can cut them out of magazines and newspapers, too.

Image Prompts
Find evocative images of people and situations in magazines like Doubletake and National Geographic and glue them to 5 x 7 index cards. Faces work especially well, and I’ve made up a list of questions to answer about “your” character on the Questions for Your Character worksheet in this packet. But some students will really respond to visual prompts, so it’s a wonderful thing to try. Having several students write about the same image is a great way for them to see how varied and creative their ideas are.
The Four Elements
Have the students write down on a slip of paper a one or two line observation about: Situation, Place, Object or Person. Keep them in a shoebox. Have the students pull out a slip and then write about it. Or have them pull our four slips, for example—a lost wallet, the mall, Gameboy, and homeless man—and see if they can weave the elements into a story.
Free Association List
Have students shout out words and write them on the board. Then have the students choose one of the words and make a free association last of ten words connected to that word. For example:

Camping: trees, tent, sleeping bag, waterfall, lost, river, bear, fishing, stars, scary

Then have them write a story or poem using the prompt and list of words.
Magnetic Poetry
Take a bag of magnetic words and spread them out on the floor. Each student gets five to seven words and makes it into a sentence or fragment. Then have the students do a quick write, turning their sentence into a little story.
Trust One Another
Students exchange papers and add a scene or something about a character. These additions are not to become part of the original papers, but to show how different people see stories and characters in different ways.
Story Starters

All the kids were white except one.

Nobody in school dressed like her.

I’ve never felt so out of place.

The damage was done.

The damage was considerable.

“If you do it, I will, too”

“No girls allowed,” he said, stopping her at the door.

Now it was obvious—it was a terrible idea.

The footsteps were getting closer.

Cautiously he peeked through the curtains.

He thought he was some kind of tough cowboy.

The smell was terrible.

She was dreading tomorrow.

I was embarrassed.

He was my best friend, but it just didn’t sit right.

My first day at the new school, and I’d never felt so lonely.

She’d never seen her parents so upset.

Erin Ergenbright

The Blank Page
Prompts for Flash Writes
I couldn’t find him.
One thing you should know about my mother…
It was the last time…
She walked alone into the cold, dark house.
He looked down in disbelief at what he’d done.
I’d never been so happy.
I could feel smoke coming out of my ears: How could my mother have done something like that?
The crowd was going crazy.
I was starting to lose my grip.
The streetlights flickered off and she felt her heart beat quicken.
Downstairs, the heavy wooden door creaked. “I think someone’s down there,” I whispered.
As soon as I walked into the room I could tell everything had changed.
The dog limped as it approached the porch.
Mother had that look in her eye. “You’re grounded,” she yelled.
As the trail meandered along the river’s edge, she decided to take a shortcut through the forest.
She felt herself losing consciousness.
I could feel the tears coming.
“I’m going to give you one more chance,” he said.
The teacher put her arm around my shoulder, trying to calm me down.
She knew she had to tell him the truth.
“That’s him!” he screamed.
I knew I needed to help.
Then there was water, rain, pouring down on me.
He picked her up like a sack of grain, threw her over his shoulder, and started down the hill.
Suddenly, I realized what I’d done.
I couldn’t stop the bleeding.
I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
I woke in darkness and lay still for several seconds, trying to think where I was.

Erin Ergenbright

The Blank Page
Getting to Know You

Why do people still believe…?

The world seemed different after…

I come from…

My favorite time of day…

I think I finally understand…

People have to realize…

I’m not the sort of person who…

I’m the one who…

My first memory…

The first time I…

When I’m twenty-five/forty/eighty-five

I let go of…

My name…

I’m taking back…

If I could change one thing…

You can’t tell by looking…

When I was born…

I taught myself how to…

I’ve never been…

The night smelled like…

I had a vivid dream…

My parents’ kitchen…

My earliest memory…

I’d never seen the sky like that…

In the clouds…

On the side of the road…

Reflected in the water/window…

The smell of smoke…
“No,” she said…

“We don’t do that here.”

“How dare you!”

“It’s about time….”
: teachlearn -> subjects -> elarts -> reading -> literacy -> summerinstitute
teachlearn -> Curriculum Planning Tool
teachlearn -> Human Rights in Literature The following titles are available from the Resource Centre. Picture books, Junior & Young Adult Fiction
teachlearn -> Esl developmental Continuum – a stages a stages Stage A1 – Speaking and listening
teachlearn -> Text-Based Answers Nelson, Kadir. We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball. New York: Jump at the Sun, 2008. (2008) From “4th Inning: Racket Ball: Negro League Owners”
teachlearn -> Languages & multicultural education resource centre 150 Palmerston Street, carlton
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summerinstitute -> Vocabulary Logs, Practice Activities, and Word Lists Supplement to Dynamic Vocabulary Instruction

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