One of the questions I get the most from teachers in workshops centers on the foundational trait of ideas—“If I’m going to help my students as writers (and to meet the narrative demands of the Common Core Standards), how do I help students who consistently tell me that they have nothing to write about?” I’m actually excited to hear this question especially when it relates to students choosing their own topics while working in some form of writer’s workshop. Both the freedom and the struggle involved in student’s choosing their own messages is so important to developing writers. Rather than avoiding these moments of difficulty by always providing students with a prompt, I say to teachers, embrace them. Teach and model the strategies students can use to find and expand their messages anytime they write.

In Creating Young Writers, (© 2012, Pearson), Vicki writes about teaching each of the traits to students conceptually, as one of five instructional strategies. Specific to the trait of ideas, Vicki writes, “Ideas are everything we think, imagine, anticipate, or remember. They are the core of the writer’s message, whatever form that message may take.” (p. 61) One of the ways she offers to help students conceptualize the trait of ideas is to think of ideas as memories. The people, places, events, experiences, sights, sounds, tastes, and smells that we hold in our memories, and that students hold in theirs, need to be nurtured and stirred frequently, to keep them alive as potential writing topics. One way to do this is through talk—conversations, stories, and reflections. This talk doesn’t always have to end up with writing (though talking is often a productive form of pre-writing), but I like to model for students how it can result in a list of possible topics for future writing opportunities. A good conversation, with questions from listeners, can lead the talker right down the rabbit hole of a memory. Looking at photos or checking out important personal artifacts as a way to get a conversation going is another great pathway to memories worth bringing to life in writing. In fact, it often leads us down unexpected trails—the rabbit hole doesn’t always end up where you first thought it would take you. Even though we aren’t talking face to face, and you won’t be able to ask me questions, let me model this for you by taking you down a rabbit hole adventure I recently had:

Now that my son is a senior in high school, heading down the final stretch, I often find myself looking at him and wondering, “Where did my little boy go?” I indulge these flights of nostalgia by flipping through old photo albums—actual books of photos taken by cameras that still required film—to remind myself that the hairy, funny, often moody beast currently living here, was once my little boy. During a recent photo album-therapy session, I landed and lingered on a photo taken on his fourth birthday, a picture of him unwrapping a box of rocks and sticks. With this gift, his mother and I were testing two things, first the practice of thanking gift-givers regardless of whether he “liked” the gifts, and secondly, since everywhere we went he would find rocks and sticks to play with, usually in favor of the legion of toys we had dragged with us, we thought let’s give him the things he seems to love most and see what happens. Upon opening the box, he politely thanked us (small parental victory!), while adding with a questioning tone, “I really didn’t ask for these.” And of course, after the other gifts from us—the ones he had asked for, presents from grandparents, other relatives, and friends, when things finally quieted down, what does he end up playing with? You guessed it–the rocks and sticks! 

         So, I’m looking at the picture and I’m relieved by the fact that my boy has grown into a young man who still loves to hunt for rocks and sticks, just like I do (another win for parents). Only a month ago, we had a rock-skipping contest while hiking along a favorite Oregon stream. This contest, as always, was as much about finding the perfect skipping stone as it was about who could achieve the most skips or reach a designated tree or boulder across the river. This morning, I put on the raincoat I wore that day walking beside the river, and I found two wonderful skipping stones, round and flat and smooth. Just holding them in my hands is enough to flood my brain with images of that particular day, but it also activated the rolodex of my mind to flipping through a dozen other memories of days spent with my son playing, collecting, skipping, and splashing with rocks. I realize that I’ve done it again—I’ve gone down the rabbit hole—way down this time—and my mind is flush with very specific images of people, places, and objects, and all the sensory details that brought them to life and held them in my head. This is where I really need some conversation buddies to ask me questions to help me zoom in one on one of the myriad writing opportunities I just uncovered. Fortunately, I’ve been writing this down, so I have a record of the details that popped into my head. (Clearly, I have a lot to say about the rocks and sticks from my son’s fourth birthday.) Here’s a list of possible topics, some obvious, and some which may make sense only to me because of the rabbit hole I’ve been down.

  1. Andrew’s fourth birthday—the gift of rocks and sticks
  2. Recent rock skipping adventure—rocks in my pocket
  3. Finding rocks with Andrew—on the beach
  4. Fishing the upper Nestucca River
  5. Damming the Little Nestucca River
  6. The half sand dollar day

Now I’ve also heard teachers tell me this is all great for students whose lives outside of school are filled with activities, friends, and meaningful interactions with parents. What about the students whose lives, at least in terms of experiences, happen mainly while they are at school? Look for Down the Rabbit Hole—Part II, and I’ll try to answer this question and tell you more about what I found while skipping rocks down the rabbit hole.

(In the meantime, I’d love to hear about ways you help your students whose lives seem (at least to them) pretty empty of experiences and memories worth writing about. Send your ideas to us here at STG.)