Every writer experiences writers block from time to time. When it happens to students, it can feel overwhelming to them (and the adults who support them). To a developing writer, it can feel as though they might never have an idea to write about, while seemingly everyone else has no trouble at all.
Sometimes students will even resort to mimicking your stories or another student’s story, in an attempt to play it safe. It makes sense when you put yourself in your students’ shoes. They are thinking — “If I use your story idea, you might like it. If I write about something from my own life, it might not be accepted.”
One thing we can do to support all writers, is to be intentional in the topics and story ideas we use as models and mentors. Modeling a wide range of stories and ideas can help each of your writers be inspired.
As a consultant and literacy coach, I’ve observed zillions of writing lessons. A pattern in topic choice that I’ve noticed over the years is that teachers (whose demographics are statistically majority white, female, and middle class), tend to use stories that mirror their own lived experiences–experiences that they believe many students might relate to. Things like birthday parties, going to the park, and dinner with families are commonly represented in the stories I most often see modeled as examples. Often there is an emphasis on finding an idea that contains a big feeling, or is attached to an emotional experience.
But for many kids, these topics actually aren’t relatable at all, and might in fact lead some students to feel that if they haven’t got similar ideas to write about, then maybe they shouldn’t write at all.
So what to do? How can teachers model stories from our own very unique and individual lives, from all different backgrounds and experiences, while also connecting with and inspiring as many students as possible?
Here are a few ideas, inspired especially by Katherine Bomer’s The Journey Is Everything, Georgia Heard’s Heart Maps, and Ralph Fletcher’s many books on writing.
- Talk to your students, and build in opportunities for them to talk to each other.
- Read aloud many books from a wide range of perspectives, with authors representing an inclusive range of identities and experiences. Aim for books that mirror your students’ experiences, but also books that represent people, places, and experiences that are unfamiliar to your students.
- Along with deeply emotional stories, Consider modeling a few stories that are more action oriented.
- Consider expanding your own comfort zone – intentionally model topics based on your students’ interests – even if they might not be your usual topics.
- Along with stories that hold big feelings and emotions, consider modeling at least a few stories that are based in humor, aiming to get a laugh.
- Create time and space for students to make observations, think, and generate questions and ideas. This may involve adapting a unit plan to include a few more days of idea generating, storytelling, or notebook work at the start of the unit.
If there are certain topics you have tended to use as models in the past, you might consider, “How commonly are these experiences represented in my classroom materials and in my modeling? What experiences are not as commonly represented in my classroom materials and modeling?” Then push yourself to expand the stories that are represented in your work:
There are of course many other topics I might have included in the column of commonly represented topics – these are just examples that you can expand on as you reflect on your own teaching.
I almost included “Sports” and “Winning” as a commonly used topic. It is certainly a common topic in popular culture. However, in schools, I have found that kids write about sports and winning far more often than teachers use for modeling. In fact, I’ve had several experiences where teachers expressed they wished their students would write about something other than sports. (See the links below for thoughts on how to handle topics your students write about over and over. Many writers have topics we write about all the time — we call those topics “Writing Territories” and it’s probably a good idea to harness the power of your students’ writing territories rather than resist).
As your students’ teacher, you’re their number one model for how writers get ideas, and what kinds of things are acceptable to write about during writing workshop. Especially at the start of the year, we can support all students by expanding the range of what we write about to show them that all kinds of stories are possible, and inspire them to find an idea that is meaningful.
For more ideas on how to be more inclusive in the topics and stories you use to inspire your writers, see these past blog posts: