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Conquering the Blank Page with Borrowed Lines

Blank Page Syndrome. Our students know it, we know it, anyone who has ever attempted to write anything knows it. It’s the space–the space that occurs not only on the page, but in our minds as well. It can be. . .



Anxiety producing.

As teachers of writing, we don’t ignore Blank Page Syndrome. Instead, we lean into it;  anticipate it, and attack it head on. Borrowed lines from nonthreatening text is one way we can demystify writing for students and help them see the page, not as an empty vast space, but as an opportunity to produce beautiful writing. 

Penny Kittle says, “We have to study good writing to figure out how to write, what to write,” as we work to help move our students further on their writing journey. Borrowed lines are a tiny snapshot of great writing that students emulate and provide a sentence stem to get them started. Borrowed lines can be a quick, 15 minute minilesson; can extend over the course of days; or even as a mini unit where multiple texts are analyzed and multiple writing pieces produced. 

I love children’s literature and so anytime I can bring in a favorite book to share with my students, I do it. When I am looking to have students borrow lines from text, I look for books that have beautiful language and books that have a potential sentence stem allowing for each writer to have their own entry point. Borrowed lines can be used in a myriad of ways–for a whole class generative lesson, as an invitation to try out literary devices, a strategy group for students who are struggling with idea generation, or as a way to build community through writing. 

Years ago, Sara K. Ahmed introduced me to the idea of borrowed lines through the text, Thunderboy Jr., written by Sherman Alexie and illustrated by Yuyi Morales. Ahmed encouraged students to “borrow a line and stretch” it out. Since then, I have used various children’s books with great success. Students are always amazed at the writing they produce in a short period of time. 

Thunderboy Jr. is about a young Indigenous American boy who feels as if his name is not his own as it doesn’t represent who he truly is. Thunderboy Jr. makes statements such as: “I once touched an orca on its nose, so maybe my name should be, not afraid of ten thousand teeth,” or “I love playing in the dirt, so maybe my name should be, mud in his ears.” 

After listening to the read aloud, students are invited to brainstorm things they have done, or experiences they have had. A quick 3-5 minute idea dump generates enough ideas to move on to the next step: providing students with the sentence stem. 

Writers are invited to fill in the blanks to create their own “I once” statement. I once ___________, so maybe my name should be ______________. Through this, I am also writing and modeling. 

Sharing my own borrowed line, results in hands shooting up with questions. Their curiosity is piqued. Year after year, I get the same questions:

  • Why were you on a mountain?
  • Which mountain were you on? 
  • How did you get down?
  • Were you scared?
  • What time of year was this?
  • Were you stuck in a snowstorm?

The questions go on and on. Taking note, I jot them down and respond, “Wow, what great questions!” This is my entry point to direct students to their writing partners, who will have questions about their partner’s borrowed lines. 

Students share their borrowed line. Partners ask probing questions that are captured in writing notebooks. Then, writers are invited to expand on their borrowed lines, to tell the story based on their partner’s questions. A timer is set and students write furiously, extending on their borrowed line, telling the story their partner was begging to hear.

I have used borrowed lines from various texts with consistent enthusiasm from students. Time and time again, the blank page becomes filled and writers struggle to put their pencil down. One text that 6th graders love is, My Mouth is a Volcano, by Julia Cook. The students recognize the story and the repetition quickly pulls them in. An added bonus with this text is if you are teaching writing integrated with social studies. After reviewing and working with geography terms, students are invited to create their own metaphors, which can then easily be developed into extended metaphors. 

The borrowed lines become a starting point that will be expanded on and developed further. 

Every step along the way, I write alongside my writers. 

As lines are extended, I am amazed year after year by the powerful writing that emerges from my writers. As they stand up and read out their extended metaphors, students share that they didn’t know they could write that well. 

Another text that is fabulous for borrowed line work is, The Lorax, by Dr. Seuss. There are many lines that can be selected for students to emulate. One that my writers particularly enjoy playing around with is:

Giggles are heard around the room as students excitedly select inanimate objects to replace trees with. Stories are written about moldy lunches, rotting away in lockers. . . the lone shin guard lamenting its lost mate. . .the pencils that are always dull, with erasers chewed. As a result of borrowed lines, time and time again, my students immediately put pen to paper and produce pieces of writing they are invested in; that move them further as writers. The blank page becomes one filled with beautiful language that builds confidence and reflects back to each writer that they are capable of producing powerful writing. 

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