(photo by M. A. AL Awaid)
Risse, M. “Writing Prompts to Facilitate Creativity and Interesting Texts,” Proceedings of the 15th Oman International ELT Conferences. Muscat: Sultan Qaboos University Press, 2016: 46-52.
Encouraging students’ creativity is helpful for students and teachers. Writing essays about “Driving Fast is Dangerous” leads to restless, inattentive students. It is also more difficult to try to explain grammar and composition rules with an unexciting model. But if you ask: “If you planted your heart, what would grow?” you can be sure to get paragraphs students will enjoy writing and you will be interested to read. My presentation will discuss how to motivate students with appealing writing prompts which jump-start creativity, as well as being increasing the chances that the students will do their own work. There are not many on-line samples of essays in answer to the question: “If you suddenly became an Omani animal, which animal would you change into?” I will give effective examples from my creative writing, drama, poetry and literature classes which have resulted in amusing, thoughtful and imaginative stories, poems and essays.
When I told a friend I was doing a presentation on writing-prompts, she said, “WHY? There is nothing new to say!” Well, yes. But I would like to highlight two points about writing prompts. One: good ones make your life easier. Reading 100 essays entitled “Smoking is Bad for You” or “Driving Fast is Dangerous” is as tiresome for you as it is for students. Boring assignments lead to restless, inattentive students and it is much more difficult to try to explain grammar rules and ‘how to write an essay’ with an unexciting model.
My second point is that the better the writing prompt – the better the chance that students will do their own work. When assignments are closely tailored for just your class, students can’t find anything similar on-line and, in some cases, can’t get someone else to write for them.
I would like to start with a general defense of writing prompts. A few years ago at a Dhofar University Open Day, I was staffing a booth that had examples of students’ writing. A person walked by, picked up one of the poems, read it and then asked me, “Did the student write this or did you give them a prompt?” I said that I gave a prompt and they tossed it back on the table with a dismissive gesture and walked on.
But, honestly, how effective is it to say to students: “Hey, go write something creative! Yela! Write a poem!”? If you have never written a poem in your life and I said “Hey go write a poem!” you will probably not feel comfortable. Writing prompts help students to take the first steps towards creative writing.
I am going to talk about writing prompts that I have used in my classes: first general writing prompts to help students get something down on paper. Then I will talk about prompts for 3 specific classes: drama, novel and poetry. Lastly, I will talk about non-fiction prompts.
Getting Something Down on Paper – Creative Writing
Of course the most important part of writing is to get something down on paper – when you have something, anything, we can fix it up, but first words need to jump out of your pencil and onto your paper. In my creative write class I work on breadth, then depth. Every class I give a writing prompt and they have 10 minutes of free writing which I don’t grade or even look at until I collect their portfolio. Sometimes I have them share the writing with each other – either just to read or half way through I make them exchange papers and the students have to finish the story that’s in front of them. Then the original writer will get it back.
This takes some of the seriousness out of writing – they have to write something but it’s not going to be, will never be perfect. I say: first get some ideas down, then ‘make it pretty’ later.
The depth part of the class is that students write 5 papers: with a pre-writing exercise, a draft, in class workshop, then final copy. The papers are in stages: the first one is only description, the second only dialog, the 3rd has dialog and description, the fourth must include 3 places and the last paper must have 3 time periods.
The writing prompts at the beginning of class are, to me, the core element in making students view writing in a new way. I will give a few examples below:
- Imagine you are writing with something other than a pen/pencil what will you choose and what kind of story will you write? A carrot, a seagull, a French fry, a tree, a fish?
- If you planted your heart, what would grow?
- If you could make one wish come true for someone else, who would you give the wish to and what would you wish for?
- Describe a person you know by describing the person’s room (personality through details)
- Describe a person you know by describing how the person walks and one object the person has (car, purse, book bag, computer…)
- Describe a person using animal metaphors
- Pretend you are suddenly turned into an animal and describe yourself and your life
- Write something scary….
- Pretend you have a ‘super power’ (ability to fly, to be invisible, to breathe under water…) which superpower do you want and what would you do with it?
- Write about an exciting adventure in a library
- Describe something using all five senses: a favorite food, place, object
Prewriting activities include:
- Write out a dialog you have recently heard between two people (change names!)
- Find an advertisement with a photo of a person (or people) write out what that person is thinking or make a dialog between the people in the photo
- Write about a person who is BOTH good and bad
- Write a ‘fairy tale’ for a child: Once upon a time……
- Describe a place you have never been to but would like to visit
- Write a conversation between a married couple
- Pretend you suddenly jump 5 years ahead in your life – write what you are doing/ what your life is like in the future
- Describe a person at three different times in her/ his life
Drama – Opinion, Compare, Concept
When teaching drama, I use three plays and ask for three papers. My goals are to create assignments which make the students think about both themselves and the greater world, which can’t be simply down-loaded from the internet (i.e. cheat-proof), make students constructively engage with the text and that are interesting both to write and read.
The paper they write after reading the first play is very simple – they need to write an opinion essay, using look at one aspect of the play as an example. For example, when teaching Philoketes the choices are:
- Discuss the idea of lying to a friend – are there times when it is ok to lie? Compare the situations of lying in the play to a two other stories/ movies – what is similar and what is different?
- Compare a character in the play to a character in two other stories/ movie who pretended to be someone s/he was not – what is similar and what is different?
- Compare a character in the play to a character in two other stories/ movies who had to live alone – what is similar and what is different? What is your opinion about living alone? Do you think it is a good idea? Why or why not?
First, I think it is really important to give students a choice for writing prompts. Students who aren’t confident or who don’t like writing psychologically need to feel that they have some control over the writing situation. Even if the two prompts are basically the same, I see students relax somewhat when they know they can decide for themselves what to write about.
Also, by making it explicit that students have to give their own opinion and compare it to other stories, it is pretty much impossible to cheat. There are 45 million papers on-line about Antigone but none which set it within the context of Oman, i.e. in which the play is compared to a Dhofari folk tale.
For the second paper, I give students a choice of picking characters and comparing them, for example when reading Philoketes paired with Quality Street:
- Compare the idea of ‘patience’ between Philoketes, Phoebe and one other person/ character. Make sure you have a specific argument!
- Compare the idea of pretending to be another person between Neoptolemos, Phoebe and one other person/ character. Make sure you have a specific argument!
- Compare and contrast Odysseus and Captain Brown. Make sure you have a specific argument!
For the last paper, the students pick a theme or concept and explain how it works out in all three plays, for example:
- All the plays focus on the topic of duty/ fidelity (to family/ to country/ to love) contract the behavior and beliefs of three characters (one from each play) in terms of fidelity.
- Compare the concept of the mercy/ forgiveness in the three plays. Who is merciful? Why? When is mercy a good idea (or not a good idea)?
Again, having the students work within the bound of the class, means they have to demonstrate their understanding of the connections between, for example Alcestis by Euripides, Romeo and Juliet, Cyrano de Bergerac, and Lady Windemere’s Fan.
Novel – Writing Journal
When teaching the novel class, I ask for a writing journal. I give out a list of writing prompts and the students need to use one to write a one page entry for each class meeting, not including the first day, last day, review day, midterm and recitation days. They have to use each prompt at least once, but I set it up so that they can repeat one prompt up to three times. If, for example, there are 19 essays due, then I give about 12 prompts. Examples include:
- Opinion of character or situation
- Begin with “I like…” or “I do not like…”
- Do not say you like the text because it is easy or the words are simple.
- Do not write that you do not like the text because it is difficult to read or you do not understand it.
- Look for symbols and metaphors
- Discuss how a character or a object could represent something else
- Some sample sentences:
The narrator tries to say that ________ is similar to ________.
_________ is a symbol of __________.
_________ represents ____________.
- Discuss the text with another person
- Talk to a friend or a relative about what you are reading – give your opinion and listen to the other person’s opinion then write about your discussion explaining both points of view
- You do not have to give the ‘real’ name of the person you talked to
- Write a scene from another character’s point of view
- Write a different beginning to the novel or a chapter
- Guess what happens next – Give the page number you are on and write out what you think will happen to a character and why you think this
- Imagine you have a conversation with one of the characters – what would you say?
- If the story was set in Oman/ if the characters were Omani, what would be similar and what would be different?
- Free choice – write out a question discussed in class and answer it more fully
Poetry – First Follow, Then Fly
I think it is essential to give specific writing prompts when you start students writing poems. In Arabic, poetry is seen as an exalted and difficult kind of writing, with many strictures about rhyme and meter. Also, although students have been writing for years, some have never tried to write a poem, so the default position is that they can’t and you need to break through that fear.
In one class, I started them off by saying, “Write a poem about breakfast.”Everyone said “WHAT?” as there is the prevalent idea that poems are supposed to be on important subjects and written in a complicated manner, but as I said, first you need to get over the hurdle of the perception of difficulty, then you can get down to work.
So I said, “Breakfast! Think of the last breakfast you had at home before you went away to university, the first breakfast as a bride in a new house, the first breakfast with your brother’s new bride when she moves to your house, the last breakfast on vacation….”
At first everyone said it was impossible, then they did it and voila poetry was happening. I find it most useful to give a selection of very different kinds of poems on one topic – then ask them to write on the same topic, choosing if they want one of the poems as a model. Once they have done this once or twice, you can then just give them a theme or topic, then finally they will be able to compose on their own. Some groups of poems I have found useful are:
“Men at Forty,” Donald Justice
“Upon Seeing an Ultrasound Photo of an Unborn Child,” Thomas Lux
“The Brothers,” Edward Muir
“Sea Canes,” Derek Walcott
“The Writer,” Richard Wilbur
“Living Proof,” Bruce Springsteen
“Digging,” Seamus Heaney
“The River-Merchant’s Wife,” Ezra Pound
“Voyager Dust,” Mohja Kahf
The Mu’allaqa, Labid
To the Encampments of the Mayya, Dhu Al Rumma
“Say Over,” Elizabeth Barrett Browning
“His Mother’s Wedding Ring,” George Crabbe
“Under This Sky,” Zia Hyder
“Being Her Friend,” John Masefield
“Carry Her Over the Water,” W. H. Auden
“Love and Age,” Thomas Love Peacock
“For a Wedding,” Kate Clancy
“Land with No Return,” Adonis (Ali Ahmad Sa’id)
“Ithaca,” Constantine Cavafy
“Home Thoughts, from Abroad,” Robert Browning
“Impression Du Voyage,” Oscar Wilde
“Travel,” Robert Louis Stevenson
“The Journey,” Mary Oliver
“Children, It’s Spring,” Mary Oliver
“Autumn Fires,” Robert Louis Stevenson
“The Wind,” Harold Munro
“Written in March,” William Wordsworth
“Spring,” Gerard Manley Hopkins
“The Goat Paths,” James Stephens
“The Plaint of the Camel,” Charles Edward Carryl
“The Horses of the Sea,” Christina Rossetti
“The Gazelle Calf,” D. H. Lawrence
“Pangur Ban,” unknown, Irish
“The Vixan,” John Clare
“The Terrapin,” Wendell Berry
“The War God’s Horse,” unknown, from the Navajo
One poet I would like to especially highlight is Mary Oliver, a contemporary American poet who writes interesting and easily accessible poems about nature/ birds/ flowers, without rhyme schemes such as “Goldenrod,” “Peonies,” “Swans of the River Ayr,” “Ravens,” and “White Herons.”
There is also a very useful website Poetry 180 (http://www.loc.gov/poetry/180/) which has shorter, often comic poems in English which are geared for high school students. This is an excellent place to get simpler poems that lower level English students can read but which are about themes which resonate with college students, like friends, sports, family, feeling lonely and school.
Ok, but I don’t have the chance to teach fiction – I have to teach non-fiction
I also have to teach non-fiction writing and I have three points about writing prompts for non-fiction. One, if you can’t use an example, i.e. if you are teaching a type of writing, make sure your topic is entertaining. Start with topics that fit your students’ lives and make them funny. For example:
- process/ directions/ step-by-step:
- how to get your family to buy you a new cell phone
- how to get your brother to take you shopping
- how to get your family to go on vacation in the city where your favorite football team plays
- how to get your teacher from not giving you homework over the weekend
- girls wearing sneakers vs. high heels to class
- what should the school colors or mascot be for your university?
I would suggest never giving teaching topics, i.e. NOT
- what places to visit in Oman
- health issues
- issues about driving or cheating
- issues about vacations
- What’s your favorite plant or flower and why?
- What’s your favorite animal or bird and why?
- What food would you like to know how to make and why?
- If you could build your own house in any style, where would you build it and what would it look like?
My second point is get your students to come up with the ideas. If you are going to practice writing an argument essay, first hand out 1/2 sheets of paper and have students write three sentences with ‘better’: i.e. ‘it is better to have university classes end at 3pm’ or ‘it is better for teachers to let students drink coffee in class.’ Make sure they are writing something they themselves believe in. Collect the sheets, pick ten or so sentences and then have students vote which topic you are going to use for the practice essay.
You can use the same method to get debate topics for speaking classes, but after the students vote on the topics, do a quick check by having students raising their hands to make sure that the class is divided approximately in half. Topics students have wanted to debate are: should families have a nanny in the house, should teachers take attendance, should people live on Mars, and should teachers show movies and TV shows in class. The added advantage of this is you can get ideas for the essay sections of exams.