Friday, October 18, 2013

How to Write Creative Essays Using Boring Narrative and Expository Essay Prompts


Hey, Mr. Butt, what happens in your class when you give them a commonplace writing prompt like “Everyone has a favorite toy. Explain why it is your favorite toy.“

Well, if I don't give my students permission to use their imagination, I get a bunch of essays about X-Boxes, iPads, skateboards, and Android phones.

Hey, Mr. Butt, what happens in your class when you give them a
commonplace writing prompt like “Everyone has a favorite toy. Explain why it is your favorite toy.“

Well, if I don't give my students permission to use their imagination, I get a bunch of essays about X-Boxes, iPads, skateboards, and Android phones.

Eww. Those essays don't sound like much fun to read them.

They are not. Usually, I have to use toothpicks to prop open my eyelids.

So I noticed you said these essays happen if you don't give students permission to use their imagination, what happens if you give them permission to use their imagination?

Suddenly, I start reading essays about favorite toys like a robot that takes the author on trips to other planets, makes gourmet hamburgers, and turns bullies into bunnies or I read essays about magical board games that grant wishes or skateboards that take the rider back in time.

Those essays sound much more interesting to read.

Indeed they are. Now imagine that you are a reader for a standardized testing company who reads hundreds of boring essays about common toys and then you encounter an imaginative one about a robot that does wonderful things for the author. Might you score that essay a little higher than the umpteenth one you just read about the iPad?

Sure you would. But how do you make a boring prompt exciting?

Ah, it is quite simple. First I give my students permission to write about the most wonderful, exciting subject they can imagine. By giving them permission to imagine, you break them out of the ingrained “factual’ thinking mode of the student and allow them to enter the free thinking, “imaginative” mode of the creative writer. At first, it will be tough to break them out of this factual thinking mode and enter imagination mode, especially today’s “imagination-challenged” kids accustomed to being entertained, but keep at it and you will see more interesting essays especially from the best writers in the class.

Then what?

Then you change the way they think about the prompt. Say you give students the following prompt.

"Most of us have a special place we like to go. Think about a special place where you like to go. Explain why you like to go to that special place.”

Now modify the subject of the essay by inserting the following adjectives: magical, exciting.
"Most of us have a magical and exciting special place we like to go. Think about a magical and exciting special place where you like to go. Explain why you like to go to this magical and exciting wonderful special place.”

Wow, that changes how you think about the subject. It starts your imagination working.

Indeed. But first, give your students permission to make up a special place where they would love to go. It could be an undersea cave, a magical forest, etc. To practice coming up with ideas, you could do a classroom brainstorming session to demonstrate how ideas form or you could do an individual lesson focused on idea formation and pre-writing. By sticking to idea formation and pre-writing, you can practice lots of different prompts without burning kids out writing essay after essay.

Sounds like fun.

It is. If you are a fellow teacher, try it. You will be surprised by the results.