When presenting students with writing topics or writing prompts in the classroom, I hear students remark, “I’ve got writer’s block!”
Usually this comes as they scroll through TikTok, text their friends, and read articles and blogs on the internet as a Google Doc’s stark, white page illuminates their faces, the cursor blinking in anticipation of keystrokes that don’t come.
It’s hard to tell in these cases: Are students using “writer’s block” as a way to excuse progress-making and avoid risk-taking on the page or are they genuinely and truly stuck?
What, then, can we do to help students grow as writers and approach writing topics and writing prompts in the classroom?
Below are some ideas that are classroom-ready to help teachers–and even students–design writing topics and writing prompts that spur engagement, increase enjoyment, and move that blinking cursor on the screen.
Writing Prompts with Pictures
Let’s focus on writing prompts with pictures as many students are, themselves, constantly bombarded with visual inputs in and out of the classroom they can take advantage of when it comes to approaching writing topics and writing prompts.
Authentic Writing Idea #1:
Have students use social media to inspire them to write. What are they seeing on TikTok, for example, that might give them writing topics for narratives or writing topics for persuasive writing?
For example, when they see a video of a dog licking a baby as the baby erupts with laughter, what’s the story between these two? What will this relationship be like when the baby and the dog are older?
Right there is a writing prompt for a narrative that has relatable characters, potential plots, and possible conflicts baked in.
Or, perhaps, students see a video of the latest TikTok protest movement.
To what degree is this activism or slacktivism? To what extent does TikTok promote democratic ideals?
These questions are examples of writing topics for persuasive writing, asking students to craft an argument with evidence, inspired by the real world events students cross on social media.
Writing Topic Idea #2:
Show students a book like The Mysteries of Harris Burdick by Chris Van Allsburg to get inspiration for writing topics for narratives.
In this book, for example, students will see a beautiful black and white image with a single line or caption accompanying it.
What’s happening in that picture? What conflicts, characters, settings might surround that image?
Students can imagine that the picture and its caption are one piece of a larger story. Does the image come in the exposition? The rising action? Climax? Falling action or resolution?
In other words, the image you share with them is the springboard into a story they can craft.
Writing from Photographs Idea #3:
Ask students to find a powerful photograph from history...
For instance, students might find the Migrant Mother, a Depression-era photo where a woman holds her children and looks off into the distance beyond the camera.
Like the Mona Lisa – viewers can read any number of things in her expression: Is that defeat? Fear? Resolve?
Another twist on this writing topics idea is to ask students to bring in photographs from their childhood and use them as a springboard for creative nonfiction and/or reflective writing.
- They could explode the moment, working on descriptive writing.
- They could write a scene or dialogue to go along with what they feel is the mood of the moment.
- For the childhood photo, they could think about what the photograph represents about their values and beliefs or how they have grown since the photograph was taken.
- For the historical photo, they could write about how that moment reflects larger societal values, norms, beliefs, etc.
They could even use the images to create their own writing prompts for journaling as they might, for example, write a journal prompt about what the photographer felt snapping the picture and contrast this idea with how the picture makes them, as people viewing the photo, feel now.
Creative Nonfiction Idea #4:
Tell students to take their own photographs, creating a catalog of images to draw inspiration from.
If permissible by school guidelines, for example, you could take your students on a walkabout–walking them through the school or perhaps even its surrounding environment or neighborhood, asking students to stop and take photos with their cell phones along the way.
You can challenge students to try different things as they walk–”Take a panoramic photo of something close up,” for example–or you can leave it open.
After the walk, you can ask students to process through the photos to help inspire writing. For instance, you could ask students to pick five photos (one for each element of a plot diagram) and write a story using those photos.
Or, you could have students journal about what emotions and thoughts the photos stir in them or you could have them write a persuasive essay that contends which photo is the most artistic or most aesthetically pleasing.
Writing Topics Idea #5:
View famous artwork with students to inspire writing prompts and journaling.
I mentioned the Mona Lisa in my last paragraph; students could view the famous painting and write a story inspired by it.
Perhaps, for example, I’m inspired to write the story of a young woman named Alisa forced to sit and stare for a portrait over-and-over-and-over again which causes her to slowly descend into madness becoming the “Moan Alisa,” a name coined after the sounds she makes as she’s carted off to a sanitarium. 😉
Here’s another idea: you could show students an abstract piece of art like Malevich’s 1915 painting Black Square. This abstract artwork could help inspire writing prompts for journaling as students reflect, react, and respond to the images.
Creative Writing Idea #7:
Have students create their own artwork, perhaps using an AI art-generator like DALL-E to make something creative and unique–like a “bowl of soup that is also a portal to another dimension”–that could inspire journals or stories.
This could be tailored to specific occasions, too: Want writing prompts for Halloween or writing prompts for horror stories, for instance? Ask students to create their own horror movie villain using an AI art-generator wherein they input specific details about the villain.
With this, students will consider direct and indirect characterization to help them tell a story:
- What does the villain look like? Sound like?
- What motivates the villain?
- What does the villain do?
- Where might the villain reside?
Writing Prompt Idea #8:
Design a graphic organizer with students to help generate writing topics for students that could be used as a writing prompts list that could be posted in the classroom.
For instance, perhaps you write on a big piece of chart paper different categories (like “Politics” or “Economics”) in columns and then ask students to brainstorm subjects that people write about or talk about under each column.
For “Politics,” for example, students might brainstorm “elections,” “politicians,” and “democracy.”
With those subjects, then, students could use them as the basis for writing journals topics where students might, say, reflect on their feelings about the last election
Or you could use them as the basis for writing topics for persuasive essays–where students might, for instance, contend why a change need or need not occur to preserve democracy.
Persuasive Writing Topics and Essays–Next Steps
With writing prompts for narratives or writing topics for persuasive writing in hand, you and your students are now free to develop stories, arguments, poems, or speeches to practice the skills of your English Language Arts classroom.
Need a hand helping students develop their arguments? Check out this article on argumentative writing.
Writing Topics Tip: Use Writer’s Block as a Stepping Stone
Back in my day, “writer’s block” meant staring at wide-ruled, lined paper (definitely not college-ruled even though I don’t ever remember using that in college either), a Bic pen in hand, and flashes of different emotions–frustration, exasperation, defeat–filling the blank space in my brain and on the page.
When I think back to those assignments that caused such feelings of consternation, I can’t remember the writing prompts that brought me to that paper.
But I do remember overcoming my writer’s block and being proud of the narratives and essays I wrote.
Perhaps, with the writing topics and prompts and ideas above, your students, too, will move beyond consternation to composition, filling their pages with words and their souls with pride (and our inboxes and grading folders with interesting things to read and assess!).
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