Rather than giving students a steady stream of writing prompts, I believe they should be choosing their own topics at least 75% of the time.
I know. I hear your protests:
But our students are assessed with writing prompts!
They are, and so we are apt to follow this seemingly logical line of thinking: since high stake tests include a writing prompt, we should provide students with lots and lots of practice responding to prompts. But what I observe over and over again is that teaching students to write well on demand is not, in fact, teaching them to write well. It’s better to teach students to write skillfully (which includes the ability to choose interesting, manageable, focused topics) and then teach them to apply what they know to prompts. Next protest:
My students hate it when I say they can write about anything they wish. They don’t know what to write about!
Coming up with ideas for writing is a practice. The more we do it, the better we become. (Infrequent opportunities to choose a personal topic will be met with resistance.)
It’s not surprising that the number one question professional writers are asked is: Where do you get your ideas? Ideas, to those who don’t write regularly, seem to come from some magical place – or a teacher’s guide. But writers – or students of writing – who know they are going to write regularly, and who know that they are responsible for choosing the topics, do become amazingly proficient.
Ideas begin to appear from all directions. Something funny happens at home and seven-year-old Nathan thinks, That’s what I’m going to write about tomorrow. A classmate shares a piece about his dead gerbil and Nathan thinks, Ooooh, I have a dog story to tell. I’ll write that next. Before you know it, Nathan has more topics than time to write. (That’s why writers seldom appreciate it when another says, "I have a story you should write about . . .” We simply don’t lack for ideas.) And one last protest:
My students don’t have enough experience to draw from.
I’ll be honest. This response simply doesn’t make sense to me. All students have 365 days of experience a year. I know that not all students are visiting Disney World, but I once had a first grader write about the fence in her backyard. She told us that the police park at the fence to catch bad guys, and that her neighbors were angry because they thought it was her father who called the police. Now that’s an experience worth writing about.
I will admit that the student who spends all of his time in front of the TV or a computer has more trouble coming up with topics. But what makes us think he will be any better at responding to random prompts such as: What would it feel like to be a worm on the end of a hook? (Hmmm, maybe he knows.)