Wednesday, March 28, 2012


         When I taught my students writing, coming up with ideas on a topic generated by some “person” out in Test World became a challenge. Eventually, I drilled my students with timed writings. With this strategy, they had five minutes to write on a topic I randomly selected. They had to write the entire five minutes. When the timer sounded, they stopped writing, but not a second before then. At that point, the kids would count up their words and chart the number onto a personal graph they kept at the back of their journals. My goal to create a way for students to overcome the blank page quickly became a favorite activity in class.
         The springboards I used varied tremendously over the years. I spent hours culling quotations from favorite authors, psychologists, scientists, and philosophers. I saw possibilities in song lyrics, comic strips, and scripts from television or movies. Current events always opened doors to possible topics. As each class built its own private history, sometimes an inside joke or allusion fostered different spins on topics.
         I grew to view everything as a possible way to generate ideas for my students. A bag of buttons found at Hobby Lobby meant each student received a “special” button. I’d walk around the room, randomly placing a button on each desk.
         “You are this button. What is your story? How did you end up on this desk? What is your life like?”
         Another time, I’d pull laminated posters out, pair my students off, and have them spend five minutes discussing the picture or painting. Talking about the picture first helped my other language students verbalize their descriptions and always paid off once they started writing. After a short chat, the kids would write, trying to come up with something about the art that would impress their partner.
         Music lyrics (and the songs themselves) generated another avenue for writing springboards. I’d give the kids a few minutes to read through a song, and then I’d play the song in a repetitious loop while my students wrote something about the piece. Some students would focus on a specific line, or even a word. Others created writing on the lyric’s theme. Still others responded to the memory the song triggered. I never tired of the differences that surfaced with this type of assignment. Variety made grading so much easier, too!
         Every trip to Target, Wal-Mart, Hobby Lobby and Garden Ridge Pottery meant a quick search for writing springboards. Little silk butterflies, mini pompoms, jingle bells, and goo-goo eyes all became topic generators. I’d fill film canisters with different herbs and spices. Sniff, taste and write! Often, my students surprised me by their limited experiences with different things. A bag of colorful pipe cleaners led to a wonderful discussion about pipes, the smell of pipe tobacco, and my own memories of my father’s cherry blend.
         Now that I spend part of my day as an author, I find myself tapping into a well of springboards. I jot down a list of possibilities in a spiral that’s never too far from reach. So far, I haven’t run dry on topic ideas, but when that happens, I’ll peruse the aisles of my favorite craft store, find a musical group I’ve never listened to, or take a taste of something totally new.  

Copyright 2012 Elizabeth Abrams Chapman

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