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Prompt-ober: Short Stories as Writing Prompts

Nearing the end of October, when the leaves shift hues, the temperature dips, and Halloween dances in the near future, the students of room 294 venture into the haunting short story, “The Landlady” by Roald Dahl. This is the perfect story to revitalize our energy, coming fresh off our memoir unit, and to continue the practice of sensory details and imagery in writing.  

Throughout Roald Dahl’s famous piece, images and details such as “paint was peeling from the woodwork,” and “She had a round pink face and very gentle blue eyes” cover the pages. One of Dahl’s most detailed descriptions occurs when the main character, Billy, peers into the window of the Bed and Breakfast:

“Billy caught sight of a printed notice propped up against the glass in one of the upper panes. It said BED AND BREAKFAST. There was a vase of yellow chrysanthemums, tall and beautiful, standing just underneath the notice . . . Green curtains (some sort of velvety material) were hanging down on either side of the window. The chrysanthemums looked wonderful beside them. He went right up and peered through the glass into the room, and the first thing he saw was a bright fire burning in the hearth. On the carpet in front of the fire, a pretty little dachshund was curled up asleep with its nose tucked into its belly” (Dahl).

During class, a discussion on the use of details and imagery that Dahl utilizes in creating this passage ensues. After some time, the students sketch and color their depiction of this room. From here, we use Dahl’s passage as a model to create our own descriptions of a window we are “peeking in.” In the student’s Google Classrooms, I post about fourteen different photos of unique and colorful rooms (as seen below).

After the students have taken some time viewing the various images, they choose their favorite photo and write a passage to describe the room, just as Roald Dahl in “The Landlady.” The key to this prompt is adding details and imagery. The end result is wonderfully descriptive passages that further emphasize and practice the use of sensory details and imagery in writing.

A Giraffe stood in the middle of a tiny room, too tall for his own good. His neck bent at a 90 degree angle with his front feet. The giraffe stood on a worn out turquoise rug, that covered the whole ground. The walls glowed a beautiful tan, with pictures framed with gold along the back side. A green silky chair lay aloft the ground in the back left corner. The chair has an intricate design, with x’s stitched across the whole surface. In the bottom right corner, adjacent to the chair, stood a brittle old table, with four drawers that curved like a wave. An old time radio stands tall on top of the table. The giraffe has blobs of brown, that lay upon the white fur of the giraffe. Although the giraffe doesn’t stand tall, the hair on the back of its neck stands tall. Imprints of feet align the floor, turning the worn out turquoise rug into a white one. The phrase Getty images is what it said in the top left corner, in a white color and big font.” Period 7 Student

Creativity in the Classroom

This is a question that has influenced my teaching for as long as I can remember. Even before I saw the iconic TED Talk by Sir Ken Robinson, I was always trying to think outside of the box with my young, 9th grade students. I’ve waffled back and forth over showing this since it was originally posted in 2006, but it remains the most popular TED Talk, and I see its message as (still) relevant today.

Before Viewing…

I start my students with a “Four Corners” activity. I give them a series of statements all found here and they have to pick a corner representing Agree, Strongly Agree, Disagree, or Strongly Disagree. I’ve witnessed some interesting discussions and I’ve even had to allow students to pick the ‘neutral zone’ of the classroom’s center.

After we do this activity, I tell them we are going to do a little experiment. We are going to take an IQ test. I use one that’s been used by Mensa but I am sure you can find others online. I give them 7 minutes, then I ask them to journal their response to taking this ‘test’. Once we go over the answers, we also engage in a discussion about the inherent biases they observe in the questions themselves. Then, we talk about how this particular tool did/didn’t measure their intelligence.

As a follow up, we then do a Multiple Intelligences Assessment created by Howard Gardner at Harvard’s Project Zero. We follow the same protocol: timed, reflection/writing, discussion. And the students quickly realize that this particular assessment didn’t undermine their intelligence, it just illustrated their strengths and weaknesses.

Communal Viewing

I think there is value in watching this video together. I provide this note sheet for my students but tell them they can also just use their Writer’s Notebook. Then, we watch. Maybe you’ve seen it before, maybe not…I’d love to know.


This video inevitably leads to fantastic and passionate conversations in the class. I reveal – at last – the point for my students. They are just heading into their multi-genre research and I want them to feel empowered to pick a topic that inspires them! Of course I give suggestions and show them the wide variety of topics that former students have selected…the point is, write about something you care about. I am not going to kill that creative urge that may be lingering inside of my students.

So, ask yourself, how do YOU cultivate creativity in your classroom?

“I’m A Writer When . . .”

Most of the students I work with who come to writing centers begin their tutoring the same way: “I’m not a writer,” they vow. Or a confession–”I’m really bad at writing.” And then the combination: “I’m a bad writer.” These admissions come from voices within or outside voices that persistently tell them who they are and aren’t and what they’re capable of. As writing partners together, I want us to escape these binds. I want us to learn how we can grow and discover through writing almost immediately. So, we free-write in our tutoring sessions from the first day.

I learned about using the stem, “I’m A Writer When” from Dr. Hannah Ashley when I participated in Writing Zones, a college access program for high school writers. We hosted students on the West Chester University campus, honoring the writers they were and introducing them to writing opportunities they would encounter in college. When asked to complete the phrase, “I’m a writer when …” students said, “When I’m sending a text message, when I’m writing a list, when I’m using a hashtag.” 

Acknowledging the writers we already are dispels the notion that “writer” is a far-away identity, for some unattainable. We’re taking a strengths-based approach to respect the diverse foundations of literacy we each draw from. At the Penn State Brandywine Writing Studio, we introduce the “I’m a Writer When” prompt as a free-writing activity on the first day. Students take five minutes to write as many ideas or stories that come to mind to extend the statement.

Some students record all the ways they write–for what occasion, for whom, something about the rewards and challenges about their writing. Others dip into specific moments in their writing histories and write about a time when writing got them through hardship, or how writing is elusive. And some writers write about their dispositions, what compels them to record words and thoughts on the page or what frustrates them from doing so. Importantly, they are all writing. I write alongside students every time. I have easily written fifty pages of “I’m a Writer When.” I’m struck by what shows up frequently and what new observations I record in this iterative process. It’s important that students and I share this activity, especially at the beginning of our relationship. We’re building trust and visibility with one another.

Writer WhenJasmin is a writer this year who immediately drew on her strengths to tell her experience of writing: “I’m a writer when I feel as though the story has to be told. The way I want the story to be told is most important.” She took the opportunity to look at herself and introduce herself to me. I’m also struck by the hopefulness in our work side by side, how we’re both searching to move and connect with others and ourselves in our writing.

“For someone with so much rhetorical power,” I later asked Jasmin, “Do you call yourself a writer?” 

“Not really,” she answered, “I don’t really write.” 

I learned that free-writing, and sitting down in general to examine her perceptions on the page, was an activity almost unique to our relationship, but one she is now eager to do every week. We both are.

At the end of the five minutes, we consider our work; I try for us to celebrate it, too. This is easier to do with some than others, especially for those writers who insist they are not writers. It seems important to respect the ways someone identifies, even if it is a negative self-perception. However, I do make a point to notice what they’ve written, how they’ve written it. I will ask follow-up questions. I do look for intersections in theme or appearance about our writing.

I’m interested in revisiting this activity at the end of the semester. I’d like to see what students think of their writing lives after their first semester of college, after frequently free-writing, and after forging a collaborative writing relationship. I’d like to see what I think about it, too. I wonder how our pages will talk to one another again, side by side.

-Liz Mathews

From the Classroom: Dedicating Daily Time to Reading Conferences

By Lauren Heimlich Foley

My eighth graders buzz with enthusiasm as they talk about their independent reading books. They yearn to reveal the adventures they take in the quiet of their minds: they seek the opportunity to discuss stories, characters, conflicts, themes, and techniques with another person. Reading conferences foster these academic conversations.

We start every class with ten to fifteen minutes of independent reading. During this time, I talk with five to seven students. By the end of the week, I have conferenced with each student at least once. Together, we assess reading progress, reflect on author craft, promote empathy, and engage in higher-level, critical thinking. Students push their thinking beyond the text, connecting their books to their own lives, other texts, and the world.

Staying Organized

Keeping track of this information can be tricky. This year I am experimenting with Word documents that track my students’ pages read: I record books they interview, read, abandon, and finish. So far, it is more effective and convenient than the paper spreadsheets I used to print out. Now, I can rearrange students based on their seats, learning needs, and conference dates. I color code student names to guide our future conferences—green means a student should finish a book within the week; yellow reminds me to check in with the student again before the week’s end; and red indicates that a student is not meeting their reading goal. My notes may appear messy–no italics and misspellings–but they are extremely helpful. To keep track of dates, I save an updated document each week. As students finish books, I delete the title for the following week. For students, who are struggling to find the right book or are not meeting their goal, I keep their running record from week to week to help me guide them to success.

Questions to Ask

I have also learned that the questions I ask my students play a key role in their growth. Nancie Atwell’s The Reading Zone and Penny Kittle’s Book Love guide my conference questions. I always ask students if they like the book and how their reading is going. I often follow up that question with the book’s rating on a scale from 1-10. My students’ answers help me determine whether or not a book is a good fit for them.

Additionally, I develop follow-up questions that push my students’ thinking further. They fall into various categories:

  • Comprehension
  • Vocabulary
  • Close Reading and Re-Reading
  • Skills Application from Whole-Class Minilessons (e.g. theme, conflict, visualization, dialogue punctuation)
  • Evaluation (e.g. favorite part or most important moment)
  • Connection (to self, other texts, and the world)
  • Read Like a Writer (e.g. figurative language, sensory details, character thoughts)
  • Reading Together
  • Next Book

While some weekly conferences simply check student progress, others lend themselves to one-on-one direct instruction. My students’ reading and writing needs as well as where they are in the book help me determine what direction our conversations will go. Oftentimes, a conference will include two or more of the categories listed above. Because I can differentiate the questions, reading conferences support and challenge all of my students regardless if they are in Reading Support, Academic English, or Advanced English.

Having the opportunity to listen to my students talk about their books is one of my favorite parts of our class. I hope you enjoy chatting with your students about their books! If you have additional go-to questions or conference types, please post them below. If you have questions or would like to share your own experiences, we would love to hear from you.

Snapshot: 10/20/19

Let’s Examine Our Thoughts on Students in Poverty

In preparing for a section of a training session on the provision of culturally responsive education, a brief writing activity is planned to generate relevance for our adult learners, all of whom are in the education field, whether as central office/building administrators, general ed teachers, or special ed teachers. This section is focused on students living in poverty, an area not often considered in and of itself when examining school culture and climate.

It will be important to establish norms for the day’s training and to remind the group of them before each core activity and sharing of views as it may be uncomfortable for learners due to personal experiences, beliefs and values.

The following writing prompt will be presented to the group and I will indicate that they will be sharing their responses with others in the room:

“This is a fact: Students whose families are living in poverty do not perform on average as well in school as wealthier students. Perhaps it is unpopular to say, but if we’re committed to educational equity for low-income families, we must acknowledge this reality.” (Gorski, 2016)

In your response, consider these questions:

  1. Why do students whose families are experiencing poverty not do as well in schools as their wealthier peers?
  2. What factors do you believe are involved in this disparity in educational outcomes for students from low-income situations?

After the learners have completed their responses, have them:

  1. share with a table partner
  2. share with someone at another table that they do not know
  3. return to their seats
  4. Facilitator will seek volunteers to share their insights on the writing prompt.
  5. This will generate large group discussion before getting into the content of this section of the workshop.

A link to an article that will be used to drive this section of the training session: Re-examining Beliefs About Students in Poverty. It is by Paul Gorksi and was published in the May 2016 edition of School Administration. Dr. Gorski is the founder of EdChange, the Equity Literacy Institute and a college professor of Integrative Studies at George Mason University. Additional activities are to be used with the article such as Lifting of Text.

From the Classroom: An Approach to Summer Reading that Celebrates Rather Than Assesses Reading

For over a decade I began the school year by administering a multiple choice test to my students on their summer reading. And for over a decade I questioned this practice as I entered dismal test scores. The testing was not reflective of my classroom practices, did not accurately measure whether students actually completed their reading (some adept test-takers could pass after only studying the SparkNotes version of the novel while other less-skilled testers would bomb despite reading and annotating the entire book), and worst of all it only solidified a distaste for reading rather than encouraging the habit of reading.

After many years of questioning this practice, my colleagues and I were finally able to pilot a new approach. While designing our new plan, we kept circling back to the essential question: what is the goal of a summer reading assignment? Keeping in mind that we ultimately want students to use it as an opportunity to continue to build their reading identities and strengthen their independent reading habits, we realized two elements are key: 1. Choice 2. An evaluation method that celebrates (rather than tests) the reading.

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