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Posts from the ‘Prompt-ober’ Category

“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

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.

Wet Paint

Writing prompts to incite sparks to start a writer’s engine is a challenging teacher’s task. Too narrow of a prompt, and the engine remains cold. Too broad of a prompt…and the engine remains cold. 

Recently, I needed a prompt to transition students from writing a personal memoir to writing narrative nonfiction (aka creative nonfiction). In an effort to be clear, I kept the prompt lean: Write a true story as story

Turns out, clarity is contextual. The same prompt can be a springboard for some and an abyss for others. Part of our work is to meet students where they are–adjust the task, the prompt, the context to fit the need.

In my case, mentor texts and discussion clarified the prompt for some. However, narrative nonfiction isn’t fiction conjured up inside our heads. It turns out, tapping into lived experiences or research is only a piece of the process. Yes, we can list and accumulate pieces in our writer’s notebooks; however, converting those experiential fragments or bits of research into a story is challenging! 

Neither my prompt, class discussion nor mentor texts fed into one student’s particular strengths as a writer. Conferring with Jane (pseudonym),  she opened her draft and shared that she gathered a lot of information about Mary Shelly, but she did not know how to convert the information into a story.

In other words, Jane took steps forward under the guidance of the prompt and by reading a couple of books about Mary Shelley, but she still could not convert all of the amassed information into a story, and then THIS happened:

In the middle of conferring, Jane asked, “I made an OC this weekend. Want to see it?”


“Whats an O.C.?”

“An original character.”

Jane retrieved her private journal–filled with sketches–and explained the O.C., named Autumn. Jane knew a lot about Autumn’s “story” just from a sketch. She has yet to write any words about Autumn.

This moment sparked me to make the decision to revise the prompt for Jane. Until now, I had been trying to adjust Jane’s thinking to work within my prompt, the class discussion, the mentor texts,  rather than adjust the prompt so that it worked for her thinking. So, I asked Jane if I could revise the prompt right inside her Google Doc:


What makes Mary Shelley a likable person? What does she do that makes us want to keep watching her, listening to her? Could you bring that to life in a sketch? Could you sketch a scene with Mary in it (and then write it as a story).


Jane read as I typed and she nodded with enthusiasm.

“I can do that.”

IMG_3599After ten minutes, I circled back to Jane.

“I drew Mary tough–in boys’ clothes. She’s really tough and has to be to stand up for women’s rights.”

“Could you write a scene? A moment that brings this sketch to life too?”

“I can do that.”

I hadn’t explicitly thought of prompts as fluid or permutable. So often, prompts in education feel fixed and I wonder how much I have contributed to that feeling in my classes. At the very least, today, I am grateful that my mentors (in person and in text) have given me the guidance and confidence to learn to be responsive to the writer while the paint is still wet. And maybe that is the best way, for me, to think of writing prompts–wet paint as opposed to chiseled stone.