Having Something to Write, Part 1: The Idea Flood

In my last post, I wrote that empowered writers have something to say. In order to have something to say, you must have an idea, or even better, many ideas.

Kelly Gallagher, educator and author, encourages creating a book flood (i.e. a robust classroom library) to get students excited about reading. By providing plentiful book choices, all students can believe there’s a book for them. I propose writing’s counter, the idea flood, in which a teacher helps students create their own floods of writing ideas. When students have ideas to choose from, that’s the beginning of an excited writer. It certainly makes it easier for me to confront the blank page!

The Tool: A Writer’s Notebook

My latest notebook is pictured above. It’s personalized and irreverent. That’s why I would cry if I lost it. I personalize my notebook by decorating it and by writing what I care about in it, no matter if anyone ever reads it. In fact, most of it wouldn’t interest others. It includes letters to myself, obsessive to-do lists, phrases I like, and half-baked sketches and story ideas. The irreverence is that it’s messy and unruly. I got a bloody nose the first time I opened it, so yeah, there’s blood on the first page. I don’t use sequential order to fill it, so I’m forever searching for something I once wrote. This would aggravate some people, but it must be this way for me.

Making It Rain

As a teacher, it’s my job to build the relationship between writers and notebooks. When student writers are flooded with ideas to jot and sketch, they will grow attached to those 99-cent composition notebooks. Here are some ways to make it rain (written as directions for students):

  • Notebook Autobiography (inspired by Penny Kittle): Decorate your notebook with images and words that represent you. Anytime you don’t have something to write about, write about something on your notebook.
  • 3 x 3: Choose a topic from an earlier entry. Make a list of 3-word phrases that relate to it. Star any that have energy. Choose one and write.
  • Writing Territories (from Nancie Atwell): Make a list of topics about which you enjoy discussing, doing, and learning. Add onto this list throughout the course.
  • Tone Graph: Plot a piece of writing on a tone graph. Rewrite it from a different quadrant.

Tone Graph

  • List and Star (a variation on Aimee Buckner’s general strategy): Choose a topic from somewhere in your notebook. Make a best or worst list within this topic. Star the ones you think you could write about. Choose one and write.
  • Feed: Review Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, a newspaper, a magazine, etc. while keeping a list of possible writing topics. Choose one from the list and write a page.
  • Lift a Line (another from Aimee Buckner): Read an old entry. When you find a sentence that inspires you, write it in your notebook and write a page building from it.
  • Reread for a new angle (inspired by 1 Topic, 18 Ways by Kelly Gallagher): Reread your old entries and star any place where you could take the writing in a different direction or for a different purpose. Choose one and write a page.
  • Mentor Texts. In the recently released Writing with Mentors, Rebekah O’Dell and Allison Marchetti show how to use texts as a springboards for original writing. Students can record a favorite line and then emulate it. They can respond, emulate, or lift a line from a poem. They can record observations, questions, or inspired prose in response to raw data. They can write in response to images.

When It Works

If the notebook is working, you’ll see the following. Of course, it depends on the experience and confidence of the student, but I’ll tell you why these are good signs, especially in struggling writers.

  • Students write for the entire allotted time (3-4 minutes in my 9th grade classroom). No one tosses down their writing utensil early. This signifies that the students have stamina to complete the physical act of writing, as well as to mentally engage without distraction.
  • The writing features misspellings, blank spaces to fill in the “right word” later, and looser adherence to punctuation rules. This means the writer’s inner critic hasn’t won. The critic wins when a writer believes the writing must be perfect in order to go on the page. Writers who believe this have smaller output (i.e. a smaller flood), though it may conform better to the guidelines.
  • The writing is layered with scratch-outs, circles, margin work, and arrows. While hard to read, this shows that the writer as gone back into the work, accepting that our ideas don’t come out of our heads fully formed.
  • Writing breaks from paragraph form. You see phrases like, “I don’t know what to write,” repeated, sketches, and lists. This shows that the student writer was undaunted by the blank page. It’s evidence of persistence.
  • The writing goes off topic. This indicates that the writer is owning the writing. Polished pieces need a focus, but a notebook can be scatter-brained. In fact, more topics means a bigger flood. It’s good for the writer.

When It Doesn’t

A teacher who only has a plan for how things will work doesn’t have a plan at all, because things never work exactly how you expect. Let’s review the above list, this time with an eye on what to do if (when) the students need something more.

There are several behaviors that demonstrate a student’s stamina may be suffering, which undermines an idea flood. If students stare at the page, they are nervous to start. Model writing, “I don’t know what to write” or doodling without a plan in mind. These students may hold strictly to the belief that you must know what you want to say before you write, rather than writing to find what you want to say.

If students set down their pencils early, model how to go “off topic” and wander through writing. I also encourage these students to reread what they’ve written and make it better. Students who never reread and revise need help learning that skill, but I’ll discuss it later with revision.

Permission to reread can also help students who are afraid of misspelling, not using the right word, or making grammatical errors. Model making notations for places you want to go back and fix later. Knowing that they can (and should) go back into the writing will relieve their anxiety. Coach how to talk back to that inner critic.

These tips can help students who look around the room as well. Of course, I look around while I write too, so they might be on-topic in their mind. Model writing what you’re thinking as you think it.

Students who begin talking with others have written something they want to share. Provide regular sharing time in class for them.

How do you use a writer’s notebook? Any favorite quick writes to create an idea flood? 

4 thoughts on “Having Something to Write, Part 1: The Idea Flood

  1. Amy says:

    LOVE Kelly Gallagher. I build my entire 800+ classroom library just because of his book. I actually took a Masters course which had us read and write a paper on the reading. All I could think about is, “Why isn’t every teacher reading this?”


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