One of the funniest writing professional developments I ever attended included a live demonstration of the teacher following written instructions for making a Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich. By following only the instructions on the paper, the teacher ended up making a huge mess. The point was to show that we often forget some important specifics when writing a “How To” paper. YouTube’s Josh Darnit has a video you can show your students to get the point across without having to stick your own hand in a jar of Jiffy. He assigns his children the task of creating “exact instructions” for making a PB&J sandwich, and chaos ensues.
I showed the video to my students in Robot Camp, and they immediately understood the connection – that programmers can’t assume the robot or computer knows what they are thinking, and if something goes wrong you need to go back and fix your mistake instead of blaming it on the device.
You should note that this particular video is labeled, “Classroom Friendly,” and I can attest that it is appropriate. I can’t vouch for any other Josh Darnit videos or “Exact Instructions” on YouTube.
Dave Eggers, award-winning author of books such as A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, explains in his 2008 TED Talk, “Once Upon a School,” how he conceived the idea of a tutoring and creative writing center that would be part of the community, a place that would offer one-on-one help to the students in the area with writers who would volunteer their time.
The center, with its pirate storefront and ever-increasing list of dedicated tutors, was a success. It grew into more centers around the United States, providing “under-resourced communities access to high-quality, engaging, and free writing, tutoring, and publishing programs.” As quickly as it has grown, however, 826 National has an even more ambitious goal – to provide its inspirational creative-writing resources to teachers everywhere. To that end, the company launched “826 Digital” in November of 2017, a website that offers innovative “sparks” and lessons ready to be used in classrooms to galvanize generations of writers of all ages. Aligned with the Common Core, the unique activities include field-tested resources from Dave Eggers, educators, and volunteers at 826 National sites.
826 Digital is a “pay-as-you-wish” site, which means that teachers can become members for free or whatever they choose to donate. With lesson titles like, “MIRACLE ELIXIR: INVENTING POTIONS TO CURE BALDNESS AND OTHER THINGS THE WORLD NEEDS RIGHT NOW,” students cannot help but be intrigued and motivated to write. Sparks like, “CHEESY POP SONG POETRY,” and “MONSTER SCATTERGORIES” will contribute to a classroom environment of humor and creativity.
Your students may not be able to go to the original 826 Valencia pirate store, or the Brooklyn Superhero Supply Company, but you can make your own classroom into a writer’s room that encourages imagination by accessing the great resources available at 826 Digital.
It is not uncommon for GT students to dislike writing. I was intrigued recently when I saw the article, “Why Do So Many Gifted and Talented Children Hate to Write?” Although the article does not give any scientific evidence, it does suggest that it can sometimes be difficult for gifted students to gather thoughts that make perfect sense to them and go through the excruciatingly slow process of organizing and communicating those thoughts on paper (or screen). I like to compare it to asking an adult to write down the instructions for tying a shoelace or walking. Sometimes we just know things, and we don’t find it pleasant to try to tease out the details.
The above article suggests a writing exercise that turns the task into more of a challenge. I haven’t tried it with my students, but I have learned that giving them unusual rules or restrictions often seems to motivate them more than unlimited freedom (which usually just paralyzes them). This article from Alice Keeler also recommends adding constraints to writing, and she provides a spreadsheet template to help this process.
Unexpected topics can also stimulate ideas. You can find some fun video writing prompts here. “Writing Sparks” from Night Zookeeper offers random topics. (Click on “Create Spark.”) Different perspectives can also galvanize student writing. And one of my favorite online tools that has never failed to intrigue my students with its incredible illustrations has been Storybird.
Writing can be a challenge for anyone. Students with high I.Q.’s are not immune to academic difficulties. What may be perceived as laziness can often be just a matter of fear of failure. With a bit of creativity and lot of support, students who “hate” to write may discover a strength they didn’t know they possessed.
Last Thursday, Richard Byrne shared an absolute treasure trove of Google Drive templates created and shared by Darren Maltais. You can click the link above to read Richard’s post. One of the templates that you may want to consider using in the near future is “ELA 12 Days of Christmas,” which offers 12 different creative writing ideas, along with examples. Whether you plan to use some or all of these, you should definitely make a copy of this to help you and your students make it through this occasionally overwhelming time of year! (I particularly like the Facebook example with comments from Buddy the Elf and Rudolph!) By the way, if you would like math activities for the 12 Days of Christmas, you can try this.
If you teach older students who have their own phones, this might be a fun idea for an impromptu writing prompt. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has decided to make more of its artwork available to the public by digitizing it and allowing us to text requests. Only 5% of its entire collection can be viewed in the SFMOMA’s physical building, but thousands more pieces are accessible through this new feature. You can text the number 57251, and type, “Send me” followed by a keyword or color. There’s something suspenseful about the whole endeavor that makes it a bit addictive.
I tried it out by texting, “Send me kindness, ” and received the following, somewhat depressing, reply.
Maybe kindness was too abstract? So I tried, “Love.”
Now remember, this is the Museum of Modern Art, so I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised by the answer to my next request.
Not really sure what the museum bot was trying to tell me there…
Anyway, I soon discovered that trying to use this activity as a “pick-me-up” was a bit too unpredictable, especially after I received a sad portrait of the war in Iraq after I asked for “home.” However, my daughter and I did have fun using emojis and asking for pictures of bread and dogs. (It does work with emojis, by the way.)
Not to be outdone by artifical intelligence, I decided to end our texting communication by asking for something that couldn’t possibly be mis-interpreted in a bleak way by a computer. “Send me a rainbow,” I asked.
One of the reasons I keep a blog is because I have a horrible memory. It’s nice to go back in time every once in awhile and look at the posts I wrote so I can rediscover some great resources. Luke Neff’s Writing Prompts site is one of those tools. I originally mentioned the site in 2011. Neff takes interesting images or quotes, and creates unusual, thought-provoking prompts for older students. I revisited the site yesterday, and found a prompt that really resonated. I want so much for my students to question and to use critical thinking skills. This prompt may activate some lively discussion in my class – which is what I am aiming for!
For my list of my favorite online writing tools in 2011 (before Google Docs existed!), click here.