"I don't know what to write!"
“I don’t have anything to write.”
Writing time, second grade. There is some excited buzz as the children settle down with writing binders. Some have fresh paper and a plan; some have a piece half-written, ready to pick up where they left off. It’s never a quiet place but, for the most part, the noise is productive. As I walk about and scan the room, I notice one child with his notebook open, head down, pencil wobbling in midair, writing nothing. When I squat down to his eye level and ask what he’s going to write about today, he responds in a half-whine, half-frustrated sigh,
I don’t know. I don’t have anything to write about. He rejects several suggestions and repeats,
I don’t have anything to write about.
Preempt the Problem
We’ve all been there, as teachers and as writers. Over the years I’ve learned to do my best to preempt the “I don’t have anything to write about” problem. Here are some strategies I use:
Early in the year I make a production of giving the kids their writing binders. I slip a preprinted piece of paper with two things into the plastic cover insert: the child’s name and the words “I Am a Writer.” They decorate this cover with things they love, things that inspire them. From then on, their binders are special and always at the ready on their own accessible shelf.
Next on the list is, well, The List. Once the binder is beautiful or at least personally inspirational, we sit on the rug with our new writing partners and brainstorm writing topics. I make a big chart of these ideas. These have included a trip they’ve taken, a story about them when they were little, a birthday, and everyone’s favorite drama—an injury. Next, I look at the list and spin a story of my own. The time my older brothers used me as a base in a neighborhood baseball game is usually a crowd pleaser.
In pairs, the students then get a chance to ponder these general topics and tell a story. “Once I fell on the sidewalk and got 8 stitches.” “I had a sleepover at my grandma’s and she let me eat in her bed and watch TV really late.” No writing yet, just storytelling.
I’ve put a divider page into each writing binder with the words “My Topics.” The students return to tables with their partners and brainstorm a personal topic list. I encourage them to work together to remember all the good ideas they generated on the rug. I ask that they write at least 5–6 topics. By this time, writing that many is not usually a problem. We end the session by sharing our lists. Inevitably sharing leads to more ideas that the children then race to put on their lists.
“That would make a great topic!”
An unintended side effect of “the list” has been the solution to an age-old teaching dilemma. The tangential storytellers. If you read aloud a story and there is a cat in it, you are likely to get a child who wants to tell you all about Skipper, her grandma’s cat who came from a shelter. “Well not really a shelter but a foster family who got it from a shelter. And my grandma…” Before you know it, you are trying to figure out ways to cut the child off without cutting off her narrative joy. In my classroom, I deliberately encourage oral language development. Once the barn door is open, the stories just keep a-comin’. Sometimes, though, you just don’t have time for them and other children don’t have the attention span for them. That’s where the topic list comes in. Now I quickly cut them off and say, “This sounds like a great story idea to add to your topic list.” The child happily nods in agreement and we’re on our way.
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