Category Archives: how to find writing topics

Hurricanes Irma and Harvey: exciting writing topics

Students love to talk about current events.  But usually their ideas lack facts—high on “Well, I heard” but low on hard facts.

Here’s a way to give them the facts on Hurricane Irma or Hurricane Harvey—the geography, the science, even the math.

Order* “Hurricane Irma (or Harvey):  storm graphing, tracking and analyzing.”  With the information provided, students will be able to

  • Plot the latitude and longitude of Irma (or Harvey) on their own maps. Then they can use that data to write about the day-to-day path the hurricane took, where it crossed land, and where it went next (or where it stalled, in Harvey’s case).  This essay would be heavy on geography—what Caribbean islands the storm passed, what waters it passed through, what states, cities or counties were involved.
  • Create bar graphs of the lowest barometric pressure and the highest wind speed of either hurricane. Then students can compare the two graphs and notice how higher wind speed correlates with lower air pressure and with Saffir-Simpson categories.  Numbers are details, and with two graphs plus the Saffir-Simpson chart, the students would have plenty of details to write an essay heavy on science and math.
  • For a comparison/contrast essay, students could interpret a chart comparing Hurricane Katrina to Hurricane Harvey. Plenty of facts describe both storms.
  • Or for an expository essay, students could write an essay explaining why Hurricane Harvey was so destructive. All the information is provided.  Students could use this same information to paraphrase one paragraph or several.
  • A different expository essay could focus on why hurricanes form and strengthen, using scientific facts about Hurricane Irma. A shorter writing assignment using the same facts could be a summary or a paraphrase of a single paragraph.
  • What makes for an accurate forecast of a hurricane’s landfall location could be another expository essay, focusing on why meteorologists had trouble pinpointing the landfall location of Irma. All the information is provided.  Or a paragraph or two could be paraphrased.  Or the ideas could be summarized.

I wrote the lesson plans and gathered the facts, focusing on activities appropriate for fifth through eighth graders.

*To check out one or both lessons, click on Irma or Harvey.  The cost is $5 each.

How a grandmother encourages her seven-year-old grandson to write

I received a note from a reader, describing how she teaches her grandson to write.  The boy, who turned seven this summer, is an active skateboarder, bike rider and swimmer, but he finds school work hard.  I contacted the grandmother, and here is our conversation:

Does your grandson like to write?

No.  He hates to begin.  But once he starts, he relaxes and actually enjoys it.  He feels pride in his work.

How do you get him started?

Late afternoon is best when I am getting dinner ready.  He sits at the kitchen table.  It takes lots of conversation while he tries to negotiate a way out of writing. It is difficult to endure but I persist.  If I let him wait until after dinner, he is too tired. So I refuse to change the time.  I bribe him with food treats, which I would give him anyway.  Or I promise a chance to play on my iPad for 15 minutes after he is done.

And then?

I give him a choice of three topics to write about.  More discussion.  Eventually he decides on one topic.  I write that word in the middle of a PLAN paper and now we decide on three ideas about the topic.  I write three more idea words.  He connects those words to the topic word in the center of the page. The key is the PLAN.  Now the struggle s over.  He has a plan to follow, so there is no more pulling info out of him.  It is a task to be completed.  He can work independently for a moment using the notes in the PLAN.

I try to walk away and let him do his own writing.  I will spell a word or write a big word on his PLAN paper if he asks.  It is quite amazing how his attitude changes once he has a sentence written.  He is happy that his sentence is written.  He loves being praised for how nice he makes letter A. He rereads his first sentence to me.  I ask if it is missing anything at the beginning or the end.  Then he gets his first reward, one m&m for each word.  Now we proceed to the next sentence.

He writes three sentences for each writing task.  He enjoys reading his entire essay.  Then we are done.

His mother has said that it is difficult for him to remember his ideas when he is writing.  I hope this technique will help in the future.  I’ve learned most of it from reading your blog.

Is that it for the day?

No, next is flash cards, computer reading apps, or a real book.  With flash cards, I have him hold each card and make a little colored mark in the corner if he knows the word.  This keeps him from fidgeting and gives him an activity.  The cards get marked up, but so what!

How to encourage primary school students to write better

If you are helping a student in kindergarten through second grade to learn how to write, you might want to check out Conferring with Young Writers  by K. Ackerman and J. McDonough.

ConferringWithYoungWritersThese primary grade teachers decided that they could have the most impact by changing the way they conference with student writers.  Here are some of their tips.

Establish trust with the student before trying anything else. How?  Let students see you writing and encountering problems.  Focus on the meaning of the child’s words and ignore sloppy spelling and punctuation.  Compliment students on their writing, focusing on particular things they do well.  Listen when the child talks about the writing process.  Get to know students as whole people first and as students and writers second.

Establish a routine for writing—a set time and place with pencils sharp, erasers in reach and plenty of paper.

Focus on one writing goal per lesson or unit. The goals should include choosing good ideas, structuring the writing appropriately, using conventions properly, sticking to one main point, writing in a natural voice, and providing details.  Teach those goals, model them, practice them and discuss with students how they can do them better.

Follow up on the points which they should have shown in their writing. The book shows several assessment tables, rubrics, and checklists which can be adapted by parents or classroom teachers.

Encourage students to choose their own writing topics and genres. Students will be more engaged and cooperative if they have choices.

Let students know it is not only okay but good if they talk to one another about the process of writing. Encourage them to read their writing aloud as they work.

Help students find good ideas to write about. Deciding on topics is one of the hardest things for some children.  Conferring with Young Writers offers several approaches to helping students identify what they might enjoy writing about.

Conferring with Young Writers offers a three page bibliography of books about teaching writing to children as well as an index.  At 144 pages, it is a quick but rich read for parents and teachers who don’t know how to begin teaching writing to primary grade students.  For more information, go to http://www.stenhouse.com.

Should my child do reading and writing in the same lesson if the lesson is supposed to focus on writing?

EPSON MFP imageAs a tutor, this is an issue I have struggled with.  Most of the time, I combine reading and writing.  Here’s why:

  • A kindergartener or even a sixth grader has little personal experience to write about. They quickly exhaust “my dog” or “my family” as topics.  It makes sense for me to provide a topic to write about.  A quick and easy way to do that is to supply a picture book or a short essay.  But if I learn the student has taken an outing over the weekend, I switch gears and ask the student to write from his or her experience.  I might need to generate many questions about the outing to develop enough material to write about, but a personal experience trumps a reading experience, especially for young children.
  • Reading gives students a quick start. I might ask a young children to read part of a picture book (limiting the time spent reading to between five and ten minutes of an hour-long lesson).  For an older child, I might bring an essay or news story (again, limiting the time spent reading and discussing it.)  Our discussions focus on ideas related to writing, such as organization, characters, setting, suspense and conclusions.  Then we talk about the kind of writing I expect the student to write.
  • For students who don’t like to be told what to write, I might bring two reading selections, offering a choice. The child has a sense of control and I am happy with either choice.
  • Reading gives students various genres to analyze or to use as prompts. If the student is writing a persuasive essay, for example, reading one first offers ideas for organization and vocabulary.  I focus less on the content and more on the structure, details, figures of speech–the writing–during a writing lesson.
  • Reading offers excellent models for writing. If I am teaching how to write a formal essay with a thesis, obvious topic sentences and a good conclusion, reading such an essay first is a great way to begin the lesson.  We can talk about what makes the example good (or poor if it is poor) and how it could have been improved.

Everyone writes to be read, even if the reader is a later-day version of himself or herself.  We talk about this during our lessons, offering a solid reason to read before we begin and just as solid a reason to read the student’s work after it is complete.

Students need to learn how to choose a good essay topic

Kids think they need to choose a big topic, like the American Revolution, in order to have enough information to write several paragraphs for an essay or a story.  Wrong.  Choosing a smaller topic, a narrower topic, is always better.  But they need help learning how to narrow down a topic.

For example, suppose they need to write about the American Revolution.  Ask them to break down the American Revolution into subtopics such as important people, battles, causes of the war, Tories, boycotts, the Declaration of Independence, smallpox, and Valley Forge.  Wow, the subtopics go on and on.  But even these subtopics are huge.

Now take one subtopic—say the Battles of Lexington and Concord—and help the students break that into subtopics, such as colors of British uniforms, the shot heard round the world, the Old North Church, guerilla warfare, why the British soldiers marched, how far from the boats were Lexington and Concord.  Wow again.  Those subtopics go on and on too.

Okay, now help them take one of those subtopics and break it into smaller subtopics.  Suppose we take Paul Revere’s ride.  Who gave the signal for Paul Revere to go, how was it decided on, where did Paul Revere get the horses he rode, did he ride alone, did he bring his dog, how did he get across the river near the British boats without them noticing him, and how did he escape when he was captured in the middle of the night?  Wow again.  Even the subtopics of the subtopics of the subtopic go on and on.

Encourage students by saying they are getting much closer to a topic for a good essay.  Suppose you have read to your students that famous poem “Paul Revere’s Ride” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.  With them peeking over your shoulder, you go online and find out many artists have created books using the poem and illustrations.  You decide to see how different artists illustrated the poem.  You look at the covers and a few pages.  Wow!  The illustrations are so different.

Now tell the students they are really close to a good topic.  You suggest they take three of the illustrated books they like the most, and compare and contrast the illustrations of one idea such as how Paul Revere rowed across the river quietly so he wasn’t noticed by the British lookouts.  One book shows three men in a row boat under a full moon with a British sailing ship close enough so its shadow almost covers the rowboat.  Another shows the British boats at least a football field away with a tiny, sliver of a moon in the sky.  And a third shows what looks like white rags on the oars and a dog in the boat.

But wait!  In doing this online search for books illustrating the poem, you come upon a version of the famous story written by Paul Revere himself.  You ask the students to read what Revere wrote about how he crossed the river and see which artist nailed it.

Explain to the students how you went from a huge topic to a small but much more interesting topic.  They will be using one primary source (Paul Revere’s own account) and four secondary sources (the poem and three illustrations).

It takes time to find a good topic.  Without modeling, most kids don’t know how to do it.  Take the time to help them narrow their ideas.  A worthwhile assignment is to ask students to go through this process to develop a good topic whether they write the essay or not.

Writing is a process, and part of that process is narrowing down a topic.  Not every researched essay topic needs to be written.

Find a topic for a student to write about by using picture books

Many children hem and haw about choosing a writing topic.  I ask for their suggestions and they shrug.  I give them options.  They object.  It’s possible to waste so much time during a writing lesson settling on a topic.

EPSON MFP imageI’ve figured out a way to end students’ angst and to start the writing lesson quickly.  I bring a children’s picture book to the lesson.  The student reads the book aloud.  Then I tell the student he is going to write a book patterned after the book he has just read.

“You can redo the same story, or you can use that story as a starting point for a different story,” I say.  This way the student has choices.

Let me show you two results.

One second grade girl read Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst as her prompt.  It concerns a boy for whom everything goes wrong one day.  Here is my student’s result.

Terrible Very Bad Day

Nick woke up in the morning and he fell out of his bed.  At breakfast his brothers ate all the cereal.  I think I’ll move to Washington, D.C.  In the bus he had to sit next to girls that he liked and everybody laughed at him even the girls.  In class Jackson said he was not his best friend.  At lunch everybody had desserts like cupcakes except him.  After school his mother took him to get shoes but he did not get what he wanted which was blue with red stripes.  At dinner his mom had spinach and he does not like spinach.  When his brothers got to watch TV he had to sleep.  Tomorrow is going to be a good day, he said.

That same second grader read Jack’s Worry by Sam Zuppardi as her prompt.  It is about a boy who fears playing his trumpet in a school concert.  Here is what she wrote this time (with names changed).

Sue loved making friends.  For weeks she had been looking forward to meeting the new girl in her school.  On the day she was meeting the new kid, she had a worry and it became bigger and bigger.  She was worried that the girl wouldn’t like her or that she would say something mean to her.  When it was time to go to school, she did not want to go.  Her mother said, “Is something wrong?”  She said, “Yes.  I am worried that the new girl will not like me.”  Mother said, “She will like you even if you make a mistake and I will love you.”  Sue’s worry was gone.  When she was at school, she met the new kid, Annie, and they became best friends.  Sue learned worrying is silly.

Some tips for using this technique:

  • Choose a book that the student can read in five to ten minutes so that most of the lesson is devoted to writing.
  • Beginnings are hard. Let the student see how the author started the novel.  Then suggest alternatives.
  • You might show the student the illustrations as she writes, but cover the words. Encourage her to write her own words.
  • Endings are hard. Suggest she write a moral if that makes sense.  Or suggest she reread her first two or three sentences and see if the character she is writing about has solved the problem presented.  Let the ending be a comment on the solution.  Or let the ending look to the future in light of what the student has written about.
  • Incorporate some particular aspect of writing into the lesson. In the first example I asked the student to keep going because I know she wants to finish quickly.  In the second example, I asked her to use direct quotes, and we talked about how to punctuate them.