Creative Writing Prompts

Posted: May 13, 2013


Poets & Writers has a collection of great writing prompts on their website. They include poetry, fiction, and — hooray! — nonfiction (my personal favorite).

Browse through online newspapers for stories that took place on the same day at least ten years apart. Write an imaginative essay based on…

Linda Schrock Taylor

Posted: April 13, 2013

Linda Schrock Taylor has finished her first book! I have been reading her essays online for years. Back in my corporate days, I would sit in my cubicle and admire her deft critiques of public education. Most people recognize the symptoms, but so few can diagnose the problems. She could, and what I liked about her was that she seemed so “old school.”

She believes in things like handwriting and phonics. She is big proponent of homeschooling. She writes articles like “Two Books and a Blackboard: How We Used to Do It.” When I got my first classroom teaching job last fall, I sent her an email that said, “Help! What can you recommend to me?” She graciously responded with a long list of suggestions that have proven most helpful to me throughout the year.

If you are a homeschooling parent, or a parent who is concerned about your child’s reading, writing, and spelling skills, I highly recommend you check out her essays here. (Warning: There is a bit of politics mixed in.) If nothing else, her conviction is infectious!


The Awesome Appositive

Posted: January 25, 2013

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I became a mean teacher this week. I told my seventh graders that, from now on, if someone turns in a paper without a name, or an assignment that isn’t stapled, it will be placed in my “circular file.” None of them knew what that meant. When I enlightened them and explained that  assignments that go in the “circular file” get an automatic zero, they objected, finding the new policy draconian.

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

“But there are 20 of you,” I explained. “Your class always has more than one assignment to turn in. Assignments often take up more than one piece of paper. That means this class is sometimes giving me 60 pieces of paper at once! It takes forever to figure out who the nameless papers belong to and to match up pieces of paper correctly.”

I told them that naming papers and stapling assignments is a way of taking someone else into consideration, namely – me, their (formerly beloved) Ms. Scribbles!

It is a learning opportunity. Children are naturally self-centered. Becoming aware of other people and taking their needs into account is just a natural part of growing up. We call this “putting ourselves in other people’s shoes.”

This is a mental habit that is especially important for a writer. Young writers often write as if other people share their same brain, their same past, their same experiences, and their same body of knowledge. By “putting yourself in the reader’s shoes,” you begin to anticipate what a reader might need to fully understand what you are trying to say.

Providing helpful information, in the form of background or context, is almost always necessary, but it’s sometimes difficult to do. It can “bog down” the paper if it’s not done in a clean way. Appositives can be one of the most helpful tools when it comes to injecting a piece of writing with helpful information.

Dorothy, a farm girl who dreams of a better life, finds herself in a mysterious land called Oz.

I met her while I was traveling in Tunisia, a small country in North Africa.

Despite having very different backgrounds, Ron and Hermione both end up at Hogwarts, a school for witchcraft and wizardy.

Appositives allow the reader to get a toehold without wading through a whole paragraph of isolated background information. Use them liberally!

What is a detail?

Posted: January 5, 2013


Details are important for all kinds of writing: creative, persuasive, and expository. We tell young writers that good writing “has a lot of details.” When you ask someone why they liked a certain book, they often say things like “because it was very detailed” and “it made it feel like you were there.” But what does that mean? What is a detail? As a writing teacher would say, “Could you be more specific?”

One thing you can do is explain to young writers that “details” fall into four main categories: description, definition, explanation, and information. Spend some time talking about each one and why and how each one can be important or effective. Show some examples of each . Once they begin to see that there are different kinds of details, they can start asking themselves which kind might be needed, useful, or effective in a certain paragraph or piece of writing.

The Hochman Program

Posted: November 26, 2012

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The October issue of The Atlantic ran some feature articles on “what’s working” in American schools. One, “The Writing Revolution,” is about a school-wide writing program that was developed at a small private school in White Plains, New York, and implemented at a failing school in Staten Island, with great results. It raises some important questions. When did “literacy” come to mean, strictly, “the ability to read”? And when did we start confining writing instruction to Language Arts? The Hochman Program sounds like a writing teacher’s dream: “Every instructional hour except for math class is dedicated to teaching essay writing along with a particular subject.”


I am teaching my students about narrative structure in my seventh grade Language Arts class, and they have begun writing short stories of their own. This week, I invited them to share the beginnings of their stories. Two of them could not wait to read theirs aloud, and I should have known why: Their obsession with The Hunger Games has been clear since day one, and they co-wrote a story in which Katniss Everdeen is the protagonist.

“Nooooooooo!” I thought. “Why didn’t I make a rule? I should have said: No fan fiction!”

It seemed like cheating, albeit unintentional. I was tempted to ask these girls, and any other student who had written fan fiction, to start over and use their imaginations this time to come up with something original. But as the girls began reading their story, all I could think was, “Wow. This is really good.”

Fan Fiction

Illustration by Kagan McLeod, “Watson is a Woman” | My Dear Miss Watson by bravehearttegan | Sherlock Holmes’s famed sidekick Watson is reimagined as a woman who struggles to be taken seriously by other investigators.

I think I’ve come around. If you think about it, it is very difficult to create — out of thin air — everything that is needed for a story: a compelling character, a world in which that character lives (setting), and the plot (what happens).  The beauty of fan fiction in a creative writing class is that it gives students a familiar character and setting to work with. Those are givens. They can then focus on plot, which is quite helpful when the whole point of the exercise is to implement what one has learned about narrative writing, and to write a story that has a clear beginning, middle and end. In fact, next year, if I teach this class again, I may actually recommend that students write fan fiction. I think that by doing so my two Katniss-obsessed students were able to focus more on the plot and the details that would help their characters and setting come alive.

The more I think about it, the more accepting I am of the fad. Was Homer, our first poet, cheating when he composed The Iliad and The Odyssey? Most scholars agree that the story of Helen and the Trojan War had been around for a long time before Homer created the rivalry between Achilleus and Agamemnon, and the tale of Odysseus’ subsequent journey home to Ithaca. We don’t know for sure that they were even written by the same person. It is possible that The Iliad was “fan fiction” based on an oral tradition and that The Odyssey was “fan fiction” based on The Iliad!

Not to mention, as the Wall Street Journal article “The Weird World of Fan Fiction” reports: “Several publishing stars got their start in the genre [of fan fiction]. Meg Cabot, the best-selling author of the ‘Princess Diaries’ series, started writing ‘Star Wars’ fan fiction when she was 11 years old. Young-adult fantasy author Cassandra Clare, whose books about teenage demon hunters have sold 12 million copies, wrote Harry Potter and ‘Lord of the Rings’ fan fiction before she broke into professional publishing. Novelist Naomi Novik, who writes a best-selling fantasy series about dragons that’s set during the Napoleonic Wars, started writing ‘Star Trek’ fan fiction when she was a college student at Brown in the 1990s.”

Who knows? Maybe my students’ fanaticism for The Hunger Games could be a stepping stone. They could be the publishing darlings of 2027! So, ladies, “cheat” away!


I have a new article up today: “Why Your Kid Can’t Write.” It includes a few thoughts and theories on our current state of affairs and what you (or I) can do about it. I hope you find it helpful…and hopeful!


Everyone always talks about what makes for good writing. Well, I gave a 20-minute workshop at CHS last weekend on “How to Destroy a Piece of Classic Literature in 20 minutes or Less.” We took the opening passage from Willa Cather’s “O Pioneers!” and rewrote it in the worst way possible. This is what we learned about bad writing:

– Don’t use creative figurative language like personification.
– Don’t be specific when you describe things. If there are buildings in the town you are describing, don’t say what they are. Better yet, don’t mention them!
– If the story takes place in a certain era and in a certain place, don’t say specifically when or where.
– Leave out as many details as possible.
– Use boring verbs and only the most basic diction.
– Write like you talk, i.e. “some random guys.”
– Don’t use interesting details about the physical world to convey information (“There would not be another train until night.”). Just tell the reader the information.

Willa Cather used some awesome verbs in her passage, like anchored, curling, eddying, straying, huddled, straggled, flashed, and shivered.


“One January day, thirty years ago, the little town of Hanover, anchored on a windy Nebraska tableland, was trying not to be blown away. A mist of fine snowflakes was curling and eddying about the cluster of low drab buildings huddled on the gray prairie, under a gray sky. The dwelling houses were set about haphazard on the tough prairie sod; some of them looked as if they had been moved in overnight, and others as if they were straying off by themselves, headed straight from the open plain. None of them had any appearance of permanence, and the howling wind blew under them as well as over them. The main street was a deeply rutted road, now frozen hard, which ran from the squat red railway station and the grain elevator at the north end of the town to the lumberyard and the horse pond at the south end. On either side of this road straggled two uneven rows of wooden buildings: the general merchandise stores, the two banks, the drugstore, the feed store, the saloon, the post office. The board sidewalks were gray with trampled snow, but at two o’clock in the afternoon the shopkeepers, having come back from dinner, were keeping well behind their frosty windows. The children were all in school, and there was nobody abroad in the streets but a few rough-looking country men in coarse overcoats, with their long caps pulled down to their noses. Some of them had brought there wives to town, and now and then a red or a plaid shawl flashed out of one store into the shelter of another. At the hitch bars along the street a few heavy workhorses, harnessed to the farm wagons, shivered under their blankets. About the station everything was quiet, for there would not be another train until night.”

We, on the other hand, used two was’s and five were’s!


The wind was blowing through the town. The snow was falling on the houses. There were some houses. The dull houses were falling apart. There was a road that went through the town. People were in their houses. The kids were in school. Some random guys were in the street. Ladies were shopping. Cold horses stood in the street. No visitors came often.

Pretty bad, eh? We gave ourselves a round of applause. Thanks to all who participated!

One final note on the Catholic Homeschoolers of Georgia conference, which I had the honor of attending yesterday: On my website, I say that in the workshop, “teaching points arise organically.” Here is one good example of what that means.

Now I should have know that when I picked three kinds of magnetic poetry to bring to the conference — the haiku edition, the genius edition, and the zombie edition — it could make for some pretty crazy poems! Exhibit A:

Zombie poem written by a group of five very cool siblings

the vicious undead zombie
destroys the mindlessly wild world
an obtuse dandelion mushrooms grotesquely
she cried in mellifluous blood zeal

(I decided to replace “blood” with zeal to make it a little less scary!)

A group of five delightful siblings convened around my table, and we had a blast working on this poem together. We were trying out all kinds of combinations, when one of the children, Tom, put together the combination “mindlessly wild world” and said it aloud. All six of our faces lit up, and we all smiled and said, “Yeah!” So, there was the teaching point.

I asked them what they thought it was about that combination that made everyone react the same way, what it was in the language that we were all responding to. I pointed out the music in the words: the internal rhyme of long i’s in “mind” and “wild,” the alliteration with the w’s in “wild world,” and the consonance of the “ld” endings in “wild world,” not to mention the l’s and d’s in “mindlessly.”

THAT, I said, is poetry, and look: It came naturally once they started working with the words.

In a typical writing class, students might study the concepts first, reading famous poems that demonstrate them, and then attempt to apply the concepts by writing verse. There’s nothing wrong with that. It is one way to learn. But in a workshop, these things often happen naturally, and when you discover what it is that you did that made your writing “work” or “click,” there is something extremely satisfying about that.

Well done, Tom!

Soft Speakers, Powerful Writers

Posted: April 12, 2012

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Perhaps I am linking to this video because I, like many writers, consider myself an introvert. It is nice to feel validated. But I think it is also valuable from an education perspective.

Susan Cain gave a TEDTalk called “The Power of Introverts.” She explores why we tend to value extroverts in our society more than we value introverts, and she makes a case in favor of more freedom, privacy, and autonomy at work and in school.

Do you often like to go off and be alone? Do you think before you talk? Do people sometimes call you shy, even though you have no fear of people? Well, guess what? It’s okay to be quiet. It’s okay to speak softly. You probably aren’t shy. You’re just an introvert!

I think this video would be of interest to parents and students alike. Cain says, “Solitude is a crucial ingredient to creativity…Solitude matters. For some people it is the air that they breathe.” She believes people “need to work on their own, because that is where deep thought comes from.”

It is my hope that Ms. Scribbles’ Writing Workshop strikes that right balance between fostering independent work and allowing fruitful collaboration. Now, stop reading this blog and go be alone with your thoughts. Your own mind is far more interesting than anything you will find on the Internet!