In a recent coaching session with some teachers at my school, on the topic of writing, I was asked what I thought the most important part of writing was to teach to students. I immediately said, “organization.” Full stop. When I had a moment to breathe and walk through with the participants a few more of their questions, I found myself changing my mind. Now I said, “Hold on, ideas are actually the most important thing to teach. How to come up with and to cultivate good ideas is the most important thing. Ideas are the beginning of the writing process. No idea. No writing. Of course, there are, though, ideas and good ideas.”
I’m not sure that is the definitive answer, for the sake of this writing, though, let’s go with that. A good idea makes everything else about the writing easier. Not easy, but easier. It will guide the organizational structure, and help to define your audience. When you have a good idea, the format for your writing can take shape and a process for “showing what you know” or motivation for researching more information gets sparked. Good ideas make writing easier. To that end here is one way that I help students take an idea from speck to spectacular…or at least workable.
In one of my favorite books about writing by Kelly Gallagher, Write Like This, the author proposes a quick matrix for recording students’ ideas along a spectrum of possible genres, creating a “topic generator.” I loved this idea! So of course, I had to put it on steroids. I married this idea of creating a matrix for logging ideas to another of my favorite strategies, RAFTS. The result is a matrix that encapsulates a number of ideas for students to access during a variety of writing experiences.
Teaching your students where to get ideas from and how to cultivate their ideas into topics they can write about is an important part of a robust writing culture in your classroom. Real writers don’t constantly or exclusively work from prompts, so helping your students take an idea to the next level is critical to building a focused, rigorous writer’s workshop experience, independent writing session or student centered summative writing exercise. Assisting your students to develop strong ideas and topics gives them the skills they need to step off the writing process on the right foot.
Here is a peek at the Idea and Topic Generator that I developed. You can create a similar one with the categories that meet your students’ needs or you can nab mine at our TPT store: (Writing Idea and Topic Generator)
Tips for use:
With young/emergent writers, utilize your document camera and/or smart board to project the idea generator and fill in, as much as the traffic will bear, in small groups or whole group. It is less important to fill the whole thing in than to model for students, that writers will visit and revisit an idea many times to tweak and refine the focus and elaborate on other aspects of an idea as they research, gain knowledge and reflect on their own experiences. You don’t need to generate products all at once, either. Students/the class can save ideas for later when an idea is needed and they don’t have one at the ready. Revisiting old ideas and looking at them with new eyes is an important writing practice.
With older/experienced writers, begin initially by modeling how the idea generator works with your own idea. This can happen in a general writing session or related to a unit or theme that the class is currently studying. Once the students are proficient in their understanding of how the generator works, they can begin to use it independently. Again, it is less important to fill the whole thing in than to model for students, that writers will visit and revisit an idea many times to tweak and refine the focus and elaborate on other aspects of an idea as they research, gain knowledge and reflect on their own experiences. You don’t need to generate products all at once, either. Students can save ideas for later when an idea is needed and they don’t have one at the ready.