I don’t know what to write. Really? Really.

Do you say this as you sit down to write every now and then, or when you create your demo writing for a minilesson?  Do you have students that tell you this on a regular basis in K-2 classrooms?  I hope these tips from some of my favorite writing teachers help you today.

#1:  A little empathy goes a long way. 

My mom says, “First, be easy on yourself.  You are not alone.”  So I tell kids, “I have felt this very same feeling.  When I start a new writing project, I sometimes feel like I don’t know what to write and then, after a minute or two, I get an idea.  I use some strategies to help.  So, right now, let’s reread the strategies we have used in the past to get ideas.   You can choose the one that works best for you.”

#2:  Write to give a gift. 

I often ask kids a question that Carl Anderson taught me.  He asked us in his study group to consider the question, “Why are you writing this?  Who is it for?”  I ask this question often when kids are beginning a writing project and considering the audience often helps them structure their piece and add the details their readers need.  For example, if a child is writing a book about dogs for his cousin who just got a dog, he may decide that he needs a chapter on training, and another chapter on bathing.  If kids need help finding an audience, I suggest some other kids in the class, other people who work at school or their family members.  The school nurse was a popular recipient of books from my students one year.  The kids decided that the nurse’s office should have some good writing in it to lift the spirits of sick kids.

I think we can also apply these questions and this suggestion of writing to make a gift to kids who are striving to find a topic.  We can ask, “What could you make?  Do you want to make a gift for someone?  Who?” 

#3:  Become your classroom book agent.  Point out books that MUST be written.

If your students write about the same topics over and over again (and it feels like it is not only the same topic but the same story over and over again), then help them find more stories hiding in those beloved topics.

In her book Small Moments, Abby Oxenhorn taught me to go out to the playground with kindergarten kids to help them name stories that happen during recess.  I watch them play and then when there is a lull, I just walk over and say things like,

“Oh wow, I just watched you help your friend go across the monkey bars.  If you are looking for a story of kindness and victory to write later today, that would be a good one.  I can just see the picture of the two of you on the bars on page one right now.” 

Then, when we I get back to the classroom I can say something like this,

“Wow Friends.  I captured at least ten stories on the playground today.  There was the great chase story of the game of tag I saw with Nick and Farai.  And then there was a monkey bar kindness story with Lola and Kim.  I also saw the story of leaf collecting with James and Jordy.  There were so many stories on the playground today.”

I have also offered cover pages to a class after recess so they can dream up titles for stories they may write later (just simple colored paper).  I say, “Oh wow, now that you have a cover page for that book, you will have to write it!”  This tried and true playground activity always seems to help my students go deep with a topic they love – the playground or the park.  And it shows them they can do this with any topic.

#4:  Find a Mentor.

My colleagues at chartchums taught me to use mentor text to support topic choice.  I like to carry around a few books with me to help inspire some new writing ideas.  Some of the books I use in K-2 are Knuffle Bunny, Salt Hands, and Those Shoes.  I say to kids,

“If you are searching for a writing idea, maybe one of these authors will inspire you.  Remember Knuffle Bunny?  It was a story about losing something dear and it was also a story about the first time Trixie did something.  You could write a story about a time when something like that happened to you.  Or, remember the Those Shoes? The character really wanted something.  You might have a story like that in your life where you really wanted something.  Maybe that is a book you’d like to write today.  And, oooh, Salt Hands, that was a book where something really unexpected and beautiful happens.  Do you have a story you can write where something surprising happened to you? Maybe one of these authors will inspire you.”

#5:  You are the best writer in the room!  Write every day with the kids.  It is inspiring.

I remember when Carl Anderson told me this.  It was the reminder I needed that my demo writing matters and I need to be sure I am writing with volume and varied topic choice myself.  Every year I try my best to write stories and information books about different topics.  This post on my blog highlights some of the demo writing I have done in K-2 classrooms.  I try to make the stories include different people, different places, and different emotions.  Not every story needs to have a happy ending.  I find this is helpful for writers who need the go-ahead from me to write stories or books that they may have been reluctant to write earlier.  My own demo writing includes stories from my childhood where I was teased, stories where I tried something for the first time, and stories that have funny parts.  I think it is important to show kids variety.  They will follow the teacher’s lead.

Sarah Picard Taylor is a Staff Developer with the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project and author of the book, Teaching Persuasive Writing, K-2.  She has worked with teachers across the United States and owes so much of her learning to the teachers and students beside her each day.  She can be found on her blog, readwriteandplay.blogspot.com and on Twitter at @Read_Write_Play.