Discover Success: How to Write Better Story Prompts for Students

Anyone who has ever taught creative writing is familiar with story prompts. They’re usually presented in the form of a What if? scenario where the protagonist meets with an unexpected event. For example: Mary wakes up as usual and prepares to go to school, but when she goes to get into her car, she finds it isn’t where she parked it yesterday! What does she do?

On the surface, this prompt seems to have everything necessary for the basis of a story: a protagonist whose expectations are defied by an unusual event. It is very likely that your students have received similar writing prompts to this one since they were in kindergarten. Sadly, it is prompts like these that are teaching students the wrong way to write stories.

The problem with What If? scenarios like these are they promote students to write externally, meaning they write a series of events that the protagonist reacts to. Reactions and unusual events are not enough to make a compelling story. Realize, I’m not criticizing my fellow English teachers. Let’s face it, creative writing is hard. We can teach our students how to master the metaphor and how to place each piece of punctuation perfectly, but the rules for making an engaging narrative are much more elusive than the rules of grammar. After all, if everyone knew the secret to writing a good story, we would all be best-selling novelists.
At this point you are probably wondering if it is even possible to learn much less teach something as ambiguous as what makes a good story. Thankfully, Lisa Cron, a professional story coach, has insight into what readers crave and expect whenever they pick up a book which can be explained through actual brain science. According to Cron’s research, when a person reads a book or even watches a movie, their brain activity mimics that of a participant rather than an observer. The evolutionary explanation for why our brains like to place us in the role of the protagonist is likely because stories were a survival technique for our early ancestors as stories allowed them to perceive and react to potential threats. We enjoy reading about people reacting to unusual events because our brain craves information that will help us adapt to new situations. So when we pick up a book and put ourselves in the shoes of a teenage girl trying to survive in a dystopian future, (think The Hunger Games), our brain releases dopamine, a neurochemical associated with reward behavior, as a way of saying, “Thanks! This information might help me in the future.”

What all this means is that in order for readers to get that dopamine rush that makes it difficult for them to put a book down, they need to be able to place themselves in the role of the participant. In other words, they need to know how the protagonist is reacting internally to the external events forced upon them. Our brains derive meaning from emotion. We cannot effectively perceive what the protagonist is going through unless we understand what she is feeling. If the hero of the story simply reacts to a series of chaotic and external events with no real emotion then the reader will only be an observer watching the events unfold, most likely with indifference.

According to Cron, the best way to instill emotion and an internal struggle into What if? story prompts is to ask your students, “What point are you trying to make with this story?” As simplistic as this sounds, young writers often forget that stories need a point, especially if they are on a deadline. By having the students focus on what point they want their story to make, they can more effectively write the internal struggle of their protagonist.
The point of their stories doesn’t have to be anything profound. For instance, going back to the story prompt of Mary and her missing car, suppose I want the point of my story to be that what we say can have significant effects on others. I could write a story about how Mary, age eighteen, is in charge of her fifteen year old brother while their mother is away on business for the week.  Mary has a huge argument with him the night before and when she sees the car is missing the next day, she naturally freaks out, thinking she drove her little brother to run away. And even worse, he doesn’t even have a learner’s permit yet! By effectively conveying Mary’s internal struggle involving her the fear and the guilt she feels for her actions, I immediately create a more compelling story than if I just wrote a series of events of how Mary reacted to the unusual event. Just remember, if your prompts only focus on the external, readers will also be external to the story.

Check out these resources to help your students with their creative writing!

What to Read When Teaching the Hero's Journey

In a previous blog post, I discussed how I teach the Hero’s Journey and a project that my students complete to demonstrate their understanding of it. Below are a list of novels, short stories, and poems which each have a protagonist set off on or forced into an adventure and change as a result of it, not necessarily for the better.

Novels
To Kill a Mockingbird: This story takes place in Maycomb, Alabama during the Great Depression when quality of life was low and racism was high. The story’s perspective is that of a little girl named Scout Finch who is forced into adventure when her father, Atticus, a prominent lawyer in the community, takes on a case to defend a black man who is accused of raping a white woman. The whole Finch family has to weather the backlash of Atticus’s decision which in turn leads to young Scout being educated in the essential goodness and evil of humanity.

Don Quixote: The protagonist of the novel is Don Quixote, a man so obsessed with fantasy novels of chivalrous knights that he sets out on a quest of his own imagining. Although Don Quixote is only a hero in his own mind, the series of misadventures he embarks upon leaves an impact on himself and the unfortunate people he forces his delusions upon.

Lord of the Flies: After a plane full of young boys crash lands on a deserted island, the protagonist, Ralph, is tasked with leading the group and ensuring their survival until help arrives. Life outside of civilization proves to be trying for the boys as baser instincts and the struggle for power begin to take hold of them. As the boys’ integrity and innocence begin to dissolve, Ralph learns of the savagery within himself and the rest of humanity.

Short Stories
A Sound of Thunder: This thrilling short story by Ray Bradbury tells of a group of hunters who travel back in time to hunt the ultimate prey, the Tyrannosaurus Rex. As with most adventures in time travel, the hunters’ actions have far reaching effects, educating them in the harsh lesson that even the smallest actions have consequences.

Marigolds: On the brink between child and woman, the protagonist, called Lizabeth by her brother, tries to come to terms with the reality of her impoverished life as a black girl living in rural Maryland during the Great Depression. Unable to cope with her helplessness and degradation, she sets out on an endeavor to destroy the only thing she had known to be beautiful, destroying her innocence in the process and spurring her on into adulthood.

Thank you, Ma’am: After a purse theft gone wrong, a boy named Roger is at the mercy of the indomitable Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones. Rather than call the police, Mrs. Jones drags Roger to her home to wash him, feed him, and then send him away with money along with an enduring lesson on choices and kindness.

Poems
The Odyssey: Homer’s epic poem is one of the oldest examples of the Hero’s Journey archetype. Odysseus, the protagonist of the epic, is a hero who after having fought in the battle of Troy wishes to return to his kingdom of Ithaca and to his wife Penelope. However, all manner of perils lie in his way including monsters, temptresses, and the wrath of an angry sea god. Unlike most Homeric heroes, Odysseus actually changes over the course of his journey, learning the importance of controlling his temper and pride.

The Epic of Gilgamesh: At the beginning of the epic, Gilgamesh is a hedonistic and ravenous king who rules his kingdom cruelly, but is soon changed after the gods bless him with a friend who is nearly a match for the god-king’s greatness, the beastman Enkidu. Together, Gilgamesh and Enkidu embark on fantastic adventures until Enkidu is struck with illness by the gods and perishes. Mourning his friend and fearing his own death, Gilgamesh embarks on a final adventure to achieve immortality but instead gains the closest to immortality that a mortal can hope for.

Inferno: The protagonist of the poem, Dante, must delve into the deepest pits of hell in order to reach heaven where Dante’s wife, Beatrice, awaits him. Through the horrifying yet vivid imagery of the underworld, Dante learns of the nature of justice as well as evil and God’s will.

If you are looking for a fun and engaging classroom activity, check out last week's blog post!

Teaching the Hero's Journey

Teaching the Hero's Journey in the Secondary ELA classroom.
One of my favorite lessons to teach in my short story unit is the Hero’s Journey. I enjoy teaching this lesson because I love seeing my students’ aha! moments - the moment when they get it, and they start making the connections between the content I am teaching and their favorite books and movies. Their faces light up, and faint chatter about Harry Potter, various Disney movies, and other stories slowly fills the room.


Teaching the Hero's Journey in the Secondary ELA classroom.
To introduce the Hero’s Journey, I first teach this Prezi by Laura Randazzo. I adore this Prezi because she makes the content completely accessible for the students. It provides relatable examples that the students know, and it also includes videos that show key events throughout the Hero’s Journey cycle.


After teaching the Prezi, I then show the Ted Ed video “What Makes a Hero?” by Matthew Winkler. This video is spectacular for a couple reasons. First, I love how it presents the Hero’s Journey in relation to a clock and a cycle. This visual sticks with the students. I also like how this video relates the notion of the Hero’s Journey to students in their everyday lives.


Once we go over the Prezi and video, we then read a short story and track the protagonist’s journey as a hero. Together, we identify each element of the Hero’s Journey cycle as outlined in the video and then discuss the qualities that make the character a hero. This helps me gauge whether or not my students are ready for the Hero’s Journey project. I have a graphic organizer in my Sticky Note Literary Analysis Unit.


The Hero’s Journey poster project is one of my favorite projects of the year. Students form groups of 2-3 and select a movie or book that they feel is a quintessential representation of the Hero’s Journey. Together, they discuss the movie and create a poster that represents all of the elements of the Hero’s Journey.

Teaching the Hero's Journey in the Secondary ELA classroom.

Teaching the Hero's Journey in the Secondary ELA classroom.

Teaching the Hero's Journey in the Secondary ELA classroom.
To conclude the assignment, I have students present their findings to the class so that they can practice their presentation and public speaking skills.


I usually give my students 2-3 days of class time to work in their groups.

This is the first of two blog posts that outlines how I teach the Hero’s Journey. The next post will be about short stories and poems that you can use in your classroom when teaching the Hero’s Journey.
Teaching the Hero's Journey in the Secondary ELA classroom.


Three Universal Themes Every High School Student Should Know

Three Universal Themes Every High School Student Should Know
As English teachers, we are in a unique position where we not only shape and refine students’ writing skills, but also, possibly, hopefully, their world view. We are able to do this because most of  the literary works crucial to our curriculum were written with the intention of inspiring profound and controversial thought. Here are three thought provoking themes that are essential to teach high school students.

Sometimes, in order to foster a student’s growth for the better, it is beneficial to show them a monster rather than a role model - an anti role model if you will. Showing examples of humanity’s inhumanity can be quite revealing in regards to our own character flaws. After all, oftentimes the reason we do not like someone is because we see an aspect of ourselves which we hate within them. In Elie Wiesel's novel, Night, Elie recounts his first hand experience as a prisoner in a concentration camp during the Holocaust. Aside from the infamous atrocities committed by the the Nazis, Elie recounts the noteworthy observation that cruelty breeds further cruelty. Fellow prisoners and even family members would betray and fight each other to bolster their own chances of survival. Studying cruelty and its effects can help students realize the consequences of their own actions, such as bullying and gossiping, and hopefully dissuade them from spreading cruelty themselves.

Novels with Inhumanity as a theme: Night, Animal Farm, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Lord of the Flies

There are many interpretations to how the American Dream is defined, but generally they all allude to the naive belief that an individual is guaranteed to achieve material wealth, success, and/or untarnished happiness through some combination of hard work, honesty, and morality. Regardless of the interpretation, the ideal of the American Dream profoundly shaped American values and culture, so much so that you may even want to coordinate lessons with whomever teaches History. It can be argued that immigration to America was largely motivated by the American Dream as it seemingly promised that anyone could achieve prosperity regardless of their social status, ethnicity, or nationality. However, many immigrants were disappointed to find that prejudice, amongst other barriers, limited their choices within the land of opportunity much like it did for the Lithuanian family in Upton Sinclair’s novel, The Jungle.

Another reason to study the American Dream is to show students how even ideals with the best intentions can be corrupted. After World War I, in the 1920’s era, many Americans became disillusioned with America’s traditional cultural values and morals after witnessing the widespread chaos and carnage. This disillusionment combined with the sharp upturn in the stock market after the war led to rampant hedonism. Noble ambitions fell out of fashion as Americans chased a new, perverted American Dream which revolved around attaining money and pleasure without the previous notions of honesty and morality. F. Scott Fitzgerald vividly portrays this period of excessive greed and vice in American history in his novel, The Great Gatsby.

Novels with the theme of the American Dream: The Jungle, The Great Gatsby, Of Mice and Men, Death of a Salesman

This theme is sure to strike a chord with students as they are all in their formative years and are still figuring out what they find to be meaningful as well as who they are as an individual. In my opinion, the most important lesson that can be gleaned from this theme is how potentially harmful it can be for someone to force an identity upon another. Most people have at one point in their life been a victim of such a crime; they’ve been called a nerd, or a jock, or a diva, or worse. Similarly, in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel, The Scarlet Letter, the protagonist, Hester Prynne, is forced to wear a badge identifying her as an adulteress as a means to humiliate her. In Ralph Ellison’s novel, Invisible Man, the narrator finds the development of his identity stunted by the emphasis everyone, including the people he considers to be his allies, places on his race. Students will likely find inspiration in the methods these characters employ to develop their identities while rebelling against societal forces which try to steal their identities from them.

Novels with the theme of self discovery are also helpful in giving students examples of pitfalls to avoid during their formative years. For instance in J.D. Salinger’s novel, The Catcher in the Rye, the protagonist, Holden, alienates himself from other people as a means to protect his identity, but his isolation proves to be harmful as most of Holden’s pain can be attributed to his loneliness and his inability to understand others. In Hemingway’s novel, The Sun Also Rises, most of the characters within the story do everything they can to distract themselves from developing their own identities, foregoing any form of self reflection in lieu of  drunkenness and other forms of escapism. As such, their lives are completely joyless and stagnant, the kind of lives we hope for the next generation to avoid.

Novels with the theme of Finding One’s Identity: The Scarlet Letter, Invisible Man, The Catcher in the Rye, The Sun Also Rises, Beloved
Three Universal Themes Every High School Student Should Know


Scaffolding the Literary Analysis Response


For several years now, I’ve watched students struggle year after year with the same concepts. They have a difficult time analyzing literature on a deeper level, and they also struggle with properly embedding their quotes. Rather than face the same struggles again this year, I anticipated the struggle and revised how I teach my students to read and write about short stories. It is working. Not only is it working, but it is working far better than I ever could have imagined. My students are understanding the stories more, and their analytical writing has improved leaps and bounds since the first assignment.

STEP 1: TEACH LITERARY DEVICES
I began my short story unit by directly teaching various literary devices and how to properly embed quotations. I also placed an emphasis on close reading with my Sticky Note Literary Analysis graphic organizers. Then, I started small with a super short story and an even shorter writing response.

STEP 2: ASSIGN A SHORT RESPONSE
We read Kate Chopin’s “Story of an Hour”, and I assigned my students this short, little three-sentence response writing assignment. While I expect more than three sentences from my students by the end of the year, I wanted to start short so that I could help remediate writing in an effective manner. Even though the written response was only three sentences long, it was no picnic in the park. I told my students that I would only assign 2 grades: an F (50%) and an A (100%). I only assigned two vastly different grades for this assignment because I wanted my students to continuously work toward the A. They had infinite chances to keep revising their response for full credit. I really focused on having students properly embed their quotations and provide insightful analysis.
STEP 3: PROVIDE IMMEDIATE FEEDBACK
Because the writing prompt is so short, I can quickly grade each student’s writing and provide meaningful feedback during the class period. The quick access to meaningful comments and feedback allows students to learn from their mistakes and grow as writers. Also, only needing to rewrite one or two sentences in a short response is far less intimidating than needing to rewrite an entire essay.

STEP 4: REPEAT THE 3-SENTENCE RESPONSE
Before moving on to a lengthier response, repeat the 3-sentence response a couple times. This way, students learn how to properly write literary analysis without being too overwhelmed with a major writing task. I did this two times with two different stories in my classroom, and it was a major game changer. Within the first two weeks of school, I the vast majority of my sophomores were writing thoughtful and intriguing literary analysis responses with properly embedded, cited, and explained quotations.


3 Skills I Teach With Nonfiction Text

I like to incorporate a lot of nonfiction in my curriculum. While I love fiction and make sure I include it in my instruction, I also firmly believe that studying, analyzing, and writing about nonfiction is vitally essential for today’s learners.

When I teach argumentation and nonfiction texts in my classroom, there are three skills that I intentionally teach toward the beginning of the unit: paraphrasing, quoting, and summarizing. While I believe that teaching specific rhetorical devices and strategies are important, I save those lessons for when my students are able to correctly paraphrase, quote, and summarize any piece of text.

Paraphrasing
In my opinion, I believe that paraphrasing text is a bit easier than summarizing text since it is essentially rewriting the entire text in one’s own words. One of the pitfalls in which most students fall victim to is failing to properly cite paraphrased text. This is because so many students assume that just because the text is in their own words that it is theirs, and this is not true. When I teach paraphrasing, I place great emphasis on the need to properly cite their research and the work they are paraphrasing to maintain credibility and avoid plagiarism.

Summarizing
When I teach summarizing, I place an emphasis on finding the main idea and supporting details in the text. When students summarize an article for me, they should always include the article title, author, the main message, and how the author delivers that particular message.

Quoting
One of the most challenging writing skills for students to master is how to properly embed quotations in their writing. When I teach students to embed quotes (whether from fiction or nonfiction) in their writing, I focus on having the students introduce the quote in their own words with a transition word or phrase and contextual information, and then complete the sentence with a quote that grammatically fits within the sentence. I tell my students their quotes should be seamlessly written into their papers, and that they should never begin a sentence with a quote.

When students know how to properly paraphrase, summarize, and quote text, they will have the skill set necessary to take rhetorical and textual analysis to a deeper and more meaningful level. Some great sites to access nonfiction text include CommonLit.org, NewsELA.com, and Listenwise.com.

In my classroom, I use these lessons to teach these skills to my students:




Introducing Complex Ideas to Students

I teach a lot of nonfiction in my junior-level and senior-level high school English classes, and oftentimes these nonfiction articles and speeches deal with new, complex topics. Before we read the article, I want to access my students’ prior knowledge on the topic, as well as get them thinking about the topic in an effort to properly prepare them to read and understand the text.


One such way to introduce new and complex topics to students is by having them create collaborative brainstorming posters. These posters are simple and require minimal preparation, but they generate excellent classroom discussion.


The materials you will need for this assignment:
  • Butcher or poster paper
  • Markers


To complete a collaborative brainstorming poster in class, have students get into groups of three to five students. Each group will get one piece of butcher paper, poster board, or chart paper. Each member within the group will select one color marker that they will use for the entire project.


Instruct students to write the topic in large print in the middle of the paper, and then have each student contribute to the poster using the color they’ve chosen. Each student will be responsible for contribution to the poster, and the marker colors help keep students accountable.


Each student in the group will be responsible for adding the following items to the poster in their selected marker color:
  • the definition of the word/concept in their own words
  • 2 or 3 traits of that concept
  • A person who embodies or exemplifies the concept
  • A famous quote related to the concept


I give my students about 15 minutes to form groups and complete this task. The posters do not need to be perfect, final drafts. Instead, they should be a starting-off point that introduces the topic to the students. Once they are done with the posters, I have students groups present their posters, with one or two students from each group sharing various elements of their poster.

To maximize the benefits these posters provide, I put them up on the classroom walls and refer back to them throughout the rest of the unit when we discuss the article.

Why I Teach the Parts of Speech in High School

When we read over and begin grading our students’ writing assignments for the first time in a new school year, we are able to assess their writing capabilities.Within a matter of a few sentences, we can see if a student is a struggling writer, or if writing comes more naturally to them. After reading, analyzing, and grading student writing over the past several years, I’ve come one big conclusion: the reason why some students struggle with their writing is because they do not understand the basics of how to form a sentence.
Throughout my years teaching, I’ve worked at two different high schools with two different student populations. No matter what a student’s language, cultural background, or socioeconomic status is, if they have a difficult time writing, it is more than likely due to the fact that they do not know the parts of speech and how and when to use them properly.

Students are taught the various parts of speech early on in grade school. While I think it is necessary to teach students the parts of speech early on in their academic careers, I also feel that it is essential to continuously teach and review parts of speech with middle school students and even high school students.

If a high school student knows what a noun, pronoun, verb, conjunction, adjective, and adverb are and how and when to use them effectively, that student is more likely to be a good writer. Knowing the basic parts of speech, even if it seems like an elementary concept, is so crucial for high schoolers, that I continue to teach and review parts of speech with my high schoolers. Whether I spend one day reviewing parts of speech or many weeks teaching and reviewing parts of speech, I always see an improvement in student writing.

So, the real solution to this problem is simple. We don’t need to worry about parallel structure, active and passive voice, and tone just yet. Let’s review and teach the parts of speech to our middle school and high school students, and really begin to see their writing improve. Sometimes, we just have to get back to the basics to see true growth. And for writing, those basics are teaching and reinforcing the parts of speech.

Here are some age and content-appropriate resources and tools to help you teach and review parts of speech in your classroom.

This teaching bundle has everything a secondary ELA teacher could possibly need to teach parts of speech. For each part of speech, there is a separate unit that contains an editable PowerPoint presentation to use for direct instruction, a secured-PDF file with pretests, student reference sheets, practice worksheets, and a final assessment.

This is a fun and interactive teaching resource that engages students and they review the parts of speech. This mini flip book can be used on its own or as part of an interactive notebook.
You may also want to see my Pronouns Mini Flip Book

Unlike many parts of speech tasks cards out there, these task cards are age-appropriate for middle school and high school students. The last thing we want to do is offend the teenagers in our rooms with childish educational resources meant for third grade. There are two different sets of task cards in this resource, and each set has 40 unique cards. With 80 task cards total, this resource can be used for several days.
You may also want to see my Pronouns Task Cards

NoRedInk.com
Teachers can create free account on NoRedInk.com to help students learn grammar. There are a couple different sections and lessons that focus entirely on parts of speech alone.


Chromebook Storage and Organization in the Secondary ELA Classroom

Storing and organizing Chromebook carts in the classroom.
Whether you currently have Chromebooks in your classroom, are about to get Chromebooks for your classroom, or are just beginning to research how to integrate Chromebooks and digital lessons into your classroom, one thing you will definitely want to research is Chromebook storage and organization.

As an early adopter of using Chromebooks in the classroom, I’ve had quite a few years of experience storing and organizing my Chromebooks carts (and my fair share of failed routines and procedures).

Storing and organizing Chromebook carts in the classroom.When it comes to deciding on a storage and organization strategy for your classroom Chromebook carts, two of the most important things are consistency and accountability. You want to begin the year with a strong routine that will remain consistent throughout the entire year, and you also want your students to be held accountable for properly storing and using the Chromebooks.
After a couple years of trying different Chromebook policies in my classroom, I’ve finally found one that works best for me in my classroom. While I love the idea of keeping the Chromebooks out on the tables all day long because it saves valuable instructional time, students lose their personal accountability and responsibility in doing so. They do not have any ownership over a specific device, which makes it a bit more tempting for students to not be as careful with the devices.
Instead, I have my students take out their Chromebooks out of the cart and put them back in the cart each class period. It takes a little bit of initial set-up and practice, but for me, it is the best way to manage my classroom set of Chromebooks.
To begin with, I have two Chromebooks carts in my classroom with 20 Chromebooks each. I labeled each cart a different color, and within each cart, each Chromebook has two different labels: a label with a number and a label with a student’s name from each class period who is assigned to that particular Chromebook. I store each of my carts on opposite ends of the room. Students sitting on the north side of the room only use the north cart, and likewise for students sitting on the south side of the room and the south cart.
Storing and organizing Chromebook carts in the classroom.
I assigned my students to Chromebooks for personal accountability. Each student has a color and number assigned to them. Not only are they responsible for the Chromebook during that class period, but they are also responsible for putting away their assigned Chromebook in its designated space. Assigning Chromebooks to students, rather than having them use any Chromebook in the cart, helps me to know who is putting their Chromebooks back correctly, and it even reduces how quickly germs spread.  Instead of all 150 plus of my students touching all of the devices, only five of them touch a single one.
For the set-up, I purchased color dot stickers. I labeled each Chromebook with a particular color dot, and then I wrote the number on the dot. Then on the bottom of the Chromebook, I typed a label with each student’s name for all class periods on it –that way I know exactly who has the Chromebooks without having to go to my teacher binder.
On days we use the Chromebooks in class, students take out their designated Chromebook as they walk into the classroom. When we have about five minutes remaining in class, I have my students start putting their Chromebooks back in the carts so that all Chromebooks are back and accounted for before the bell rings.