How to fill 70 minutes of in-class writing time?
September 10, 2008 2:08 PM   Subscribe

Help a freshman comp teacher out! I need a fun writing exercise to fill 70 minutes of class time.

I'm teaching freshman comp. The students are not stellar but they're all right, though most of them hate writing (and see it as drudgerous and formulaic). The three main assignments I have to give them this semester include a process essay (basically a how-to article), a short research paper, and an essay on a novel. We also have a textbook but they seem to hate it, and I can't say that I blame them much.

Tomorrow we have a fairly free day; on the syllabus I inherited, it just says "in-class writing exercise." Actually it says "timed writing exercise." Either way, I need to fill 70 minutes of class time with writing, or writing and group work...and I'd like to make it fun, because we haven't been having enough fun in class lately, and I think that anything I can get them to do to enjoy writing and use it to explore their thoughts and feelings will be useful.

Any comp-teacher ideas?
posted by toomuchkatherine to Education (16 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Ever heard of the Book of Questions? It's had many iterations since I was teaching, but the main gist is that it is full of open-ended questions like: "Would you go without bathing for a month (no showering or brushing your teeth), if at the end of the month you would get a million dollars? Why or why not?" Or "If you could commit a crime with the assurance of knowing you would never get caught, would you?" Ninety-nine percent would have fun making a crime up, the other would delight in being superior and explaining why they would never even consider breaking the law, if only to impress the teacher. Another one was, I think, "If the world was ending, what three things (or one, or two, or five, whatever) would you want to do before you died?"

Those are just examples, but the point is to give your writers a starting-off place to get them writing, and just go free with their creativity and write, without an outline or rough draft or the drudgery that comes with some compositions.

What I'm suggesting is that you find a creative topic and just let them roll with it. I had a lot of success, during my internship with high school students, with having them imagine life as a superhero when he/she isn't out saving the world, maybe in a relationship, or growing older and having problems because of his/her powers.

So, summing up (my answer has become a composition exercise in itself, sorry!): open-ended question, let them run wild.
posted by misha at 2:33 PM on September 10, 2008

Try bringing in a really short article, and discuss tone, diction, audience, et cetera-- have them rewrite the article for different purposes. Think Queneau's Exercises in Style. Take ideas like "reportage," or "anger," or "cross-examination," and have them rewrite all or part of the passage in that style. It's fun, allows them to flex their writing muscles, and teaches them different registers for different audiences.
posted by exlotuseater at 2:38 PM on September 10, 2008

Two ideas:

1) Write your own obituary. Make it as real or as fake ("John Smith was a lion-tamer and the 17th man on the moon...") as you want.

2) On a whiteboard, write the disjointed, unorganized, nuts-and-bolts details of a fictional news story, and ask them to write a 300-word newspaper article for it.


"An accident occurred. It happened yesterday. Today is Tuesday. The accident was a car accident. It happened in Murfreesboro where Main Street and Broad Street intersect. One person was killed. The person was John Frazier. He was 20 years old and lived in Murfreesboro at 212 Moore Court. He was driving a blue 1998 Ford Mustang. He was driving northwest on Broad Street at about 5 p.m. He lost control of the car. It was raining, and the road was slick. He was also driving about 20 mph over the speed limit. He was the only one in the car. The car smashed into a utility pole along Broad Street. The impact crushed the whole front of the car. Frazier was thrown through the car's windshield. He landed on the pavement some 20 feet away. He wasn't wearing a seat belt. He was killed instantly."
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 2:56 PM on September 10, 2008

More details about #2.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 2:57 PM on September 10, 2008

Here's a multi-part exercise I've particularly enjoyed (though it's a little more appropriate to creative writing than academic writing, perhaps it's something you could adapt?). Depending on your time limits, you can stop after any particular section.

Divide them into groups of 4 or 5.

Part 1. Give them each X minutes to write a letter to an advice columnist about a problem with another person. It doesn't need to be a real problem, it doesn't need to be a real advice columnist.

Part 2. Have them pass their questions off to the person on their left. Give that person X minutes to write the advice columnist's reply.

Part 3. Give the first letter to the person to the left of the person who wrote the reply (but not the reply!). Have them re-write the first letter from the perspective of the other person. So, for example, if the first letter was a girlfriend complaining about how her boyfriend never says I love you, the second letter might be from the boyfriend complaining that his girlfriend demands constant shows of affection, and he's not a demonstrative person.

Part 4. Give just the second letter to the fourth person. Have them write a second reply from the advice columnist.

Everyone in the group has now written a first letter, a reply to someone else's first letter, rewritten someone's first letter, and written a reply to someone else's rewritten letter.

Part 5. Compare and contrast the resulting columns that are based on the same first letters. How different are they? What elements of the two letters, ostensibly covering the same facts, led to the two very different replies? Did the two letters capture the voice and tone of the people they were supposed to be from? How fairly did each present the hypothetical situation?

You can compress this into two rounds plus analysis by giving scenarios out in the first place. Give two people in the group one scenario, and assign one of them to write one character's perspective and one of them to write the other character's perspective. The other pair of people in the group should be doing the same thing with a different scenario. Then in a single step, they can trade across their letters to the other pair to be answered. This kind of breaks down if you don't have evenly divisible by four groups of people, though, while in the first scenario, you can actually add one more person to a couple of groups without major difficulty -- you just end up with an extra 'problem' in those groups.
posted by jacquilynne at 3:31 PM on September 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

You could give the class a set of events. Break the class into groups. Have each group tell/write the same story, with the temporal order of the events the same, but the order in which they are told different, for stylistic effect. Example: Three events, in order are, 1. Mary went to the store. She yelled at her friend crossing the street. A car came and almost hit the friend.

Group one has to tell the story with the events revealed in the order they occured.
Group two has to tell the story with the last event revealed first (even though it happened last).
Group three has to tell the story with the middle event (yelling at the friend) first.

Then compare. What effect does the revealing of events have on the framing of the story? Why would one choose to order things in one order versus another? How does this effect credibility, drama, objectivity of the story? What opportunities for stylistic choices do each allow?
posted by iamkimiam at 3:31 PM on September 10, 2008

Ask the following question: "When you were 5, what did you want to be when you grew up?" Have them write down the answer but don't tell them anything else.

Then have them write about their life as if that dream had come true.

We did this as a sort of throwaway assignment once, and I had to write about my life as a Solid Gold Dancer.
posted by peep at 3:34 PM on September 10, 2008 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: LOL, Peep. Thanks for the great answers everyone.
posted by toomuchkatherine at 3:47 PM on September 10, 2008

A short and quick one....Imagine you are four inches tall for a day....What is your world like?
posted by bjgeiger at 7:18 PM on September 10, 2008

Here's one I used to do with my Freshman Comp. classes although I could really only do it every few years (you'll see why in a minute):

- If you have a "first 5 minutes" writing routine in your classroom, get your students writing in their journals. I would have my students writing in their journals about a topic / question / "If...question (see the first comment here) before the bell would ring. This routine plays excellently into what's about to happen...
- If you're friendly with two other teachers, recruit them to be players in this exercise.
- Have them stage a full-blown row in your classroom's doorway about some topic that comes up. Screaming. Yelling. Mild cursing. Have one of them throw something relatively harmless at the chalkboard to make the row even more exciting. An eraser thrown in (pretend) anger works well. So does a paperback novel.
- I promise you that after the first few seconds, not one of your students will be writing in their journals. They'll be transfixed by the argument in your doorway. The more gasps, the better...
- the argument should only last about 10-15 seconds but should be *intense*
- have the two players leave your doorway. You should follow them out.
- the three of you return after just a few seconds where you explain to the now rather excited freshmen that this was a staged event. Have the two players leave immediately after this.

"But why!" they'll demand...

So here's where you can develop whatever exercise you'd like. In it's simplest form, it could be a lesson in viewpoint or perspective. If every student writes down a description of the event (encourage them to be as descriptive as possible), I bet that you'll get very different narratives. It can be an important lesson showing the sometimes (often?) unreliability of the eye-witness account. "But, I'm *positive* that Ms. Pawley was wearing a blue shirt." But, it was a green shirt, etc.

You might have your students create a fictional backstory about the argument. If you're teaching a creative writing class, encourage them to build characters based on the two people having the argument. Make it a requirement that their story end with the argument in the doorway. You'll be surprised, I think, of some of the stories that come from this. Every 9th grader likes to write stories about their teachers. It can be a great deal of fun.

You might use it as a way to teach or reinforce the idea of conflict, which drives virtually all fiction as you're aware. Showing students how something tangible from their lives (teachers they are familiar with) can be connected to an intangible idea like conflict is a valuable lesson.

Enjoy this one if you do it. It was one of my favorite writing exercises to teach.
posted by at 8:09 PM on September 10, 2008 [2 favorites]

One of my favorite-ever writing exercises involved a professor handing out a picture cut from a magazine and telling us to write something about the pictures that were handed out at random.

I returned the favor later by sending her pictures she could use in future classes.
posted by tejolote at 9:42 PM on September 10, 2008

I took a class based on writing fictional biographies in college. Read a short story, then write a (related or non-related) story from the narrator or some character's perspective. Original idea and fun as an exercise, although it was a bit much for an entire semester.
posted by sophist at 10:24 PM on September 10, 2008

Bring in several random objects, the weirder or sillier the better. Have them write a story that incorporates all the objects.

Similar: assign each student to bring in a random object which has sentimental value or a goofy/interesting story associated with it in their lives, and tell them to be prepared to write about it. BUT when they arrive to class, have them pass the object to the person next to them -- each person must now make up a "personal" anecdote or backstory based on someone else's object (as if it were their own). Later, students may compare the "true" stories with the invented ones. They may also discuss their invented stories and how they came up with them, which bits came from real life and which are made up, etc.

Have one student start a story by writing ONE sentence. Pass it to the next person, who adds another ONE sentence, etc. all the way around the room (perhaps several times). Since they're just writing one sentence every few minutes, this can be done while they're working on another personal assignment.

Give them a writing prompt with some weird or challenging constraints. For example "Write a eulogy for a fictional baseball player. Every sentence must contain EXACTLY six words." Or "every sentence must begin with the next letter in the alphabet (e.g. first sentence starts with A, second starts with B, third with C, etc.). Last word must not be Zebra." Or "Every sentence must have at least one word with a q" in it. Or "Every sentence must have 3 alliterative words OR a word that ends in "tion."

Another short assignment -- maybe have them write several of these based on specific prompts: write an entire story using only 6 words (saw the idea here, not sure where it originated).
posted by Alabaster at 11:09 PM on September 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

In my last writing class we were given 3 "prompts" and an option to write in one of three styles (describe the prompt, summarize the prompt, respond to the prompt). The three prompts were:

a comic from the newspaper (Zits)
a movie poster
a newspaper article about drunk driving.
posted by blue_beetle at 12:04 AM on September 11, 2008

One of my favorite-ever writing exercises involved a professor handing out a picture cut from a magazine and telling us to write something about the pictures that were handed out at random.
posted by whatzit at 3:39 AM on September 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

One of my favorite writing exercises was to turn an inanimate object into a speaking, personified thing. It was disappointing to see how unimaginative some people were, but occasionally someone thinking outside the box would blow me away.

Bad, typical examples: cars, trains, toasters, anything already done by Disney
Good examples: pinky finger, tampon (gross, but good!), a cloud
posted by camworld at 6:44 AM on September 11, 2008

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