Beat Writer's Block: A Brainstorming Bonanza

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Hands up if you see too many of your students sitting in front of a blank piece of lined paper and claim: “I don’t know what to write.”  I’m sure that statement is as frustrating for you as it once was for me.  Plus, I commonly found that the same students encountered the dreaded writer’s block plague and speaking with them to get the juices flowing applied a Band-Aid® to the problem, not a cure.  Well, writer’s block is real, and it happens sometimes to even the most proficient writers.  In my experience, fewer students suffer from an inspiration drought than those who simply lack the aptitude for brainstorming. 

To me, learning how to brainstorm is a critical skill to advance the writing process.  Students genuinely need direct instruction and allocated time to practice how to brainstorm.  Without teaching this skill, students are likely to deem it fruitless, skip to outlining, and eventually find themselves in a writing rut.  Let’s beat the block – writer’s block!

Here are some strategies to help make brainstorming a routine part of the writing process and classroom instruction:

Whole Class Pre-Brainstorm

When an essay topic/prompt is assigned, the first important step that is often taken for granted is understanding the question.  As young writers, students need great practice and scaffolding with this all-important writing skill.  I like to model for my students as I think aloud through the following steps: 

  • First, I show my students how to get into the habit of rereading the prompt more than once as they ask themselves, “What is the REAL question being asked?” 

  • Next, I teach students to annotate – to box key words and circle all the verbs; then we use those verbs as a roadmap to determine how to answer the question.  

  • I also have students underline or highlight any directions explicitly provided in the prompt. There are hidden clues in the prompt, so we need to find them!

  • Finally, I guide students to restate the question in their own words so they are completely clear about the writing task and ready to brainstorm.

I walk students through this process whole group for as long as I identify the need; eventually, I release the scaffold for students to attempt this pre-brainstorm independently.  Once there is unanimous clarity regarding the prompt, we brainstorm ideas related to the prompt as a whole group, and I record the class’ ideas.  For this part, you can pull kids to the carpet and record their ideas on chart paper, or have students remain in their seats while you project notes onto the board.

Road Map Brainstorm

For some students who struggle with the initial brainstorming session, it is very helpful to feed off a peer’s inspiration.  Sometimes that is enough to fuel their brains with creativity and direction.  Still, some students can readily fill their paper with ideas, but they struggle to avoid repetitive points or recognize relationships among their ideas.  You can beat the block by using brainstorming like a road map or GPS system that helps them to navigate ideas where they need to go. 

Give students time to brainstorm ideas on their own.  Students can make lists or even doodle their ideas all over the page.  Then have students use multi-colored highlighters or colored pencils and work in pairs (or small groups) to code and connect each other’s ideas.  Students can use arrows or circle related ideas, or even cross out ideas that are repetitive or off topic.  That’s where the colored markers also help peers review another student’s brainstorming page to sort and categorize their thoughts.  Finally, students can return to their brainstorm and more carefully organize their ideas using an outline or graphic organizer. 

Ready, Set, Brainstorm

Place students into small groups for a group brainstorm.  Each group needs to assign a recorder/scribe, and then when you set the clock for 5 minutes, students collaboratively brainstorm ideas.  Ready, Set, Brainstorm!  Don’t worry – this doesn’t invite mass chaos since we all know our students are not Olympic speed brainstormers.  Still, the timer serves as a motivator for students to generate numerous ideas.  Think of your students who get ‘stuck’ brainstorming independently— they will find more success working in a group, especially given a sense of urgency from the clock.  If your students respond to incentives, then you can certainly offer rewards for groups who generate the most ideas.  In fact, you can mimic the rules from the game Scattegories® and have students eliminate (or really check) ideas that repeat in each group.  Then, the group with the most distinct ideas can earn the prize.   

Brainstorming Tour

Create some brainstorming centers where each station features a different prompt, topic, or even narrowed topic. Provide each center with some chart paper, post-its, and colored writing utensils.  Students brainstorm ideas related to the given task, and they can feed off each other’s ideas using the various supplies provided.  Then students rotate from center to center; they can either build further from the ideas of their peers which is more challenging or students can use fresh chart paper with each rotation.  At the end of the class, students can go on a gallery walk of the centers to evaluate each completed chart paper, and then work as a whole group to discuss what students learned.

Brainstorming Tour

Similar to Brainstorming Centers, you might try a whole class Brainstorming Tour.    Divide students into small groups and assign a pre-selected color post-it pad for each group. Write a different essay topic or different main idea on pieces of chart paper and hang the chart paper around the classroom. Project the different essay topics/ideas on the board and provide students with time to brainstorm ideas to support the various topics either independently or in their small groups.  Then, instruct the students to go on their tour and place their post-it notes on the coordinating chart paper.  Once students finish, ask a member from each group to read the ideas aloud to the class.  Using post-its lends a lovely transition to pre-writing; students can manipulate the post-its and really organize their ideas with a visual and tangible process.  I like to keep the chart paper up around the classroom as a great resource for students as they delve deeper into their own writing. 

Bell-Ringer Brainstorm

When or if you notice that your students really need to develop their brainstorming skills, then perhaps your class would benefit from a weekly dose of practice.  Try incorporating brainstorming into your weekly bell ringer routine.  Pick a day and make that your Bell Ringer Brainstorm.  You can certainly provide students with a full prompt, but I prefer to simplify the exercise to get their minds working.  Provide students with a topic and have students brainstorm as many ideas as they can in a 3-5 minute window.  To make this activity even more engaging, students can work with partners or in small groups, garnering some friendly competition throughout the class.  Similar to the Ready, Set, Brainstorm strategy, students/groups only earn points for original ideas – not ideas that others wrote down as well. 

Trust me!  After a few weeks of implementation, your students will prove highly-engaged, work with greater enthusiasm, and generate richer and more creative ideas.  What’s more, students will gain the skill and confidence to transfer these skills to their independent writing tasks.

Utilizing one or more of these strategies will help students learn how to both expand and narrow a topic with focus and intention.  You can beat the block by making brainstorming a routine part of the learning day. 

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About the Author

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Emily has worked in education for over 15 years where she began her career teaching seventh and eighth grade English.  With a deep passion for writing and reading, Emily absolutely loved teaching middle school learners and helping them develop into critical thinkers.  Currently, Emily serves as an Assistant Principal (AP) in a K-6 charter school and while she misses her classroom, she absolutely adores her school and her leadership role.  Emily earned her Bachelor’s degree from Washington University in St. Louis and her Master’s in Education from Harvard Graduate School of Education.  Upon transitioning to her current position as AP, Emily also obtained a second Master’s degree in Educational Leadership from Florida Atlantic University.  Even as an administrator, Emily’s love for writing remains conspicuous; she mentors teachers and shares advice to enrich writing instruction at her school.  These experiences motivated Emily to launch Writing with Rosey, her TpT store.  In her free time, Emily enjoys crafting, time with loved ones, and cherishing every moment with her daughter.