This is my first year teaching high school creative writing, and at the beginning of the year, I wasn’t entirely sure what to do, or how to do it. I’d only ever taught college-level fiction workshops and I knew the same approach wouldn’t work with younger students and a ten-month class, so I have kind of trial-and-errored my way through the year, and am pretty pleased with how things have turned out.
I decided to structure my class by spending about 4-6 weeks on each of the following: General intro to literary devices/elements of craft (voice, POV, imagery, etc), fiction, poetry, drama, and creative nonfiction. After giving them a basis for creative writing and touching on the four genres, I’ve started providing prompts and letting them choose how– which genre– they use to respond to them. We do a lot of casual in-class writing to get the juices flowing and to flex the creative muscles, and then every couple of weeks I have them choose an in-class assignment that they want to turn into a more finished, polished piece. It’s been working well so far. (The students were all shocked at how much they liked writing plays, which was a fun unit.) I’ve used excerpts from Imaginative Writing by Janet Burroway and Making Shapely Fiction by Jerome Stern.
Needless to say, we use a LOT of exercises and prompts, so over the months I’ve figured out which ones have worked and which ones haven’t. I’ve pulled them from all over– some I’ve straight-up stolen from other teachers I’ve either studied under or worked with, some I’ve yoinked from the internet and tailored, some I’ve come up with on my own.
Here are some favorites. Some only work for one genre, some can work for any.
1) Literary Telephone: Have each student write a brief descriptive paragraph, then pass it to the person on their left. Have that person translate the paragraph into boring, nondescriptive language, and fold the sheet down to cover the original paragraph. Pass to left; have the person fill in the descriptions. Wash, rinse, repeat, etc until it’s gone around the entire circle and is back to the original author. Have them read the first paragraph and the last one, and see how things have changed.
2) Mixing Up Metaphors: As a class, put every overused metaphor or simile you can think of on the board (quick as a fox, strong as an ox, cold as ice, swift as a river, etc). Then, erase the last word and replace it with something unexpected (quick as an ER waiting room, strong as a diamond, cold as a doctor’s hands, etc). It’s a fun exercise and teaches students to avoid cliches.
3) Raising Voices: Write down a character’s name, age, and occupation; give a character to each student. Have them write a first-person monologue in the voice of that person. (Example: Lisa Topaz, 46, Green Peace Organizer; what does this character sound like? What about Susie Johnson, 4, preschooler, or Jonathan Miller, 63, preacher?)
4) Bait and Switch: Write a flash fiction piece about an argument between a mother and a daughter. Almost every time, students will write about it from the viewpoint of the daughter. Then, have them re-write it from the viewpoint of the mother.
5) Life is Not Like a Box of Chocolates: Replace “chocolates” with something they do think life is like, and write about why.
6) Red Bicycles, Blue Seas: Pick a color and write about a memory associated with that color.
7) Triptych: Choose three physical objects you own, and write a flash piece about why each one is important to you. Don’t try to connect the flash pieces to one another.
8) Found Poetry: Have students bring their cameras to school and spend a class period walking around the campus (or surrounding town, if possible), taking pictures of signs, labels, notes, etc that they come across. Compile the words and phrases into a list, and have them construct poems using nothing but those words and phrases. For an extra challenge, give them a topic their poem has to be about (love, the environment, passing of time, loss, etc). Also optional: Creating a collage from the pictures they took that tells the poem.
9) Four-Sense Food Sonnets: Blindfold each student and hand them a plastic sandwich baggie with food in it. (I used kiwi slices, peanuts, chocolate-covered raisin, pickles, and stuff like that– be sure to check for food allergies and restrictions first.) For five minutes, they should taste, smell, feel, listen to their food items without knowing what they look like. After five minutes, they can take off the blindfolds and write sonnets about their foods, being as descriptive as possible but without including a physical description.
10) No-Send Letters: Write a letter (or letters) to someone (or someones) that you know you’ll never send.
11) In Transit: Write about a time you (or a character) were walking, flying, running, or biking somewhere, why it was important, and what you (or the character) were feeling as you moved.
12) This I Believe: Write an essay, fiction piece, or poem based on the NPR series.
13) Fill in the Blanks: “I think the world needs more of _____________” or “I think the world needs less of __________________”. You can take the serious route (more love, patience, compassion), the absurd (more air fresheners, hamsters, pencil sharpeners), devil’s advocate (serial killers, discrimination, etc), or anything else. Use your answer as the first line of an essay, fiction piece, or poem.
14) Dr. Farsnworth, A Chiropodist….: Print off copies of the poem “Dr. Farnsworth, A Chiropodist, Who Lived in Ohio, Where He Wrote Only the First Lines of Poems” by Tom Andrews (available in his collection Random Symmetries, or online, although I don’t think I can provide the link here for legal reasons). Take one of the first lines, and continue it into a story or poem; if you get bored with that one, choose another.
15) Something Beautiful, Something Ugly: This one takes about three class periods. For the first one, freewrite on what you think makes something beautiful and what you think makes something ugly (half the class period for each). For the second one, let loose in the school or go outside, and turn on your “macro” lenses to look at as many tiny details as possible, taking extensive notes as you do so. For the third, focus on the objects you took notes on and write two creative responses, one on something beautiful and one on something ugly that you found.
16) Write About Names: Where yours came from, or where you wish it came from. Who you’re named after. Who your father, mother, neighbor is named after. Odd names. Nicknames. Street names. Family names. What you wished you were named. Why they’re important, why they’re not important. Write about names.
17) Have them write a creative response to this:
18) Or this:
19) Or this:
20) You can also ask specific questions about visual prompts, such as: Who is the man in the picture frame on the left, or what is the helicopter looking for? What are the woman in yellow and man in white talking about under their umbrellas? What is the woman in the last picture thinking?
21) Write a letter to your future self.
22) Write a letter to your past self.
23) How the World Began: Peruse animated creation myths from around the world via The Big Myth website, then write your own.
24) Write about an emotion without stating the emotion. Avoid stereotypical responses to the emotion as well; if you character is sad, convey it in a different way than making them cry, or if they’re happy, show it some way besides them smiling or laughing.
25) Long Division: Write a flash piece where two characters are splitting something between them; it can be a record collection, an inheritance, Thanksgiving dinner leftovers, or anything else. Do they both want it; do neither want it? Are there old rivalries between the characters or backstories to the items themselves? What is causing the tension?
26) Colorful Writing: Pick up a bunch of free paint cards from Lowes or Home Depot. Spread them out on a table. Have students choose one; whatever paint sample they choose, they have to use the name of that color (which is usually kind of ridiculous or unexpected) as the title to a short story, poem, or essay.
27) The Very Recent Noel: Re-tell a famous Christmas story using modern-day celebrities and public figures as the characters. This can be a short story, narrative poem, or play.
28) Write a flash fiction piece for each shape/some of the shapes in Stern’s Making Shapely Fiction. I did this around Halloween and had the additional caveat that they had to be “horror” flash fiction pieces (campy rather than truly scary was always welcomed, too).
So there you have it. Undoubtedly you’ve seen some of these before, but hopefully there were some new ideas too. (Also, if I stole one of your prompts, forgive me; I’ve taken them from so many different sources that I have no idea where any of them came from any more. This is just a compilation.) If you have any new exercises or prompts to add, feel free to leave them in the comments– I’d love to hear them and stock pile for next year’s class.