Every other Wednesday for two years, I called together a group of disaffected youth to write and talk and think together. We would move desks into a little huddle, allowing the kid who could solve Rubix cubes with one hand to perform when she wasn’t writing. We would share poems and short stories and art of all different kinds. And sometimes the kids would just talk. They mostly didn’t come because they wanted to write new words or to be inspired by a teacher who was clearly trying to get a new generation of punk kids to like him. They would come because they had something to say about their existence, something that many other kids and adults in their lives were not interested in (or perhaps capable of) hearing.
And, we would listen.
We listened so hard that we started to hear the resonant song of self-expression. We heard it throughout not only the kids who were brave enough to join Writing Club, but also those who wished they were. We started seeking out those voices and trying to amplify them to the whole school. So much so that we made a Zine: Cracking Voices.
This is how I announced it over the PA (caution: the cringe is strong with this one) –
“Hello. You know that moment that you want to say something. You start to say it and then your voice does a little hiccup. Whether you are talking to your new hottie or just speaking in class, odds are that your voice has cracked or broken or fallen completely to pieces just at the moment that you need it most. Well, as the writing club sponsor, I would like to put those moments on a pedestal. Declare that they are the most beautiful of all. And in the spirit of bringing the most incidental moments of your adolescent lives to the forefront, I would like to introduce a new literary zine for Cresthill this year: Cracking Voices.
Cracking Voices is a place to publish all of your thoughtful and Cresthill students. So, if you write stories or poems, submit them. If you take photographs or draw pictures, submit them. And if you have random bits of twine, you can give us those too. I’m not saying that they will get in Cracking Voices, but we will take them in to consideration. This week and next, Cracking Voices representatives (aka The Writing Club) will be coming in to your Language Arts classes and talking to you more about this cool opportunity to get your voice heard. They will also be placing discreetly decorated boxes in your Language Arts rooms for you to submit from. In keeping with the tradition of not wanting to be remembered for each crack in your voice, all submissions should be anonymous. We will judge your works based upon merit and not who submitted them. The zine will be published in the last few weeks of school, and anyone who wants one will be able to pick one up. I hope to see your words and images in print this year. Submit to Cracking Voices.”
This invitation was met with the typical mix of excitement and apathy that middle schoolers are perfectly calibrated to produce. One participant said this of our little group, “The people in writing club are understanding. Nothing is too weird, no imagination too big to not find a home in the writing club.”
So, for those two years, we made some deeply important work (and relationships). Not important because it was particularly good. Rather, it was important because it made meaning for those dozen or so students who needed it most.
In an effort to try and make some kind of meaning for a new cadre of would-be writers and thinkers, here are the best prompts from the Writing Club at Cresthill Middle School circa 2005-2006:
- Blowing it way out of proportion. – A short writing exercise that asks you to take a small issue and make a big deal out of it.
- Brutal Honesty – Write to tell someone off or get something off of your chest.
- Character-driven writing – 5 mini-prompts to help develop characters in interesting ways. My favorite was writing a story with an inanimate object as the main character.
- Fully Flippant – I was trying to bring back “Flippant” as a concept to folks who had likely never heard the word. The prompt is to create a scenario for a character (or themselves) to be Flippant.
- Strange Half-Thoughts for Writing – 5 different prompts that really were just to get ideas flowing. My favorite was the “reverse pathetic fallacy” in which you had to write a story with the character’s mood and the weather being entirely out of sync.
- Hope is Useless – This prompt asks folks to consider what can be learned from a disparaging outlook. This is super good for those kids who do not naturally have a positive disposition.
- Idea-based Writing – This is the alternative to the character-driven writing prompts. This one is all about writing to an idea; no characters necessary.
- Location writing – This was an effort help folks understand setting on a deeper level. The prompt is to simply list all of the settings that a story could take place in. Sometimes making a list is a lot easier than writing a story.
- In Cups of Coffee – This writing exercise is about choosing new ways of measuring your life (a la the musical “Rent”). The goal is to determine what kind of character would measure their life in “dishwasher cycles” or “speeding tickets.”
- Quote Re-writing – The goal of this exercise is to rewrite famous quotes to better fit your perspective.
- Splayed Out on a Table – Feeling vulnerable in your writing is really difficult. This exercise is about getting better at it by, “Splaying yourself or something in your writing means showing it completely in the objective light of the operating room.”
- Stand in the Place where you live – An exercise to explore your daily haunts through writing.
- The Three Minute Interview – This was a really fun prompt that asks you to interview someone with some extensive restrictions on what you are able to ask about. You then have to write story about the person you interviewed, but only about the things you couldn’t ask.
- Writing Braille – This one is all about descriptive writing. The goal is to write with such beautiful imagery that anyone (including those who cannot see) can visualize your story.
- Chain Reaction – In this writing exercise, you are tasked with connecting two seemingly different events with a single plot/story.
- Dialogue: The Stuff of Champions – This prompt focuses on your ability to write dialogue for a given situation and character traits. It is meant to be used as a challenge to get outside of the characters that you would normally write about.
- Driving Themselves to Distraction – This one is all about planting details that can “distract” your reader and get them thinking.
- The Point of Performance – This was a series of prompts that focused upon getting your writing to the point where someone else could read it. It was about writing confidently and allowing your written words to speak for you.
- Rescuing an Idea – Rescue is a powerful concept for understanding vulnerability and interdependence. This prompt asks you to consider yourself as the rescuer or the one being rescued in your writing.
- I’ve Got Rhythm – This exercise is about the rhythm of the words that you write. In it, you are challenged to write in a specific cadence.
- The Discarded Travel Guide – This prompt asks you to write the story of a discarded item that you have found by the side of the road.
- The Toughest Thing to Talk About – There are some topics that are incredibly difficult to write about. This writing exercise asks to tackle at least one of them.
- Use it wisely – You are given a set of objects (like, a dead rat or glue stick) and you must write about how those objects were used to do something incredible (like, scaling a 40-story building or winning the Nobel peace prize).
- Writing Crutches – In this very “meta” exercise, you are asked to consider the genres, words/phrases, themes, and images that you rely upon too heavily, forming your “writing crutches.” This one is all about how you can avoid those in your writing in order to expand your writing repertoire.
It is my sincerest hope that some of these writing ideas from 15 years ago can help to inspire those who are in need of inspiration. Or, at the very least that they come in handy for a future teacher out there who is looking for a quick lesson plan idea.