Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The Creative Writing Activity That Every Student Loves

When I mention "The Box" to my students, they light up like kindergarteners in a room full of glitter. Is it a box full of goodies? Is it a game? Is it something that will get them out of homework? Nope.

It's a creative writing activity.

"You jest!" you might say, or "You're kidding me, right?" No jesting here. "The Box" is a creative writing activity that accomplishes three major tasks.

1. It requires the students to write a lot in a short amount of time.
2. It forces kids out of their writing comfort zone.
3. It impacts the way they think about writing within guidelines.

The crazy thing about this writing activity is that they like it. The students are engaged from beginning to end - even the non-writers - and then they talk about their writing after class. I wish I could always generate that kind of enthusiasm. I introduced this activity to my freshmen today (who are notoriously unenthusiastic) and it generated a great deal of conversation after class, in a very good way. It's fun to listen to students from different class periods discussing how they could have made their stories better or how they want to continue their writing. My sophomores were pretty jealous when they came in and saw "The Box" on the board for the freshmen.

Before I tell you about "The Box" I need to say right from the start that this is not my own original idea. This was a writing activity I did in one of my education classes in college, and I have used it since my student teaching days, always with great success.

It will be easier to explain "The Box" to you as if I was talking to you as a body of students. So, here we go.

Today we're going to do a creative writing activity called "The Box." That will be the assignment title on your paper. The purpose of "The Box" is to help you write quickly and to be a flexible writer. First, the rules. There are two rules for "The Box." Rule #1 is that you cannot ask for help from those around you. This is solely on your brain power. Rule #2, and this is the hard one, is that you cannot ask questions. Are you ready? Okay, the first thing you are going to do is write a story. This story can be fiction or non-fiction. You can base it off of something that happened to you over the weekend or your story can feature ninjas and dragons. It's entirely up to you. The only thing I insist on is that, early on, you need to have a box in your story. This can be any kind of box. It could be a shoe box, or a big cardboard box. It could be the box a present comes in. It could be a T.V., because once upon a time those looked like boxes. This room is a box, so maybe the box is a room. Or it could be a fish tank. So, you're going to write a short story about anything you like, but it must have a box. Okay. Go.

This is the point when hands often fly in the air, begging to ask how long the story should be, or if X counts as a box. I gently remind the students about the no questions rule and tell them to just go with their gut and keep on writing. I encourage them to "word vomit" all over the page and not worry about writing an ending right away.

Anywhere from seven to ten minutes into the activity, depending on how long it took the students to get started, I interrupt them.

Okay, guys, now you're going to keep writing that same story you've got going, but now you need to add a tree to your story.

This is the cue for the kids to look at me like I've completely lost my mind. Some of them say, "Oh!" and start writing madly because they know exactly how they are going to put a tree in the story. Some of them chew on the pencil, or stare deeply into space. Some of them get the silliest grins on their faces when they figure out a very clever way to incorporate a tree into the story. Since the goal is creativity, it might help to mention, "Don't forget, this doesn't have to be a regular old tree." That might help struggling students to think outside of the proverbial box, to think of "family trees" or "Christmas trees."

Five minutes later. You guys are doing great. Now, this time, you're going to add fire to your story.

And on it goes.

Depending on how long you want the activity to last, you can add just a few random items or you can throw many different things at them. It's important that the item isn't too specific to allow for maximum creativity. Some of the items we used today were:
- a box
- another box :)
- fire
- running water
- a tree
- a toad
- the color purple
- something sparkly
- a turtle
- a non-human creature

It's pretty amazing what the students can come up with during this activity, and no two stories are ever alike. I love this exercise because it helps students realize that they have a lot of individuality and creativity to offer a writing assignment.

On a side note, I use this activity when I work on my novel. I just have little slips of paper in a bag and I draw them out and add them to my writing to spice things up.

What do you think? What writing activities have you found to be successful in your classes?


  1. I think this is an awesome idea!! also, what kind of novel are you working on? have you ever done NANOWRIMO? I did it last year but didn't finish. It was a fun motivator though.

    1. Thank you! The kids love it so if you ever need a jumpstarter into creative writing, this is an awesome one. I'm working on a young adult speculative fiction piece. It's toeing the line of dystopia, but I'm a little undecided on that front. :) Actually, I just signed up for NaNoWriMo, so this will be my first. I'm looking forward to it! Are you trying it this year?

  2. I teach creative writing to kids, and I stumbled on a really effective trick. Let them listen to audiobooks. There's something about hearing the stories read aloud that engages the kids differently. It almost becomes theater to them. Then they try to emulate that. There's lots of sites where you can download audiobooks for kids, but I use this one a lot because their stories are free, and also original. So much better than letting them hear stories they've already heard a million times. Here's the link, if anyone is interested. http://www.twirlygirlshop.com/moral-stories-for-kids

    1. You know, I've never tried out the audiobook trick, though we do read-alouds all the time. I'm definitely going to look into that link. Thanks for the share!

  3. I did this activity today with my tween creative writing group at the public library where I work. The kids range from 9-12. We have done a LOT of amazing things, and they have written some phenomenal stuff, but this was the best activity ever! I loved it and they loved it too. The stories that came out of them were phenomenal. I can't thank you enough for sharing this with everyone!!!

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  5. This seems like a great activity that I could add in to my lessons. But I am curious as to how much time total you use with this activity? Is it close to a full class period? Do the students get to share their final stories? Thank so much for sharing!

    1. Hi Michelina,
      The thing I like best about "The Box" is that it is so flexible! I've found that in order to get about five different items into the box prompt and to allow students time to read each other's final stories, it really takes the full class period. It's really great to use on a day where your plans get thrown out the window, or your lesson wound up WAY shorter than anticipated, or if you notice the class is getting into a writing rut.
      Hope this helps!

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