Thursday, February 25, 2010

February 2010: “I Don’t Like Writing” Has Met its Match: Stephen Merritt


February 2010 Strategy of the Month   

City Year   


One of the most common challenges faced by tutors, mentors, and others in the youth development space revolves around engagement.  How do I engage my student in a learning opportunity when it seems like the student doesn’t want to learn?

Let’s assume that you’ve already taken steps to begin building a safe, trusting relationship with your student.  What are some of the things you can you do when it seems like your student doesn’t want to improve his writing skills?

(By the way, if you need guidance in building a safe, trusting relationship with your student, click the Getting to Know Your Student/Mentee link on the right side of this page.  If your organization is an America Learns Network member, you can also access a ton of other strategies on the Network.)

Stephen, a City Year Chicago AmeriCorps Member, recently shared a strategy that he created to motivate his second and third graders to practice their writing skills when they didn’t want to write.  The strategy is beautifully simple and can be adapted in a number of ways.  When you read it below, you’ll instantly see how certain students would take to it.

Stephen is a Service Leader on the Alter Group Team at Harvard School of Excellence.  He’s also an alum of City Year Detroit, where, he told us, “I discovered that I could work with kids as a career.”  Watch the following YouTube video to listen to Stephen discuss his experiences with City Year and how giving two years to serve has impacted his life.

The Strategy

From Play-Doh to Writing
(Easy, Creative Writing Prompt for
Students Who Don't Want to Write)

Created by: Stephen Merritt, City Year Chicago Service Leader 
(City Year Chicago  has been an America Learns Network member since 2005.)
Topic: Writing & Revising Text
Grade Levels Used With: Second & Third
Arrangements: One-on-One; Small Group; Large Group
Materials: - 1 can of Play-Doh (See Step 1 below for alternatives)
- Paper and pencil for your student
- An imagination

- - - - - - - - - - - -

Situation: Some of my students would struggle in the writing section. They would say they have nothing to write about and nothing interests them.

I needed to come up with a strategy to get my students writing about anything.

Step 1: I give the students some Play-Doh and ask them to make anything they want to make in a given amount of time (e.g., five minutes).

Play-Doh Starfish

Can’t get your hands on a can of Play-Doh?
Give your students a piece of paper and ask them to turn it into a sculpture of anything.  Or try giving your students a writing utensil and paper, and then ask them to draw anything.

Step 2: After my students finish sculpting their Play-Doh, I ask them to write a story describing their creation.

The story can be out anything.  We just want to get the student writing so that he can continue to practice and improve his skills.  Some sample topics are:

  • A story about how the student decided to create that object
  • A piece on what the student thinks about making things of Play-Doh
  • A story about what would happen if one student’s object was hanging out one day and then suddenly ran into a Play-Doh object that another student created.
  • A story about this object being found by people (or other life forms) one million years from now.  Will they know what it is?  What do you think they would do with it?
  • What if your object was placed in a fish tank. What would the fish think? (Note, Play-Doh should not be placed in fish tanks :-).
  • Imagine that this object would be given to somebody as a prize or as an award.  What would the prize or award be for?

If any of your students have a tough time coming up with a topic, prompt them with questions such as:

  • What made you want to create that?
  • Does it have a name?  Should it have a name?  How come?
  • If it should have a name (but doesn’t have one yet), what would you name it?
  • Where does it come from?
  • What does it do?  (If the student says that it doesn’t do anything, you can ask questions like, “How come?” or “What can one do with it?”)

Use other questions to encourage your students to think deeply about what they are going to write.

All of a sudden, you’ll have a piece of writing that you can work with to help your students continue learning about how to improve their writing skills.

Step 3: If your organization uses the America Learns Performance Measurement & Learning Network, the following strategies may help you bring additional value to this activity for your students:

Give Stephen a Shout Out.


Can you use or adapt Stephen’s strategy for your students?  Has Stephen ignited your own creativity in a way that lead you think of a completely new strategy that will accomplish similar same goals?

Please click the “Comments” link below and let Stephen know what you’re thinking!