Monday, January 17, 2011


By Chris Wilson

In 1995 I earned a bachelor's degree in English with an emphasis in creative writing. In high school I  found I was good at writing but really discovered my passion for the art in college. For the life of me, however, I do not recall a single incident of enjoyable wordsmithing in elementary or junior high.

So it is for scores of students and not just those in elementary or junior high. For many, the craft of writing is a tedious, purposeless and painful endeavor. I attribute a significant amount of students' rebellion to the fact that they have no real reason to write because their writing prompts are uninteresting. Rainbows and unicorns, beautiful flowers and honey-dewed meadows might be alright for 19th century poets, but they are not often inspiring to contemporary students. 

In one of my first creative writing classes, a lady 20 years my senior turned to me after the class critiqued my short story and commented: "Why don't you write a romance." She said she enjoyed my descriptions and slice-of-life approach, commenting she found much of it funny. Other things in my story were not appealing to her. She wanted something softer, with curved edges and delicate overtones. What I heard her say is that she wanted something other than ... me. I never forgot her request and eventually gave a stab at it, but I doubt the end product was what she was looking for. 

Sometimes, our school-based writing assignments can be similar to this lady's request. We ask students –– many of our boys and some girls –– to write about things that do not connect with them. Authentic and emotionally-connected writing for tweens and teens is already difficult enough. Giving them something they are not interested in or connected to is to remove the student from the power of words and rob them of the love of story. Writing, like reading, is about choice. Research clearly demonstrates that students who have choice in what they read are more interested in reading. Is writing really so different? Should we force upon student antiquated writing prompts that the students find uninteresting or bothersome? Give kids their fart jokes, their CAPTAIN UNDERPANTS, their swordplay and let them write about it.

Bill Zimmerman's newest book, YOUR LIFE IN COMICS: 100 THINGS FOR GUYS TO WRITE AND DRAW is some strange hybrid journal-and-writing-prompt beast designed for tween and young teen boys (and some girls as well). 

When I cracked the spine and read the writing prompts and story ideas, I thought back to my approximately 200 third and fourth grade students. I envisioned certain students when I read some pages, and I thought of entire classes with others. Lesson plans ran through my head, writing ideas glowed, and authentic and real-world preparation for standardized tests pulsated in my mind. 

With this book, I concluded, we could teach students so many skills (prediction, inference, summary, sequence, narrative style, audience, persuasion, information, all those tested skills) while they simultaneously engage in the process of authentic writing. The prompts in this book are not artificial or school-based. They are real-world ideas that kids could write about successfully and would want to write about excitedly. YOUR LIFE IN COMICS could be utilized in the classroom in several ways. 

LEFT: Students can let their creative sides explore humor. RIGHT: Students who need an emotional connection or to see the positive things in their life might benefit from this "happiest memory" exercise.

The pages are in comic format; however, that should not preclude a teacher from using the comic-based writing prompts as inspiration for paragraph writing. This is an important feature that should not go unnoticed by the teacher. 

Despite what you call it, YOUR LIFE IN COMICS could be a student's daily writing journal. A copy for each kid, students could use some communication arts time to write in their YOUR LIFE journal. Some of the comics may be completed and self-contained while others are simply a starting place for a much longer, traditional writing piece. Either way, the book gets kids interested in writing –– daily writing that is meaningful.

I collect strange and unusual pictures from the Internet. Some are funny; others are odd. All of them are engaging images to kids. I will place an image on the interactive white board. As a technology instructor, I also simultaneously broadcast the image to all the student computers so kids are inundated with the image as they enter the room. They come in talking and laughing and sometimes shuddering. Engagement is high from the beginning.

I tell the students to open Microsoft Word (but traditional classroom teachers could have them get out pencil and paper) and to write a story about the image. They are to type the story and print it off by the end of class. I allow students who need more time to come in before or after school or during recess to finish if necessary. I allow students a lot of personal freedom and creativity. If they want serious, humorous, science fiction, fantasy, realism … it matters not to me. I even allow CAPTAIN UNDERPANTS-style bathroom humor. I simply tell students to ask me if they are concerned with appropriateness. 

I see YOUR LIFE IN COMICS being used in the same way. A teacher could project a particular page onto an interactive white board or projection screen and have students use the comic as a writing prompt. Kids could fill out the comic on paper as originally intended, or they could use the image on the screen to create a traditional paragraph-based story. The teacher could require students to write in first person or third person, persuade the audience, or demonstrate any other standard being covered.

Another approach would be to give student writers 10 minutes to find a writing prompt from YOUR LIFE IN PICTURES. After choosing their own prompt, students are given a certain amount of time to write in their writing journals, based on their choice. This could be an on-going story that might take minutes, hours, days or weeks to complete. At the end, students could then practice editing skills by reading and editing each other's stories. Then the stories could be shared with other classrooms. The stories could also be copied and bound so they could be checked out from the school library. Let's not forget the power of online publishing where the stories could be shared with the global community using a classroom blog or website. Technology classrooms could go a step further by having the students create ebooks using Power Point. 

Zimmerman knows kids and teachers. Not only did he provide us with awesome comic-based –– but not comics-exclusive –– writing prompts, but he took the time to connect many of the prompts with outside websites giving the teacher a way to push the exercise further into the real world. I am reminded of the writing prompte that gets kids to learn about child-soldiers in South Africa. By going to the UN website for students, kids can then complete the child-soldier Web Quest and learn about current human rights. Now a writing prompt has turned into a global investigation about human rights, war and ethics, coinciding with social studies and technology standards. With a communication arts and social studies mash-up, there is no need to carve out separate time for each.

LEFT: Students must use inferencing skills to determine what the characters  are discussing. By evaluating facial features and body language, the students can create accurate dialogue. RIGHT: A sci-fi story that requires story sequencing. Notice the web connection at the bottom, encouraging further exploration.

Zimmerman's book is an inspiration to the tween-teen and school communities. The power of his prompts, the depth of the ideas, and the inspiration YOUR LIFE IN COMICS brings is a alcohol-fueled drag racer of a writing engine. It is as Highly Recommended as a writing prompt book I've ever seen. I would not be without it. 

Author: Bill Zimmerman
Illustrator: Tyler Page

Format: Paperback
Pages: 128
Color: Spot color (blue)
ISBN: 978-1575423517

Publisher's Age Recommended: Ages 9-12
My Age Recommendation: Ages 9-12

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