Trischitta (2000) describes brainstorming as a technique used in the prewriting stage as it is "writing a list of ideas, thoughts, or words about a particular idea in your writing journal" (p. 16). Bluedorn & Bluedorn (2004) define it as "an essential part of critical thinking and a tool that people use to invent an idea, find a solution to a problem, or answer a question" (p. 1). Whether it occurs in writing or in another content area, brainstorming is a process that helps students synthesise their ideas and thoughts. Ultimately, it provides a space for students to clutter, de-clutter, and refine their ideas, making it easier to draft a piece of writing.
Brainstorming and/or Ideating
For every writing topic, I dedicate the first lesson (e.g. on a Monday) to brainstorming, which includes a mini lesson where I model an example and then time for students to work on their own brainstorm — the latter includes time for me to conduct a conference with a few students. To provide context, these are the steps that I follow when planning and executing a writing lesson that focuses on brainstorming:
1. Pick the topic: The first and most important part of the writing lesson is the topic. I use thematic units to plan out the topics. As such, all the topics in some way or another relate back to the overarching theme. In our rainforest unit, we had a topic around living in the rainforest. Our ideate — or rather brainstorm — objective would be something like the following: Ideate a fictional story about visiting the rainforest. As the unit progressed, we even wrote stories about conversations between two animals in the rainforest. At the end of the unit, we wrote about deforestation.
Here, I would suggest using topics that interest the students rather than what the teacher thinks is valuable. Oftentimes, I have tried out some topics that the students just did not understand. And I was told to use a topic that is relatable to the students and their context. I actually disagree with this. The topic being relatable is a good start, but for younger students the importance of an interesting topic is just as key. I have seen so many decent teachers hampering their students to write about "important" topics alone, such as water problems on Earth, the impact of communism, and so on. These are great topics and our students should learn and write about them. However, we have to balance out our topics. Have topics that are both fictional like writing about aliens, dinosaurs, imaginary friends, and monsters as well, in addition to non-fiction topics that address real issues. Moreover, provide them writing that uses sentence starters such as, "If I won a million dollars." Give them non-fiction pieces to create on themselves, their future, their parents, and so forth. This variety is what keeps writing fun and engaged at all times.
2. Create a graphic organizer: The second part of the writing lesson is to provide a graphic organizer. This includes the thinking questions that students can use to ideate the story. In the beginning, I had very basic questions because we started with simpler topics. For example, we did a topic on our sibling, so the graphic organizer would ask three questions: 1) What is your sibling's name? 2) What does he/she likes? 3) What does he/she dislike? Another example for the same topic could be: 1) What is your sibling's name? 2) What does he/she look like (hair, height, etc.)? and 3) What is one thing he/she likes to do at home? At that point, we had very specific questions (i.e. likes/dislikes of sibling). This is because students had a lot of difficulty with writing. Now I make it more broad because the students are at a stronger place in terms of ideation. Many of them now can narrow down the topic/objective on their own.
3. Hook the students to the lesson: At times, a teacher has to be a salesperson, especially at the start of the lesson. Before modelling the lesson, introduce them to the topic and make them feel excited about it. We once wrote about visiting Yoyoji Park in Japan. I had the students stand up, pretend to fly in a plane to Japan, and then take a tour of the park. In another lesson, one centred around The Enormous Crocodile, I asked students to act out what they thought would happen next in the story, as a way to get them thinking about what they think the crocodile was going to do next. There are so many brief and fun ways to hook students. As much as the whole writing process is fun for me, this has to be my favourite part of it.
4. Model the ideate structure: There are two ways that I have used to ideate/brainstorm a writing piece. The first is to draw and label the work. This is as simple as it sounds. The second, and my most favourite one, is using a heart map. Now, before I explain the heart map it should be mentioned that I used drawing and labelling for the most part in the first two years of teaching when most of my students were emergent level writers. I only shifted all my students to use a heart map in the third year. A few of them already started using heart maps before because of their individual goals in writing.
The heart map is another beautiful thing I learned from Mrs. Bainbridge's blog (it is quite clear by now that I am such a fan of hers). In many ways, she is the J.K. Rowling of teaching how to write for elementary school teachers. I simply get all the students to set-up their page with their name, grade, date, title, and page number. Then they draw a heart map. Inside the heart map they write out their introduction in point form. Then they make two lines from the heart, which means they will write two paragraphs. Here are two examples:
Importantly, remember that the heart map requires work. One of the samples above has an introduction brainstormed in it. Is that something that I start off with? Not at all. I taught the heart map way before teaching students how to write an introduction. Keep it simple and scaffold the different parts of the writing menu as you go. Do not be afraid to teach them the different parts, but remember to also know when to balance the right amount.
The actual modelling of the lesson requires two things: (1) the topic and (2) the weekly and ongoing focus/goal for writing. The former has been already mentioned. The latter depends on what part of the menu is most pressing for students. I would suggest focusing on one weekly focus/goal. For example, in one week, I would teach the students how to explain the topic. Instead of writing sentences like "I go to the park. The park is nice. Then I go home. I sleep at home" they write more explained sentences like, "I went to Yoyogi Park today with my sister. We went there during our trip to Japan because we had heard a lot about the park from some of our friends. I was most excited to see all the cherry blossom trees." In addition to this weekly focus, I always keep a few ongoing focuses that I have taught before because students need to be reminded of them regularly. For example, I may remind them about capital letters or having the correct spelling by using a dictionary. Select ongoing focuses that students require practice with. I do not, for instance, model spacing anymore in class because all my students know how to do it. Yet, I may model how to indent a paragraph (this comes tomorrow in draft) because half the class may be forgetting it in their work.
In addition to the video shared, you can also see the lesson plan on monsters for the same. It details out how I have integrated spelling as an ongoing focus/goal for the students to work on among others. Modelling the lesson is not easy. It takes a lot of planning. But with some consideration and time it definitely gets simpler. I found my understanding on how to teach different components of the menu (e.g. how to teach capitalization) is what really refined my teaching. That is why planning ahead of the lesson makes a difference. Now planning for writing takes less time and is simpler for me, but the intense planning in the first and second years of teaching really built confidence in my writing lessons today. 5. Revise and edit the heart map: This is the last step of the process. Most of the students have to take their ideation for homework. Nonetheless, I still remind them to go back to re-read their work. If we are working on capital letters, for example, I want them to revise in order to fix those mistakes.
The Stages of Writing
To understand how students brainstorm, we have to first understand students' writing progression. The stages of children's writing by Western Illinois University is a helpful place to start. When children commence to write, they are often scribbling. They gradually can identify the difference between drawing and writing even if they still continue to scribble and make random markings. Then, children move towards written scribble that is seen through "wavy" writing, moving towards mock letters. As a way to progress from "wavy" scribbles and mock letters, children start to form conventional letters even if they are not fully aware of it. This then leads to writing invented spelling, where children string together conventional letters to form words, although these words are not the real words. As children continue to progress, they begin to write words, using approximate or phonetic spelling. Here, children use letter sounds to write words. Finally, children come to the conventional spelling stage, whereby they start to spell correctly starting with their own name.
Then, we move towards brainstorming, which students can to note down their ideas and thoughts around the writing work. Initially, students often commence with brainstorming by drawing, slowly moving towards drawing and labelling by using both invented and conventional spelling. Once students are ready, they can be introduced to using heart maps (as seen above), graphic organizers, story maps, and lists. These are really helpful in elementary and middle school years, allowing students to pinpoint their flow of ideas and thoughts in a structured manner. The two examples below show how one student uses a graphic organizer and then draws/labels the work. The other student uses a heart map, although he has to work on capitalization. In addition, teachers can use the brainstorm as a way to provide feedback before students draft their writing work. Generally, I focus on giving them two aspects to work on with specific strategies on how to improve (e.g. re-read the work to check for capital letters and stretch the word to help with spelling). This way, students stay focused on what they should improve before drafting their work. As a rule, I often like to ask students what they think are two things they are doing well and two things could improve in their work. Often, many students are quite insightful about their own writing, which helps when moving towards the drafting process.