How to Teach Brainstorming: Step One of the Writing Process
What is a Brainstorm?
It actually sounds incredibly frightening: a brainstorm. I imagine a ton of words, pictures, and phrases swirling around, idea being blown in circles, a tornado whipping through my mind.
That image really isn't that far off.The brainstorming part of the Writing Process is the beginning of the piece of writing, where all the thoughts and ideas around the purpose or task come swirling around and are documented so that the writer doesn't lose them.These notes may not all be used, but that is the beauty of a brainstorm. It allows the writer to consider all aspects and approaches without nailing any one of them down immediately.
How to Teach Brainstorming
Teaching a thought process is a difficult task. We all learn in different ways just as we all think and prepare in different ways as well. Brainstorming is a preparation and the first step to teaching how to do it well is by acknowledging to your students that not every approach is going to work for every students. For this reason, it is a good idea to present a variety of options for brainstorming.
I begin by telling students how I personally brainstorm. If I am writing an assigned paper or if I have been presented for a task, my brainstorm process is pretty much the same as it is when I just feel like writing. I mull the ideas around in my head for days or weeks (depending on my time deadline) before I start writing. Once I've mulled my thoughts around, I sit down and type out a list of things that I would like to cover in my writing. Nothing is super specific at this point, just highlights of my thoughts that I would like to expand on. The product of my brainstorm is usually some sort of a list.
It is important to emphasize to students how "ugly" the brainstorm can look. For some, it is a list like mine. For others, it is a ton of ideas written down on scraps of paper, post-its, or notecards. Some people start to draw webs or create diagrams. Other brainstorms are pictures, doodles or drawings. The brainstorm isn't anything close to the final product so it shouldn't resemble the final product at all.
After the Brainstorm
Once the ideas are somehow wrestled from the mind and documented on paper, as a teacher you have a few options. Depending on the time constraints and level of ability of your writers, you may choose to review the brainstorm. This will allow you to do a quick formative assessment of the writers, to see if they are on track and to reteach any information regarding the task if necessary. It can be helpful to review students thoughts at this point so that they don't get too far into the writing process on the wrong track.
The other option would be to wait until the outlining step to review the students work. This option would allow you to view the student's directions during the outlining step, which would give you a clearer, more organized perception of the direction they are heading in their writing.
Regardless of what direction you choose, you should never give a grade for brainstorming based on how well the student did it. Students need to know it is OK to not be very organized and to have ideas written down that may or may not be used. Try to keep this step as authentic as possible for the writer and don't make them feel as though they are being assessed on their ability to think of ideas around their topic.
Once you feel confident that the students have finished the brainstorming step, it is time to move to the outline.