Mind-Sculpting, Part II: Warming up the Brain with Writing Prompts

brain bulb idea

Bellwork is a small task that I assign at the beginning of class to get the minds of my young scholars nicely warmed up while I take attendance and set up their lesson.  Sometimes I give them a question to respond to or a crossword puzzle; other times, I might give them a group task like looking over some photographs and forming conclusions about a historical event.  I try to keep bellwork interesting, since the point of it is not to bore the students but to get them into an intrigued frame of mind.  Some of my goals in assigning it include encouraging students to think creatively and pragmatically and to work together to reach a solution to a problem.  By having them do something fun, I am able to accomplish my goals as an educator while also engaging the students.  In general, I find that my freshmen are the most enthusiastic about bellwork, since they are still young enough not to have to constantly worry about looking cool.

I follow a couple of important rules with my bellwork:

  • First, I give a completion grade rather than grading for content, grammar, etcetera.  This takes pressure off of the students and keeps bellwork fun — they aren’t stressing out over how it will affect their grade.
  • Second, when I do writing bellwork, I stick to opinion rather than facts (usually).  Again, the point of bellwork is not to add pressure or stress to students.  As teenagers, they don’t always get invited to share their opinions, so I like to let them.  In my classroom, I make it clear that as long as an opinion is an educated opinion (i.e. some thought, prior knowledge, experience, and/or research has gone into it), it is welcome.
  • I give only a short amount of time for it in class, but I allow students to continue to expound on the topic later, if they feel so inclined, so long as the work is posted to our school server by Friday of that week (owing to our different schedule on Fridays, I seldom assign bellwork on that day).  A surprising number of students like to think further about topics after class and add to their responses.

Below is a sampling of some of the writing prompts I have assigned that have gotten the best responses.  For those readers who teach, feel free to try these out in your classroom.  For those readers who don’t teach; these make great writing prompts for anyone.  I often find that my brain likes a warm-up before I start working on a long-term writing project; prompts like these are great for flexing those writing “muscles”.

  Respond to this quote from Henry Ford, History is bunk.  Although a few students threatened to agree with the quote just to get a rise out of me, I am proud to say that nearly all of my students really took Ford down a peg for having said this!

  Having read a portion of The Prince, do you agree that it is better for a leader to be feared than loved?  Defend your answer!

  What do you believe are the most essential skills in order for a person to be a true Renaissance Man?

  Having read several selections from Utopia, do you believe that a perfect society is possible?  If so, describe your idea of a perfect society.

  A volcano rises from the sea and covers our entire city in ash, perfectly preserving it.  When archaeologists uncover it 500 years from now, what conclusions will they make about us and our civilization?

  How might the Napoleonic Wars have been different if the French had had light-sabers?

  What do you think will happen now that North Korea has a new Dear LeaderAbout 90% of my students are Korean and several are ethnic Chinese; therefore, they tend to be quite a bit more knowledgeable (and interested in) Asian politics than the average students are.  Also, we live right across the Yellow Sea from North Korea, so what goes on there really does impact us!

  If Lady Gaga were transported back in time and fell in love with Henry VIII, how might world history be different?

  In your opinion, what makes a person a hero?  Is it possible that anyone could be a hero at some point, or are certain pre-existing characteristics necessary?

  In your opinion, was Napoleon manic-depressive?  How might modern psychology have changed him and possibly world history?

✏  Recently, in a flash of inspiration (or maybe because I just have a very twisted mind), I gave this prompt to my sophomores:  “It’s the Revolution!  The freshmen of our school have revolted!  How will you defend our classroom and possibly take back our school?”


In their groups, my sophs had to work out a feasible defense strategy.  I was so impressed with the results that I wound up having the freshmen explain to me how they would go about carrying out their supposed revolution (this assignment met with cheers from the freshies).  After reading the responses from all of my classes, I was once again reminded of just how terrifyingly brilliant the minds of high-schoolers (mine in particular) can be!  I think I am harboring future mad scientists in one of my sophomore classes: one group described the exact chemicals they would take from the science lab in order to concoct a gas that would knock out (not kill, fortunately) the freshmen.  A musically gifted sophomore suggested that she could play her violin and, like the Pied Piper, lead the freshmen into the Yellow Sea.  The freshmen had great ideas of their own:  one group planned to dose me with drugged chocolate and then use me as a puppet dictator in their new regime, and another group planned to spread propaganda months in advance in order to win sophomores to their side as double agents before the revolution.


Next Week:  Fun ways to teach/learn SAT vocabulary — yes, these ways really exist!


About HistoryGypsy

I'm a high school history teacher and author of upcoming novel Sidhe Eyes. I live in gorgeous Qingdao, China, where I spend much of my free time studying the fascinating and frustrating Chinese language, eating odd things, or taking long walks along the Yellow Sea. At "While We're Paused" I have the pleasure of blogging about things that catch my interest: good books, language, history, poetry, writing tips, grammar rants, random humor . . . I don't like to get in a rut! Some of my favorite writers include (and this is by no means an exhaustive list): Dorothy Sayers, J.K. Rowling, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Agatha Christie, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, Jules Verne, Baroness Orczy, Geoffrey Wawro, John Lynn, Bill Bryson, the Bronte sisters, John Christopher, J.M. Barrie, O. Henry, Roald Dahl, and Robert Graves. I usually find myself reading no less than three books at a time!

Posted on March 18, 2012, in Educational Resources, History, Inspiration, Lantern Hollow Press Authors, Stephanie Thompson, Teaching, Writing Hints and Helps and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I love your thinking topics! Lightsabers? Brilliant! Wish my history lessons back in high-school had been as interesting…

  2. Since I’m currently reading His Majesty’s Dragon, I’m curious to hear what your students would think about the historical implications of dragon combat in the Napoleonic wars 😀

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: