Writing Prompt Ideas to Use with Julie Murphy’s Dear Sweet Pea

Check out my earlier post on Dear Sweet Pea for a synopsis and review of the book.

Since Dear Sweet Pea is intended for elementary school-aged readers, it would be a great class read. In addition, since a large part of the plot focuses on advice columns it lends itself to fun student writing prompts.

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Media and how we consume it has changed so rapidly over the last few decades, I’m betting that many middle grade readers haven’t read advice columns. Reading and discussing advice columns, before eventually having students write some of their own, can be a great way to teach students about genre (something even my college students still struggled with from time to time). Genre is a category of writing that differs from other categories of writing in terms of its content, characteristics, and even its formatting. It is a great concept for students to learn to help distinguish informal writing (like social media) from formal writing (like academic writing).

Class brainstorming: Collect some age-appropriate advice columns for your class. Have your students read the columns. Then, in small groups, students should brainstorm about the genre of an advice column. You can prompt them to respond to questions like: What are the different parts of an advice column? What are some similarities among the advice columns we read? Then, the class can share their brainstorming ideas to help solidify the concepts of genre and what that specifically translates to in an advice column.

Writing prompts: There’s many different writing prompts you could use to springboard from the genre brainstorming in the previous step.

Writing Prompt A: If students are still in the middle of reading Dear Sweet Pea, you might have them write a letter of advice to Sweet Pea herself. Sweet Pea has quite a few situations where she is unsure of how to act. Pick a specific moment the students have already read. Ask them to write a response to Sweet Pea’s dilemma, explaining what she should do and why.

Writing Prompt B: If you’re reading Dear Sweet Pea towards the end of the school year, you may want to use this prompt to have the students reflect on the previous year. Ask the students to write an advice letter to themselves on the first day of the school year. Looking back, what would they tell themselves to help prepare for this year?

Have fun writing along with Dear Sweet Pea!


Writing Your First College Paper, Part III

This is the third in a series of posts about writing your first college paper. Look back at the last two posts for some tips on getting into the right mindset and making a plan for your writing.

Do not be afraid to ask for help.

As a college student, you likely have a number of resources at your disposal. Do not be afraid to use them. Resources like these are the reason you pay tuition. If one of the resources you try is not helpful, try another one. In fact, by trying different resources you will find which ones work best for you and that will be a great advantage not just for this paper but for later ones as well.

While getting feedback from a relative or roommate is okay, keep in mind a couple of things. First, you paper is not their responsibility. Second, they may have different expectations than your instructor for competent, college-level writing. Finally, they have not been in class with you learning the material that you are applying in this paper. It may work better to have a relative or roommate read a more polished version after you get some feedback from your instructor or a tutor.

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Consider attending your instructor’s office hours.

Most, if not all, college instructors hold office hours. These are times set aside in their schedule specifically to meet with students. Where and when your instructor holds office hours is often on the front page of the syllabus. (Please, please, check the syllabus before emailing your instructor. You will learn to be more resourceful as a student and your instructor will greatly appreciate that you took the time to use the document he or she spent hours preparing for just this kind of occasion.) Most instructors expect that students will drop in during designated office hour times. However, if it is the day before your paper is due (the day everyone realizes they need help with the assignment) it might be worth checking ahead of time or making an appointment (if your instructor allows that) to avoid long wait times.

If your paper is for a composition or writing-focused course, your instructor may hold conferences. Take advantage of this opportunity to see how your instructor evaluates your work before you turn it in for a grade. Your instructor may ask you to prepare some pre-writing (such as an outline) or a portion of a draft to discuss at your conference. If there is no requirement about what to bring to the conference, at least come prepared with two to three specific questions about the assignment or your writing. This shows your instructor that you are taking the assignment seriously (metaphorical bonus points!) and will help make your conference more productive. A conference is precious one-on-one time with the person judging your work so think about what kind of help you need before you are seated in your instructor’s office, staring awkwardly at him or her and wondering what to say.

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Take advantage of any writing centers and/or tutors your school may provide.

Many colleges and universities staff writing centers with tutors who provide free feedback and assistance with many kinds of writing assignments. Here again, a quick look through your class syllabus or search of your school’s website will tell you if, where, and when you have access to this kind of help.

Both of the options above (office hours and writing center tutoring) can be utilized at any stage of the writing process. If you are having trouble getting started or even understanding what the assignment asks you to do, do not hesitate to get help earlier rather than later.

Focus on doing good work, not just earning the grade you want.

Think back to my first piece of advice: maintain perspective. Worry more about doing quality work than about the number or letter grade you want to achieve. You cannot control the number/letter your instructor assigns your paper. However, you can control the effort you put into writing the paper. Looking back through class materials, the assignment sheet, and a grading rubric (if one is provided) as you finalize your paper can help you create high quality work.

As part of maintaining perspective, you could also look back at your syllabus to remind yourself of how much this paper contributes to your overall grade in the course. Similarly, check the syllabus to see if your instructor has a revision policy that allows you to correct graded work for an improved grade. Knowing that there is a chance to improve some grades down the road may remove a bit of the pressure as you are drafting.

Happy writing!


Writing Your First Paper in College, Part II

This is the second in a series of posts about writing your first college paper. Look back at the last post for some tips on getting into the right mindset before writing.

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Make a plan for doing the work.

Once you understand what the assignment sheet asks you to do, select specific dates and times for when you will do the work that is necessary for finishing this paper. Yeah, unfortunately none of the spells you learned reading Harry Potter will help you with this stage of the writing process. Sometimes there is no replacement for sitting down and getting to work. As a recovering procrastinator myself, I will attest that writing an entire paper the night before it is due is not the way to go. If you hit a major roadblock, you have left yourself no time to ask more questions or get help from an instructor or Writing Center. As an instructor, I have seen many students struggle to manage their time. Honestly, most adults struggle with time management too. It is a hard skill to master but do not let that stop you. Make a schedule and do your best to stick to it. A planner, either digital or physical, can be a great tool for doing this. Plus, getting a physical planner is a good excuse to buy pens, highlighters, stickers, etc. to help keep yourself organized. Yes, Virginia, you do get extra points for color coding. If you find that your schedule is not working, revise it or make a completely new one and try again. A schedule puts you in control of the process and can help calm nerves by breaking a large project into smaller steps.

Think of writing like flexing a muscle.

Approach writing the same way you would establish any other habit: positive experiences for moderate amounts of time. Think about your writing as though it is a muscle you want to strengthen. If you write for short periods of time on a regular basis, you are making it a part of your routine and are less likely to become overly frustrated. Keep your writing spurts to twenty minutes to one hour. This way you are flexing your writing muscle, not exercising it to the point of exhaustion. Just like going to the gym or taking an exercise class, you need to respect your own limits. By not working to the point of burnout it is more likely that you will return to work on the assignment more rejuvenated after a break rather than putting it off indefinitely to scroll social media, binge a new show, or discover a new hobby you simply must explore rather than do your writing. Similarly, if you struggle with writing in general or suffer from writer’s block, shorter writing sessions can make those issues more manageable so that you are not staring at the blinking cursor on your computer screen for hours on end. (She says, staring at the blinking cursor on her screen. Let us agree that the blinking cursor is an evil demon and does not like any of us.)

Next time I will talk about resources for getting feedback on your writing and how to prepare for receiving a grade for the paper.


Writing Your First Paper in College

coffee notebook pen writing
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Writing of many kinds can be stress provoking. Finding yourself doing a chore you normally loathe when there is a deadline on the academic horizon? Putting off starting on the project for as long as possible? Hating every word you have written or, worse, unable to commit to anything because you preemptively hate it? It might be helpful to reevaluate your writing routine. While writing requires many technical and analytical skills, it is also experiential; meaning the way you think and feel about your personal writing, as well as the processes of preparing for and actually doing it, can have a big impact on the writing itself. Do not get too worried, though. You do not need to exorcise your computer or burn sage to smudge your writing space.

Having been a college freshman myself and having taught writing to college freshmen for a decade, I can sympathize with the anxieties of completing your first college writing assignment. Today begins a series of posts with strategies for attacking your first college assignment (or any daunting writing project).

Maintain perspective.

First, take a breath and maintain perspective on this task. This is one paper in a long semester in your multi-year college career in your wondrous and beautiful life. This one paper will make your cumulative college experience neither a success or a failure. It is one moment of a long adventure. While all of these moments are important, remember not to allot more stress than is due for only one moment.

Read your assignment sheet.

You might be thinking you have already done this. You might be thinking, “we read through the assignment in class, so I’ve got the gist of it.” That is a great first step but only that, a first step. There is likely more detail on the assignment sheet than what you were able to cover in class. Plus, your assignment is likely due days and even weeks after you discuss it in class. You are doing yourself a disservice if you are relying on a weeks-old memory of very detailed instructions for a formal, college-level paper. Can you remember what you ate for dinner three weeks ago? If so, I’m impressed. If not, you should re-read your assignment sheet, probably more than once and preferably immediately before you sit down to brainstorm, draft, and edit the paper.

Next time, I will talk about how to make a plan to start (and ultimately finish) your writing project. In the meantime, add a comment or email me if you have other questions about your writing. Or, share a memory of writing your first college paper (if only to show everyone that you survived it!).