Students improve their language arts skills in a fun way with this creative activity.
All children can learn to be creative thinkers. Creativity is a skill that can be developed. It is the ability to make connections between things and make something new. Inventors make such connections all the time.
Arthur Fry, a products developer at the 3M company, heard about a super-weak glue that could barely hold two pieces of paper together. Initially, he could not see any use for it. But one morning in church, where he sang in the choir, he realized he could use that glue to create bookmarks for his hymnal that were removable and would not damage the pages. This bookmark became the Post-it® Note.
You can help your students become creative thinkers by using a brainstorming exercise known as plotting that links reading and writing. Each student first creates a menu of ideas about characters, settings, events, and themes for a fiction story. Then, using a mix-and-match approach, the student brainstorms a 50- to 150-word plot summary for a story.
Plotting is a wonderful exercise because it challenges students to think divergently, a skill useful in many areas of study and life. The exercise encourages curiosity and prompts students to ask the question, “What if?”
Searching for Menu Ideas
The first step in this exercise is the creation of the four lists of ideas which make up each student’s menu—characters, settings, events, and themes. Students can come up with items for their menus in a variety of ways. Encourage them to spend time in the library scanning newspapers, books, and magazines for ideas. The search should not be limited to websites.
Parenting books and magazines are good sources for ideas about characters. When searching, it helps to think about personality traits, family backgrounds, and motives for characters’ actions. As an example, in the article “The Secret Life of Boys” (Family Circle, October 2013), Rosalind Wiseman explains boys’ roles in friendship groups. One role is that of the “Fly”—the boy who hovers outside the group. The Fly makes my character list.
For settings and events, students might look at books in the geography and travel section of the library (910s). In The Best Places for Everything by Peter Greenberg, there is information about storm-watching hotels, a cheese-rolling festival, and truffle hunting. At book sales, look for books with lists. While reading 14,000 Things to Be Happy About by Barbara Ann Kipfer, I snatch the following ideas: foghorns and seagulls, crazy hats and sunglasses, and secret diaries.
I often read The Wall Street Journal. In “Brother, Can You Spare a Job?” (WSJ July 31, 2014), the author writes about the week he spent as a homeless person looking for work. There’s an idea—spend a week in someone else’s shoes.
For themes, the Bible is a great source. Just look at two parables: Matthew 7:3-5 and Matthew 7:24-27. If your students are interested in themes about courage and changing the world, I suggest they watch the YouTube video of Navy Admiral William H. McRaven’s 2014 commencement address at the University of Texas at Austin in which he shares what he learned in basic SEAL training. He tells of the smallest men in his SEAL class who out-paddled, out-ran, and out-swam the bigger guys. He learned that you cannot change the world alone and you should never give up. Great themes for young people!
When creating the theme list, each student should write a theme statement, not just a theme topic. (Theme topic: Evil. Theme statement: The lesser of two evils is still evil.)
Three-Step Lesson Plan
Introduce the exercise to your class. Explain the concept of creative thinking to students. Use the Arthur Fry example to show the power of making connections between things. Give students an overview of the entire exercise. Then focus on the menu of ideas. Explain where they may look for ideas. Students should look online and in printed materials, but may also draw upon personal experiences, observations, and their imaginations. Ask them to include at least 10 ideas in each of their lists. Share the sample lists included here.
• Coach who is a sore loser
• Bored robot
• 100-year-old athlete
• Sloppy camper
• Person who wants and gets all the attention
• Curious person who wants to know everything about everyone
• Person who is fearless and a prankster
• Fly: Child or teen who hovers outside the group, wanting to belong but annoying everyone
• Water slide tester
• Professional cat catcher
• Rickety bridge to an island
• Clockless world
• Storm-watching hotel
• Cooking school for bullies
• Clown school for those afraid of clowns
• Place where people are encouraged to lie
• Place where everyone tells the truth all the time
• Secret club in a school or town
• Foghorns and seagulls
• Crazy hats and sunglasses
• Secret diary in a roll-top desk
• Spend a week in someone else’s shoes
• First coast-to-coast telephone line was established in 1914
• An event that tests your faith
• Dog training for truffle hunting
• School cafeteria workers go on strike
• Children/teens determine the school rules
• Cheese-rolling festival where runners race after a rolling giant cheese wheel down Coopers Hill in Gloucestershire, England
• It is easy to be brave from a distance.
• Set goals you can accomplish.
• No one can serve two masters. (Matthew 6:24-25)
• The lesser of two evils is still evil.
• Your life has a purpose.
• A famous person may not be a great person.
• If you cannot do little things right, you will never do big things right.
• You can learn something from everyone.
• God did not give us a spirit of cowardice. (2 Timothy 1:7)
• Rouse one another to love and good works. (Hebrews 10:24)
Homework: Students create their menus (four lists each).
Work with the student menus. Look at the students’ menus to make sure everyone understood this part of the exercise and see how much effort students put into the assignment. Allow time in class for students to share their ideas. You might allow students to use some of the other students’ menu ideas. Or you might use all the students’ ideas and make one large class menu that you and students can use during the year.
Write the plot summaries. Give these instructions to the students:
• Using the menu and your imaginations, mix and match the ideas in any way to create a story plot.
• Write a 50- to 150-word plot summary, which is an overview of the main events of the fiction story.
• Do NOT write a complete story. Do NOT write scenes for the story.
• The plot summary should state the main character, his or her challenge/conflict, and what the character learns from his or her experiences.
• Keep in mind that you want a proactive main character who resolves a conflict through his or her efforts. All plot summaries should show the main character growing in some way.
• Encourage students to be creative, but point out that story plots should flow logically.
• Show students sample plot summaries (see below).
• Homework: Students write the plot summaries.
• Classroom: Students share their work.
• Teacher’s homework: Read students’ plot summaries and write comments that encourage students to think in different ways about their stories. “What if?”
Plot Summary #1 (144 words)
Martina thinks her best friend, Todd, is foolish to be afraid of clowns. She hears that Todd will attend a clown school for those who fear clowns. Martina is curious to see what goes on at that school and goes with Todd.
At the school, Martina spends a week as a clown. Everyone wears a clown costume from morning to night. Everyone’s identities are hidden under the costumes. Martina does not even know which clown is Todd. With each passing day she feels more alone and afraid. She is even afraid to look at her own clown face in the mirror. The clown makeup and clown role hide everyone’s true feelings. Cheating and theft during a contest increase tension at the school. Whom can Martina trust? While walking in a clown’s shoes for a week, she realizes why Todd might fear clowns.
Plot Summary #2 (142 words)
Gus, a bully who likes attention, is suspended from middle school and sent to a cooking school for bullies. There he meets a 100-year-old master chef and Martex, a bored robot who wants to learn how to cook. Gus thinks the school is a joke and pulls some attention-getting pranks. But in this school being the center of attention is not a good thing. After a rocky start at the school, Gus becomes friends with the robot and chef.
The day Gus returns to middle school, the cafeteria workers go on strike. Gus quickly takes charge of the cafeteria and mobilizes a group of kids into cooking lunch that day. With his new cooking skills, Gus begins to see that he does have a purpose in life. He has the ability to do good works and get others to do good works.
You may be surprised to see which students are the most creative thinkers. Some students might be so excited about their plot summaries that they will want to follow up by writing complete fiction stories!
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