Step One: Getting Started Writing about Topics that Matter

Let’s start at the beginning! The writing exercises in this section – “What Do I Do?,” “Kernel Essay,” “Search History Writing” –  will help you identify the issues that are important to you, as well as those where you can use your resources to make a meaningful contribution.  Home in on a topic and start to explore the words and ideas that move you.

What Do I Do?

Activity: This is a simple activity that leads to complicated ideas. Each circle asks you a question to help you focus your interests and skills toward writing action. What do you love? What needs to be done? What are your gifts? What should you do? Write, draw, sketch, and doodle to find out.

Supplies: A copy of this document. Markers, crayons, colored pencils are welcome extras.

Time Needed: Up to you.


  • What brings you joy? (What gets you up in the morning?)
  • What is the work that needs doing? (Schools, health care, park services, food scarcity…)
  • What are your gifts? (Your mojo, special skills, resources.)
  • What should you do? The intersections of what you love, your gifts, and what needs to be done will organize your writing toward focus and clarity.

Kernel Essay

Activity: This exercise is taken from The Story of My Thinking by Gretchen Bernabei, Dorothy N Hall. Kernel Essays are popular with adult and young learners, and help us all feel like “good writers!” This exercise also shifts easily to a group exercise, with each writer responsible for one box. See if you can complete Kernel Essays around the topic you discovered in the previous exercise. For example, if you discovered that issues of censorship are where you will focus your writing, you could begin with “I will never ban a book.”

Supplies: A copy of this document. Markers, crayons, colored pencils are welcome extras.

Time Needed: Up to you.

Search History Writing

Activity: This writing exercise will help you dig even deeper into the issues you care about (or, at least, the issues you’ve recently searched). This silly exercise reminds us that writing can be fun, playful, and random, but also revealing and deeply embedded in our daily habits and practices. History Writing is easily adaptable for students and a wonderful way to mix low stakes writing, silliness, and student interests into the classroom.

Here’s how it works: Search your browser history and collect the names of 10-15 sites you’ve visited. Write an explanation behind why you were searching these sites; Write a story using available information from sites you visited.

Supplies: A computer you use regularly and a Google doc. See the Search History Writing example.

Time Needed: Up to you.

It’s In The Mail! – Epistolary Poems: Prompts for Writing Outside

“To send a letter is a good way to go somewhere without moving anything but your heart. ~Phyllis Theroux

Epistolary Poems come from the Latin word, ‘epistle,’ which means letter, so an epistolary poem is a poem that reads or otherwise resembles a letter.

In the videos below, you’ll be shown two beautiful and geologically significant landscapes by park rangers who will tell you about the timelines of these landscapes through history. Then they’ll ask you to write a postcard or a letter pertaining to these histories, and for the purpose of this lesson, we ask that you write those ‘letters’ in the form of poetry like this letter to N.Y. from Elizabeth Bishop.

Writing “Sparks”

Spark from Grand Canyon National Park – Write a letter (epistolary poem) about a landscape near you one million years in the future

Content focus: Grand Canyon Geologic Timeline
Age-level recommendations: All ages
Time: 4:42

Ranger Tarryn uses her outstretched arms to demonstrate the huge geologic timeline of the formation of the Grand Canyon National Park. Once she has you thinking in years of that scale, she prompts you to imagine what a landscape near you might be like one million years (!) from today and then write a letter (in the form of a poem) about it.

Spark from First State National Historical Park – Write a letter (epistolary poem) about how your ancestors lived off of the land before modern times

Content focus: The Lenape Peoples and how they moved around to live off the land
Age-level recommendations: All ages
Time: 4:31

Join Ranger Hugh in First State National Historical Park as he tells the story of the Lenape Peoples and how they moved from the hills in the cold months to the valleys in the warmer months in order to follow the food to live off of the land. He then asks you to imagine far back to when your ancestors–before they had grocery stores or neighborhood diners–also relied on the land for food, and to create a postcard with an image depicting this time on the front and a letter (in the form of a poem) describing what this time was like on the back.

Related resources

Below are related resources gathered to further support inquiry and exploration of this topic. If you have additional resources to recommend, please share them online via the hashtag #writeout

Poetry Foundation – Learning the Epistolary Poem

Wikipedia – Epistolary Poem

Allow Me To Introduce … Character-Driven Stories: Prompts for Writing Outside

“I think the best stories always end up being about the people rather than the event, which is to say character-driven.” ― Stephen King

A character-driven story is just as it sounds, a story in which the character is so alive, so complex, that she takes the ‘wheel’ and drives the story to wherever she needs it to go! A fully crafted character will be far more than what he or she looks or sounds like; this character will have wants and needs, fears and dislikes, and if you create a character who wants something but can’t get it, then you already have the plot to a story!

In the following two videos, you’ll be taken to places where the memory of some of the people who once lived there survive through the detailed, personal stories people share of them. You’ll be asked to search your own memory for someone who made an impact on you as a way to begin your own character-driven story.

Writing “Sparks”

Spark from Jimmy Carter National Museum – Think of someone who inspired you in your past and write their story

Content focus: People/Characters who inspire us
Age-level recommendations: 10 and up, intermediate
Time: 5:07

As Ranger Jacob gives a tour of the Jimmy Carter National Historic Park, he tells us of Jimmy’s childhood there, when it was still a rural home and peanut farm, and about Rachel Clark, the woman who worked on the farm who Jimmy thought of as his second mother. After Ranger Jacob reads a poem Carter wrote about his long walks to the creek with Ms. Clark, he asks you to think of someone in your past who inspired you and to write their story.

For this lesson, we suggest that instead of just describing this person, craft them into a real character by creating a situation and writing about how they might handle it. For example: imagine your character has lost something very special to them. Knowing what you know of the person this character is based upon, what would your character do and how would they act?


Spark from Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument – Imagine that a person from the past visits you as a ghost

Content focus: The ghosts of the women’s suffrage movement
Age-level recommendations: 12 and up, intermediate
Time: 5:07

Park Ranger Susan and intern Nia give a tour of the Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument, showing portrait heads, photographs, and paintings of the women integral in the struggle for securing women’s rights in the United States. They also share some friendly ghost stories that guests who have stayed in the old house have shared with them–such as a spirit visiting to remind the guest of the importance of work still to be done–and then they ask you to imagine someone from the past coming to visit you as a ghost and to write that story.

For this lesson, we suggest that you imagine that this ghost also has a message to deliver to you. How does this spirit make itself known to you? Can you see it, or just sense it? If you can’t see it, are there things about this spirit that lets you know who it once was?

Once Upon A…Storytime!: Prompts for writing outside

“To be a person is to have a story to tell.” – Isak Dinesen

Gather around because it’s storytime! Don’t forget to pack your imaginations! You’ll need them to visualize the colors, the landscapes and the drool (yes, drool!) in the stories that you’ll hear in the following two videos and you’ll also need them to write your very own stories in response. So first get comfy, and then get creative!

Writing “Sparks”

A spark from – Children’s Book Author Catherine Stier reading from If I Were A Park Ranger

Content focus: Book reading: “If I Were A Park Ranger”
Age-level recommendations: beginning
Time: 5:51

As a kid, Children’s book author Catherine Stier loved going to America’s different National Parks; so much so that when she grew up she wrote about them. Instead of just describing the different types of parks–the woodsy ones, the mountainy ones, the beachy ones–she chose to write about what her life would be like if her job was actually to be a Park Ranger!

For this lesson, we recommend that after you listen to Catherine’s ideas about being a park ranger, you put on your own imaginary ranger hat and write a story about what you would do in that same role. Tip: Start your story at the moment you check in to the park for work and imagine there is a big emergency that you need to take care of. This emergency can be something realistic, like a park animal has gotten tangled up in the gardener’s hose, or something make-believe, like the park’s trees mysteriously started sneezing like crazy and you had to find out the cause of it! Why? Because you’re the Park Ranger!

A spark from Lisa Browne of Colorful Stories – Retell the story of Abiyoyo including yourself in the mix

Content focus: Storytelling
Age-level recommendations: beginner
Time: 12:54

Come listen to the story of Abiyoyo, animatedly told by Colorful Stories storyteller Lisa Browne. Join in when she sings her songs and claps her hands so you can help bring this giant of a story to life! Afterwards, we suggest that you write (or recite!) your very own monster tale while including yourself in the mix. Tip: You might want to create in pairs or in small groups, and you might choose to do as Lisa did and recite your stories off of notes instead of reading them from the written page (ask your teacher!). Either way, songs and clapping are always encouraged. Drawings, too!

Dear Diary…Record-Keeping Stories: Prompts for writing outside

Anything is bearable if you can make a story out of it. –N. Scott Momaday

Have you ever had so many thoughts running around in your mind that you think that you’ll never sort it all out? Everyone has, because life can be challenging. There are many ways to create order out of a chaotic mind (deep breaths, talking it through with a friend), but one of the most creative ways is to write it out! This can be a healing and helpful way to find a solution to a problem, come to a resolution from an argument, or to keep track of family stories when family members are no longer with us.

The following videos take some deep dives into how writing stories have helped people get through difficult winters of cold and little food, and helped people connect with and understand the struggle of family members who they only knew through old photographs. These prompts are about writing a record of what happened based on notes scribbled in a diary or on the ‘skeleton’ of tales told through the generations.

Writing “Sparks”

A spark from Valley Forge National Historic Park – Think of a time when you overcame something challenging

Content focus: Writing as record-keeping
Age-level recommendations: intermediate, advanced writers
Time: 3:52

Park Ranger Steve sits beside a fire inside a cabin from the American Revolution and describes the harsh conditions of the time. He reads from an old journal kept by one of the residents and, because of the details he used, we learn that the writer used his journal almost as if it was a friend to tell his daily struggles to, as well as to record his days. Steve then prompts you to think about a time when you struggled or were faced with something challenging. How did you handle it? For this lesson we suggest that you write this as if you are telling a friend, and use details and your five senses to help them feel as if they were right there with you.

A spark from Oklahoma State University Writing Project – Stories are passed down through the generations

Content focus: Filling in details of a story you only partially know, and N. Scott Momaday’s idea: History is genetically passed down through generations
Age-level recommendations: intermediate, advanced writers
Time: 11:16

Marlys Cervantes introduces the Native American writer N. Scott Momaday’s idea of ‘Blood Memory’ that stories are passed down through generations by birth. She offers ideas, such as meditative walking, to retrieve those stories or to fill in the details to the ones you might only know the skeleton of. For this lesson we suggest that you try to write a family story that you have heard (or have wondered about due to a mysterious photograph), and use your imagination and perhaps some ‘blood memory’ to fill in all of the details that help it come to life.

Looking Forward To It! Stories set in the future: Prompts for Writing Outside

“The past is always tense, the future perfect.” ― Zadie Smith

One of the most challenging, yet most freeing, aspects to writing stories is that you can bounce around in time from the present to the past to the future to get all of the information to the reader. It’s fun to flip back into the past of a story to shine more light onto how things came to be, but it can be even more fun to bounce forward into the future to imagine how things are going to turn out!

In these next two videos, National Park Rangers will be asking you to put your future suits on and to create situations and worlds based solely on what your imaginations can come up with. And in the third video, Park Ranger Sam steps in with the handy tool of Storyboard-making to help you to visually keep track of the timeline of your ‘plot,’ or, sequence of events.

Writing “Sparks”

A spark from Thomas Edison’s National Historic Park– Imagine leaving an artifact for a future generation to find

Content focus: Artifacts
Age-level recommendations: intermediate, advanced
Time: 2:02

Park Ranger Miller of the Thomas Edison National Historical Park, stands beside the car of Edison’s wife, Mina, and explains that this car, this artifact of the past, tells a story to those who come across it today. It says that Mina chose to live as a confident and independent woman for the era, nearly one hundred years ago. Beth then asks you to think of an artifact that you might leave for future generations to find that would say something about you!

A spark from Springfield Armory National Historic Site – Imagine a city block being overtaken/retaken by nature and time in the future

Content focus: Springfield Armory’s placement within an urban setting
Age-level recommendations: intermediate, advanced writers
Time: 2:06

Park Ranger Scott stands on a porch of the Commandant’s House at the Springfield Armory National Historic Site and explains that the house was situated on top of a hill in order for it to be more easily defensible on all sides. He stands on the porch to avoid the rain, which causes him to think of the woods that once surrounded the structure, but now, after many years, has been replaced by city streets.

He asks you to imagine a city block or urban center (like a plaza) that in the future has been overtaken or retaken by nature. What might that look like in your future world?

A spark from Colorado National Monument—Creating Storyboards to show passage of time

Content focus: Passage of time
Age-level recommendations: beginning, intermediate, advanced
Time: 1:43

Park Ranger Sam stands beside the amazing monoliths of the Colorado National Monument to explain how the immense formations took millions of years to come to look the way that they do today. She shows us how she uses storyboards–sequential squares of changing images that she sketches–to show people who come to the monument just how these changes happened over time. She then suggests that you try your own storyboard of some place that you know that might change over time (an overgrown lawn, an abundant garden, maybe even an urban center that has been overtaken by nature!).

Pocket-Sized Poetry: Haiku Prompts for Writing Outside

“Haiku is a way of culling things from the stream of things that rush past the senses.” – Michael J. Rosen

A Haiku is a form of poetry originated in Japan that uses only seventeen syllables broken up into 3 short lines of 5 syllables, 7 syllables, then 5 syllables again. Traditionally, haiku poems focus on nature and are written with simplicity and directness.

Below you’ll find two short videos  – one from an educator and the other by a Park Ranger – giving their own descriptions of the haiku form along with prompts to write your own.

Writing Sparks

Spark from Delaware Water Gap – Go outside and write a haiku based on your experience.

Content focus: Haiku writing
Age-level recommendations: beginning learner, intermediate learner
Time: 2:13

Ranger Chris walks through a section of the nearly 70,000 miles of woods that straddles New Jersey and Pennsylvania known as the Delaware Water Gap to teach you about the tiny Haiku form of poetry. He makes understanding the 5/7/5 syllable structure a snap! by clapping his hands one time for every syllable, and then he shares his own pocket-sized poem that was inspired by his walk in the woods on an early Autumn day.

Spark from Wileena Booker – Noticing Nature and Write a Haiku.

Content focus: Haiku writing
Age-level recommendations: beginning learner, intermediate learner
Time: 4:18

Educator Wilamena stands under a tree in the Stasburg Community Park, a natural park of native plants that is fully maintained by local volunteers, and writes a Haiku about the breeze. She speaks her 3 lined poem out loud so we can count the 5-7-5 syllable structure with her and then she prompts you to go outside and compose your own Haiku!

More about Haiku

Academy of American Poets Glossary: Haiku – Founded in 1934 to support American poets at all stages of their careers and to foster the appreciation of contemporary poetry— the producer of, Poem-a-Day, National Poetry Month, and more.

The Haiku Foundation – The mission of The Haiku Foundation is to archive our first century of English-language haiku, to expand possibilities for our second, and to seek active exchange with other haiku languages and cultures around the world.

Where To Begin?…Historical Fiction and Origin Stories: Prompts for Writing Outside

“The thing that most attracts me to historical fiction is taking the factual record as far as it is known, using that as scaffolding, and then letting imagination build the structure that fills in those things we can never find out for sure.”
-Geraldine Brooks

Have you ever come across an old structure, like a dilapidated building or a bridge over a creek in the woods, and asked yourself, “What’s the story here?” Have you ever walked away from the structure and found your imagination going wild, coming up with tales of how it came to be? Have you imagined the makers? Not just the story behind why they made something but the various tools and instruments they used to make it. Did you ever think, “Who invented that thing?”

In the next two prompts you’ll be asked to use this imagination and combine it with real, historical facts to write stories that will creatively answer these questions. In the first, you’ll be asked to think of a real invention important to society and, using your imagination, fill in the details of how the inventor first got the idea and how he went about making it work. And in the second one you’ll be asked to write the made-up story behind the very real (and a little spooky!) abandoned mansion on Cumberland Island.

Writing “Sparks”

Spark from Springfield Armory – Write the story surrounding a real invention important to the world.

Content focus: History of inventions
Age-level recommendations: intermediate writers; 12 and up
Time: 1:13

Park Ranger Pearl from the Springfield Armory National Historic Site talks about the many uses of one of their tools – the Blanchard Lathe –  and asks you to think of another important invention from history. While she asks you to write about that history, for the purpose of this prompt, we ask that you use your imagination to fill in the parts of the story that you might not know about, such as the thoughts and feelings of the inventor.

Note that these videos are available in English and Haitian Creole.

Spark from Cumberland Island National Seashore – Write the imaginary origin story (pourquoi story) of the Dungeness Mansion left on Cumberland Island.

Content focus: Origin or Pourquoi Stories
Age-level recommendations: intermediate writers; 12 and up
Time: 3:02

Park Ranger Ethan from Cumberland Island National Seashore, tells the story behind the Carnegie family’s dungeness mansion left abandoned on the Island and asks you to make up your own characters, plot, and events surrounding how the spooky building came to be.

More about Historical Fiction and Origin Stories:

Below are related resources gathered to further support inquiry and exploration of this topic. If you have additional resources to recommend, please share them online via the hashtag #writeout

Writing Historical Fiction: A guest column write Writer’s Digest by the author of the 2013 YA novel,THE BALLAD OF JESSIE PEARL.

Teaching with Pourquoi Stories: A resource created for the Illinois Education Library about teaching with Pourquoi Stories.

Preparing to Teach Historical Fiction: This blog post from NCTE is part of “Build Your Stack,” a initiative focused on helping teachers build their book knowledge and their classroom libraries. The author includes ways to support reading but also “getting beyond reading” by also writing poetry.

Locus Pocus!: Place-Based Poetry Prompts for Writing Outside

“See, the one thing good memories and bad memories have in common is that they both stay with you. I guess that’s why I’ve never known how I feel about this place.”
― Angie Thomas, On the Come Up

Place-based poems are just that, poems based on a particular place. Sometimes the poems celebrate the place, sometimes they investigate it, and sometimes they tell its secrets.

In the two videos below, a writer, educator, and three park rangers ask you to consider Place– the stories, histories, memories, and feelings of a particular place that you know or that is in your community and you are curious about. Each video provides a prompt, and we suggest that you express those prompts in the form of poetry to see how focusing on the images, sounds, and feelings of a place might tell its truest story.

Writing “Sparks”

Spark from Golden Gate National Recreation Center – Imagine a park or other place in your community has a time traveling portal that you can fly through, then write about the different things you see and do in other years.

Content focus: Imagining a place in different time periods by traveling through a magic time portal.
Age-level recommendations: Beginning to advanced writers
Time: Video length = 3:47

The Park Rangers at the Golden Gate National Recreation Center take you through an imaginary time-traveling portal to show you what the park was like in different time periods. They ask you to imagine flying through your own portal in a park or other place in your community and write about the experience, and for this lesson, we suggest that you write your portal flight in the form of a poem!

Spark from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln – An audience, 3 images and a piece of advice: Inspiration from Don Welch’s Advice from a Provincial

Content focus: A place-conscious poetry exercise.
Age-level recommendations: Intermediate to advanced writers
Time: Audio length = 4:48

Dr. Robert Brooke describes that place-conscious education is about the practice of drawing on local natural and cultural resources to ground education in order to make it relevant to learners. Central in this work he emphasizes the dual strands of celebrating and critiquing local place. Begin your own place-conscious writing with this exercise from Robert using a Don Welch poem.


Spark from Oklahoma State University – Consider the real history of your town; search for old photos and, in a journal, collage them with more recent photos and write about the differences.

Content focus: Uncovering the true history of a place
Age-level recommendations: Note that this spark, due to its difficult subject matter, is intended for more mature student writers. Content warning: Extreme racial violence depicted through primary and secondary documents depicting historical events.
Time: Video length = 8:45

Shelley Martin-Young attended and taught in the Oklahoma Schools for over forty years before she learned about the Tulsa Race Massacre that had occurred there in 1921. She was so disturbed by both this new knowledge and the hidden history that she now encourages young writers to pull back the layers to see what their towns or communities were like before they got there. Searching for old photographs and comparing them to recent ones is a great way to get the true story of a place, and we recommend that for this lesson you write about that truth in the form of a poem.

A handout is also available – Knowing Your History: Place, Photography and Poetry.

More about Place-based Poetry

Below are related resources gathered to further support inquiry and exploration of this topic. If you have additional resources to recommend, please share them online via the hashtag #writeout

Place-Conscious Education with the Nebraska Writing Project: This series is designed by and features the work of leading place-conscious teachers of writing and their students and draws upon 25+ years of site-based experience of the Nebraska Writing Project.

Creating Place-based Poems: POV lesson plan for 9-12 graders; In this lesson, students will walk step-by-step through the process of creating place-based poems. They will first practice identifying sights, sounds and other sensory details presented in a video clip about a unique cemetery in Mexico. Students will also investigate how this cemetery inspired the content of two poems by Mexican poet Dolores Dorantes. Students will then list key details about familiar locations in their own community and write place-based poems of their own.

Related resources

The Tulsa Race Massacre, Wikipedia

Tulsa Race Massacre – What You Didn’t Learn In History Class, PBS

Talking About Racism and Racialized Violence with Kids: Teacher resources from the Center from the Racial Justice In Education

Listen Up! Cadence and Rhythm in Poetry: Prompts for Writing Outside

“More people than ever are slowly but surely turning their ears toward poetry.” – Saul Williams

With a focus on sound and rhythm, two-voice poems are poems written to be read aloud by one or more readers in what is known as spoken word poetry.

The vibrant setting of a collective mural covered corner of Idaho called Freak Alley inspired a group of students to write bi-lingual spoken word poems based on the rhythms and cadences of the art and intersecting communities found there. In the video below, you’ll hear some of their ‘two-voice’ poetry and you’ll be asked to observe the cadences and intersections found at an outdoor space near you.

Writing “Sparks”

Spark from Boise State University Writing Project – Write a two-voiced spoken word poem inspired by the cadence, rhythm, beats, and intersections found at an outdoor space near you.

Content focus: Cadence in poetry/Spoken-word poetry
Age-level recommendations: early writers, intermediate writers, advanced writers
Time: 5:59

Cecilia Pattee and her students find inspiration in the art and intersecting communities surrounding Freak Alley of Boise and create bi-lingual, two-voice poems to capture the visual rhythms, cadences, and beats of this iconic outdoor space.

More About Spoken Word and Two Voice Poetry

Below are related resources gathered to further support inquiry and exploration of this topic. If you have additional resources to recommend, please share them online via the hashtag #writeout

Spoken Word explained: A “broad designation for poetry intended for performance” from the Poetry Foundation.

Poetry In Voice – Two Voice Poem Lesson Plan: A two-voice poem is written in two columns. Two students read the poem, and each chooses a column to read. When there are words that appear on the same line, the students read those words in unison (written for grades 8-10).

Writing to Learn: Using Poetry in Two Voices : by Lesley Roessing published by the Association for Middle Level Education