Civically-Engaged Teacher as Writer Teaching Writing Try This

Step Two: Bringing Play and Creativity and Your Writing Practice

Now that you have focused on a topic via Step 1: Getting Started Writing about Topics that Matter, follow the writing exercises linked here to help you think deeply and creatively. They’re fun and easily portable to a classroom!

When you click on the link above, you will be guided through three exercises: “Constrained Writing,” “Cubing,” and “I love you, but…” which is a riff on a wonderful essay poet Beth Ann Fennelly wrote for The Poetry Foundation.


“Specificity makes you think about details and details lead to greater awareness, increased sensibility, illuminating connections, and commonplace surprises.” Tony Romano

Activity: This is a wonderful exercise that will push you to consider specific details of your writing topics. The timed writing in each of the six steps (a cube has six sides, of course) will help you consider the small details of your topic you might have overlooked otherwise.

Supplies: A timer, a writing utensil, and paper or a device for typing (such as a Google Doc).

Time Needed: About 20 minutes


  1. Find: Find a topic about which you want to write. (You probably already did this in the first step of this post.)
  2. Describe: Write for three minutes. Describe your topic. What are its defining features? What does it look like, smell like, feel like, etc.?
  3. Parts: Write for three minutes. What are the parts of your topic? Think of as many ways as you can to separate this topic into discrete elements.
  4. Compare: Write for three minutes. What does this topic resemble, look like, similar to, or remind you of?
  5. Cause: Write for three minutes. What can your topic cause? Think of as many things this issue can cause to happen.
  6. Change: Write for three minutes. How has this topic changed over time? Could it transform into in the future? Think to yourself, “before and after.” What was it in the past? What could it become in the future?

I Love You, but …

… love works best when it’s light on conflict. “I love you, you love me;” that makes for good times and bad verse. – Beth Ann Fennelly

Activity: This activity, an extension of Beth Ann Fennelly’s wonderful essay, was one of our favorites. It’s fun, funny, passionate, and deeply moving. With students, “I love you, but…” becomes a tool for close reading, complicating and thinking about issues, and a powerful way to acknowledge the ambiguity and ambivalence that is so much a part of growing up. Follow the instructions below to write your own decidedly complicated love poem.

For inspiration you can also read our collection of “I Love You, But..” poems here, in our Writing for Civic Engagement Anthology.

Supplies: Everything but: Creating Tension in Love Poetry by Beth Ann Fennelly, a writing utensil, and and paper or a device for typing (such as a Google Doc).

Time Needed:  10-15 minutes


  • “I love ______. But, _______”
  • What do you love about your writing topic?
  • Articulate your ardor. Why do you love your topic?
  • BUT. What is keeping your love from perfection?

Use those prompts to write a quick poem. Don’t overthink it.

Constrained Writing

Activity: Constrained writing is an exercise that delimits your writing through a certain condition or requirement. The ways to do this are endless, as all writing is constrained in some way. One of the most famous examples is Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham, which was written in response to a bet between Seuss and his publisher that he could not complete a story using 50 or less words. In 2008, Paul Griffiths published a novel composed only of the 483 words spoken by Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Poetic form is constrained writing that is formal and established.

For this exercise, you will need some of your own writing – a minimum of five sentences. Remove all words containing the vowel “U” and replace them with a “non-U” word. Notice how your sentence structure and word choices change to raise your writing to the next level. Another Chicago Area Writing Project favorite, this exercise asks you to think about word choice in exciting and creative ways.

Supplies: Your own writing–at least five sentences, and a writing utensil and paper or a computer.

Time Needed: About 20 minutes


NO U’s! –> I have worked through several (at times very ridiculous) ideas for focusing this paper to arrive at what I hope is an interesting and useful collection of ideas and forms. Certainly, this work is grounded in narrative inquiry, but it is also autoethnography, straight-on creative writing, and doing-what-I-feel-like playfulness. Perhaps it best sits in traditions of creative scholarly writing and alternative methodological approaches.

NO U’s REWRITE –> I have completed several (at times very silly) ideas for rewriting this paper to arrive at what I hope is an interesting and innovative collection of ideas and forms. Certainly, this work is based in narrative traditions. However, it also represents efforts toward a new kind of scholarly writing and alternative methodological approaches.

This post is part of the Teachers Writing for Civic Engagement collection.