Team Brainstorming Tools For Essay

When you ask your middle school student to select a topic for a research project or a writing assignment does he tend to have:

1) Too many unrelated ideas?  

2) Not a single idea to begin with?

I have one child in each of these camps!

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As my children are moving through the middle school years I have tried to be mindful of some important life skills and academic skillsthey should develop as they prepare for high school.  Thanks to our new writing program we have been practicing one of these important skills – Brainstorming!

What is Brainstorming?

“A technique used to solve problems and encourage creativity in which members of a group share their ideas about a subject” – Merriam-Webster

Brainstorming is all about generating ideas.  Students can use brainstorming as a pre-writing activity, to think of topics for a project or presentation, and as a tool for problem solving.

During the brainstorming process students (individually or as a group) should write down every idea that comes to mind. This is the time for creativity and “out of the box” thinking. It is important to remind students NOT to judge the usefulness of ideas at this point, just get the ideas out and documented.

Tips for Teaching Brainstorming

In my days before homeschooling I worked in Human Resources and Corporate Training.  I often facilitated brainstorming sessions with project teams as they worked to find solutions to workplace issues.  I’ve used some of the same techniques to help my children learn this important skill:

  • Ask one or two key questions to get the brainstorming started.  Prompt students to offer responses and input to the question.
  • Set a goal – Ask students to come up with a set number of responses in a certain amount of time.
  • Remind students that all ideas are good ideas.  The crazier the better!
  • Have students practice brainstorming individually and with a partner or a group.  Help them see the benefits of gathering ideas from many sources – when they listen to other people they will often find ideas very different from their own that will spark even more ideas.
  • Use graphic organizer to collect and organize ideas into related groups.

Brainstorming Tools for Students

When the brainstorming responses begin flowing students will need a way to document their ideas.  Encourage students to be creative with the documentation process — no need for formal outlines or long explanations during brainstorming!

Students should use shapes, colors, and lines to write down their ideas and then connect/group them together.  Offer creative writing tools and graphic organizers to support the brainstorming process.

Here are several helpful tools:

Dry Erase Board and Markers – Write ideas all over the board with colorful markers then draw lines and shapes to connect the ideas.

Popplet – Online tool for the iPad and web to visually capture and organize ideas.  Create up to 5 “Popplets” for free. –  Online tool to create mind maps, export as an image, and share them.  Create up to 3 mind maps for free.

Text 2 Mindmap – If your students like a bit more structure, they can create a text outline and have it transformed into visual mind  map. Create mind maps for free, additional options for a fee.

Wise Mapping – Create and share mind maps with this free open source software.

Exploratree – Free online library of thinking guides.  Print and complete a wide variety of graphic organizers or use the helpful instructions to fill in and save the information on the website.

And the tool that helped us begin our brainstorming activities:

End Blank Page Terror Forever – FREE ebook filled with “24 Pre-Writing Tools & Guidelines to Organize Content, Take Notes with Ease & Make Your Kids Confident Writers” offered by Fortuigence.

By using several of these brainstorming tools both of my children are now better prepared for their writing projects.  They have  been able to think of interesting topics AND fine-tune their focus for their writing assignments.

Brainstorming is an effective problem solving skill students will use throughout their lifetime. 

Which brainstorming tools does your child find most helpful?

It is time to start your college application essay. And these five brainstorming games are gonna help you do it.

You’ve listened to the college search lectures in high school, taken notes in English class, and chatted with your guidance counselor. Your work space at home is all set up you’re your laptop or notebook, a drink to stay hydrated, and, of course, a snack to fuel your thoughts. You’ve even read the essay how to’s on CollegeXpress; you know from How To Write the College Application Essay that you need to choose a prompt, brainstorm, write, proofread, and submit. And College Application Essay: What Really Works! taught you that you should have a catchy opening but shouldn’t have any clichés.

You know exactly what to do. There’s only one problem: you’re not doing it. You want to write your application essay, but your fingers are frozen. You stare at a blank page and that blinking, mocking curser. You have writer’s block, quite possibly from the anxiety of writing this essay that is going to determine your future. You can just see the college admission officers now…laughing at your essay…telling all their admission officer friends that you are an awful choice…ruining your chances of ever going to college or getting a job or probably have a good life ever… No? Just me?

At any rate, applying to college feels overwhelming for every high schooler at times, especially when it comes to the essay. Even as someone who has read a lot about writing a quality application essay, I had trouble starting mine. It’s so easy to put it off in an effort to avoid the stress, but speed writing the night before the application is due does not produce a quality essay—and it’s way more stressful. Procrastination collects anxiety interest and when payments are due, it’s not pretty.

The best time to start your college application essay is your junior year, before you really start the official application process. This way you have plenty of time for a few drafts and an opportunity for a teacher to read it too. Then, when you are ready to apply to your schools, you already have an essay to turn in (or at least practice writing one!).

Of course, you first have to overcome that stubborn writer’s block. Here are five fun, stress-free ways to brainstorm for college essays. (PS I call for paper and writing utensils in these exercises, and though you could use a computer, there is something kind of neat about stepping away from technology and treating these brainstorming techniques as little games!)

1. The group essay party


  • A group of friends (I suggest five or more)
  • Lined paper
  • Pens or pencils
  • Printed college application essay prompts
  • Timer

This group activity is a way to be inspired by other’s words and have fun exploring your own.

Print out some essay prompts. Include both the Common Application prompts and some prompts directly from colleges, like ones from the University of Chicago. Create two piles in front of the writers: a Common Application prompt pile and a college prompt pile. Place the prompts face down. Writers must choose one from each pile. They cannot change the prompts, but they may choose which to write about first. The challenge is the writers must find some way to address the prompts, even if it seems silly or far fetched and even if they would never choose it in real life.

Set the timer for five to 10 minutes and have writers write anything that comes to mind. Then repeat for the second prompt. When time is up, everyone should read their essays aloud or pass their papers around the circle. The reader's goal is to comment only on the good, like a line that stands out or a clever angle. Then, the writers can take the good from this brainstorm game and perhaps run with it for draft. (You can also talk to your teacher about doing this activity as a class. The teacher can collect and distribute nameless papers randomly, so only they know which paper belongs to which student.)

Obviously, you will be able to choose the essay prompt that fits you when the time comes, but this game fosters out-of-the-box thinking by forcing you to consider questions you might have discarded otherwise. And you may be surprised—your least favorite prompt may inspire your best essay.

2. The interview


  • Application essay prompts
  • Voice or video recorder

Often a great essay is right on the tip of your tongue, but your hands don't cooperate. When that happens, abandon your hands and use your voice instead.

After all, prompts are questions from college admission officers. Answer them! Create a voice memo or video that records your response. Then transcribe what you said onto your piece of paper. From there, just begin to rewrite and edit. Once you get rolling, there’s no stopping you.

3. Shapeshifter


  • Application essay prompts
  • Lined paper
  • Pen or pencil
  • Optional: the object described below…

Having trouble writing about yourself? Then don’t. Let something else do it for you…

Choose an object central to who you are. It could be a pair of dance shoes, a baseball bat, or a book. (You could also choose a place, like a studio, dug out, or library. In which case, you might want to do this exercise at that place if you can!) It can be anything that connects to you and the prompt. Then, write from the perspective of that object in your life.

When a senior at my high school was asked to write about her future ambitions, she wrote from the perspective of a microphone to depict her passion for performing. This is a great exercise for students who enjoy creative writing because you are able to use your imagination to uncover a real part of yourself.

4. Time traveler


  • Lined paper
  • Pen or pencil

This brainstorm game is great for the essay prompts that ask for lessons you learned, challenges you overcame, or the moment you grew up. But instead of using college prompts, you’re going to think of a memory to begin a story. Ask yourself, “When was the first time I realized something was wrong or right in my life?” or “If I had a memoir what childhood memory would need to be in there?” The flashback to your childhood provides an anecdote that will entice the readers to read more and show your growth.

5. Twinning


  • Sample application essays (You’ll find some examples here and here.)
  • Lined paper
  • Pen or pencil

With this brainstorming technique, all you need to do is read college essays from students who were accepted to college. Not only will they give you an idea of what colleges want, but they can also inspire you to uncover your own story. Consider the tone, approach, and length of each essay. Notice the various angles and voices in the essays. A successful essay can be funny or serious, direct or abstract. Read the commentary about the perks of each essay if they’re offered, and use it as a guide. For instance, The Beard, an essay about adulthood, is entwined with a whimsical anecdote of a high school senior’s pride in his first “real” beard. (This essay actually inspired me to use comedy in my own essay—to my teacher’s delight, I might add.)

You are not the first to write a college essay. Learn from others’ success.

You can overcome the stress of writing the college essay. Whether it is with your friends, your voice, or your pen, find the first word and keep going.

Note: Did you know you could win a $10,000 scholarship for college or grad school just by registering on CollegeXpress? This is one of the quickest, easiest scholarships you’ll ever apply for. Register Now »

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