First of all, if you ever have the opportunity to go to a workshop by Gretchen Bernabei, definitely do so. She offers so many great ideas to teach writing, and one that I hooked onto and have used successfully many times is the Quick List and Kernel Essay. What I found when using them was that even students were surprised at how good their writing sounded. Plus they also creates a structure to build a great piece of writing.
The first step is to create a Quick List of possible topics, or students can use a topic they already have. As a substitute, I always have the students create a Quick List since it avoids the "I don't know what to write about" dilemma. I have students number a paper 1 though 5. And then I provide a guide as to what those five topic choices will be. I usually do something like: 1) A time when you felt the most proud; 2) A sad time; 3) A reptile moment (some sort of encounter with a reptile); 4) The last time you laughed really hard; 5) A pet peeve. Along the way, I give examples and share stories from my life. Once the list is created, the students look over their responses and circle one. That is their topic for the Kernel Essay.
To start the Kernel Essay, I tell students to write one sentence telling me where they were at this time. The next sentence answers the question, "What happened first?" Continue having students write one sentence for: what happened next; how were you feeling; what happened last; and what did you learn. Again, I model along the way, choosing a topic from my life. You can change up the questions as you wish. Gretchen Bernabei offers many examples in her workshops and books. Once a sentence is written for these six questions, I have students share what they have written. The results are amazing!
The Kernel Essay is just a starting piece for a more involved piece of writing. I like to have the students create flip books, writing one sentence from their kernel on each page. Then having them add as many details on each page as possible. Once all this is written together, students have a complete piece of writing. Try it! I promise you will like the results!