Friday, August 14, 2015

How I Spent my Summer Vacation: A New Twist on an Old Essay

When I was in elementary school, we were assigned the classic back to school essay:

How I Spent My Summer Vacation.  

It was a good way to start pulling us away from the carefree days of our break and back to the task at hand.  This old essay is still a good way to start the school year.  It is a creative way for your students to write nonfiction that does not need any research.   And it is a way to get the creative juices flowing again.

Teachers hope to see more than just a laundry list of summer activities.  I like to encourage young writers to think about an original way to approach this essay. 

I connect with students by providing interactive videoconferences with schools all over the country.   One of my favorites is a program I titled

Where Ideas Come From:  
Brainstorming with a Nonfiction Author

Teachers and students like this session because it is helpful and lots of fun.  It is truly audience participation because I believe that to model what I’m teaching them about brainstorming-we need to actually brainstorm together.  Live and on the spot.  Yep, it is risky.  I never know what they will say-or worse if they will clam up and say nothing.   So far, so good.  Every time I’ve done this program the students had lots to say!  

What I want to do with my students is to model how they can take a mundane topic and put their own unique spin on it.   I encourage them to think “out of the box”.  Sometimes in this session students come up with amazing creative ideas.  Yessss!! The goal is accomplished!

My session goes something like this:
When asked to brainstorm for ideas on an essay on How I Spent My Summer Vacation, most students will come up with the usual suspects:

I was out of school
I slept late
I went swimming
I went on a trip
I visited family
I watched TV and movies

All these are great places to start.  Now let’s take these ideas to the next level.  Reality is that in classrooms there are kids with a wide variety of experiences.  Some vacationed on sandy beaches while others stayed home alone all summer.  

Great writing doesn’t depend on having extraordinary life experiences. . .
it depends on putting a unique spin on 
ordinary life experiences.  
Carla Killough McClafferty

Let’s start with the students who stayed home all summer and played basketball in their own neighborhood.   If they wanted to write about this, the  following questions could generate something to focus on in an essay. 

Did you learn a new basketball skill?
How did you learn it? 
Did someone teach you? 
A new friend?  An old friend?  A brother, uncle, father, sister?
Did you win a game against someone for the first time?
Did you have a hot streak and make many baskets in a row?
For a student who played ball all summer, suddenly their essay could include friendship, family relationships, competition, or how they improved their skills.

How about the student who traveled to the beach?  A little brainstorming could bring up some possibilities on how to go a different direction with their essay.    

Did you travel by car, plane, or train?
Did something interesting happen on the way there?
Did you make up your own travel games?
Did you devise a way to keep your brother from bothering you?
Did you get car sick? 
Did you see a dolphin? A shark?  
Did you walk on the beach and find a neat shell, or stone, or glass?
Did you learn to swim?
Or try to surf?
Build a sandcastle?
Find a tidal pool?

Suddenly, the essay can be more than going on a trip to the beach.  It could be about family relationships, building a fort in the sand, watching a sand crab, walking on the beach at night, or learning to do something new.

No matter what, students can bring something unique to their own essay because each one is unique.  

So with a fresh school year upon us, let's brainstorm! 

If you want to learn more about my videoconferences, contact me through
or go to

Thanks to my fellow TAs for beginning our back to school posts with a bang.   Esther Hershenhorn reviewed Kate Messner’s book Real Revision which sounds like a great way to get the creative juices flowing as the back to school season begins. 

JoAnn Early Macken started it off with a post about how to Write a Poem Step by Step.   And don’t forget to enter the book giveaway.  You might be the lucky winner of a copy of this excellent book by JoAnn Early Macken. 

Carla Killough McClafferty


JoAnn Early Macken said...

Asking questions is a wonderful way to draw out more details from student writers. Your brainstorming sessions sound like great fun!

Carla Killough McClafferty said...

Thanks, JoAnn.

Carmela Martino said...

Great activity, Carla. And I especially love your quote:
>>Great writing doesn’t depend on having extraordinary life experiences. . .
it depends on putting a unique spin on
ordinary life experiences.<<