lesson plan

Brain Spelunking

The following lesson plan was written by Scott Beal for Don't Forget to Write for the Elementary Grades (Jossy-Bass, 2011), a collection of lesson plans compiled by 826 National, a network of nonprofit organizations dedicated to helping students, ages six through eighteen, with expository and creative writing, and to helping teachers inspire their students to write. This lesson plan is intended for a two- to four-hour session, depending on which activities are used.


Over a hundred years ago, a guy named Sigmund Freud pointed out that our brains are not as smart and orderly as we like to think. Instead, there’s a ton of weird stuff swirling below the surface—which we see shades of in our dreams about dinosaur dentists and flying bananas and going to school in scuba gear. The crazy ideas we see in our dreams are always right there inside us, but they mostly try to hide during the daytime.

Suppose your brain is like the Earth. On top is the crust, which is the part we can see, that has trees and skyscrapers and giraffes on it. But that’s just a small fraction of the planet. Below that there’s roiling magma and tectonic plates and a molten iron core. And that deep-down hidden stuff cause major happenings on the surface—like volcanoes and earthquakes and gravity—even though we never see it directly. Sigmund Freud suggested that our brains are like that. He called the top layer the Conscious, and the underneath layer the Unconscious (or Subconscious), but the principle is the same: all that hidden stuff we glimpse in our dreams has a big effect on who we are, even though we can’t always see the connections.

One way to find amazing material for writing is to trick that stuff into coming out when we’re awake—to dive below the surface (like brain spelunkers!) and dig out the sparkling buried nuggets. That’s what this workshop is about.

Note: The sequence of activities here is flexible—none of them depends on the others to work, so you can mix and match, or leave things out for a shorter workshop. 

Spelunking Trick #1: Augmented Automatic Writing

First, have each student make a small deck of random item cards, as follows:

Take a clean sheet of paper and fold it in half three times, then unfold to show a page divided into eight boxes. 

1. In row #1, write two animals 
2. In row #2, write two machines
3. In row #3, write two things that taste good
4. In row #4, write two things that hurt

For example:


Rug burnThorn

Tear the sheet along the folds, leaving you with eight scraps of paper. Put them in a pile, shuffle, and place face down.

At this point, I read the students a surrealist or pseudo-surrealist poem—usually Andre Breton’s “The Verb to Be” or James Tate’s “My Private Tasmania” (a web search should turn them up). We discuss what parts of the poem stick out for them and what kind of sense (if any) the poem makes. You can skip this part to save time or if you don’t have a suitable poem handy.

Then I ask them to pick the name of a powerful emotion or a faraway place (such as Loneliness or Jealousy or Zanzibar or East St. Louis), and to write down a first line in one of the following constructions: “I know the general outline of __________ [emotion or place].” —following Breton
“My private ________ [emotion or place] has never been…” —following Tate

Then I ask them to write, as follows:

1. Once I say “go” you must start writing immediately, and you must not stop until I say “stop.” Whatever pops into your head, write it down. Even if it’s “la la la la la” or “I don’t know what to write.” Don’t worry about whether it’s any good or makes any sense.
2. Whenever you get stuck or need a jolt, turn over a card from your stack, and whatever is on that card, put it in the poem immediately. Then keep going. You don’t have to go through all your cards—use as many or as few as you want or need.

I give them about ten or twelve minutes to write. If they complain that their hands are cramping, that means they’re doing it right.

Rationale: The purpose of automatic writing is to keep writing so quickly that the brain doesn’t have a chance to filter anything out, so that weird stuff happening in the subconscious can make it onto the page. The use of the random object cards is meant to surprise the brain into making unusual connections that it wouldn’t otherwise (consciously) make.


Spelunking Trick #2: Question Chains

Have each student write down three questions beginning with “Why” and three answers beginning with “Because.” The answers do not necessarily have to go with the questions.

Pair up. One student reads his or her first question, and the other reads his or her first answer, with (presumably) absurd and amusing results. They take turns reading questions and answers until they get through their lists. If time permits, have each pair present their best question/answer combination to the whole group. What are their favorites, and why?

Now that they have the idea, give them 5-10 minutes to write a quick poem (or script) consisting of questions and answers. Logic is neither required nor encouraged. (As an alternative, you can just have each student pick a favorite question/answer combo and use it as the starting point for some free-form writing.)

Rationale: The randomness of the pairings circumvents the strict cause/effect logic built into the structure of the why/because questions, which forces the brain into confronting nonsense as logic.

Spelunking Trick #3: Technicolor Rorschach Blots


White or colored cardstock, 1 or 2 sheets per students (regular or construction paper will NOT work)
Food coloring, various colors

Give each student a sheet of cardstock and set a few droppers of food coloring at each table. (Note: It’s not a bad idea to cover each table with newspaper first, assuming that newspaper still exists.) Each student should sprinkle a few drops (not too much) of food coloring on his or her cardstock. Then fold the cardstock quickly down the center and press the two halves together. After a few seconds, unfold the cardstock and see a symmetrical abstract design—like a classic Rorschach inkblot, but in color.

Have students make a quick brainstorming list (3 minutes) of all the shapes and images they can see inside their inkblots. Then ask them to write a story or poem (10-15 minutes) focusing on the one image that is most interesting to them, or else trying to combine all the various images together.

Making inkblots is fun, so they may want to do more than one. If you have time and cardstock to spare, you may want to let them do two or three each, and then pick their favorite to write about.

Rationale: Free association of images seen in a Rorschach inkblot was a classic psychoanalytic technique to reveal hidden obsessions or traumas at the heart of patients’ problems. The way our brains assemble random blobs of color into images, it is presumed, reveals something about our makeup.


Spelunking Trick #4: Mystical Image Delving


One set of interesting images (postcards, storybook illustrations, magazine photos, and so on)

You can use any set of images for this exercise to work. Once every student has a card or image, ask them each to write a three-sentence description of what they see happening. Who is doing what? How are things positioned, and how are they moving or changing? (The sentences can be straightforward, and they don’t have to cover everything, but if they write, “I see a tree. I see a man. I see some water,” then the exercise won’t go anywhere.)

Now, have the students perform the following steps:

  1. Take the description you’ve just written and draw a box around every noun.
  2. Circle every verb.
  3. Underline every adjective or adverb.
  4. On a separate sheet of paper, make a list of all the nouns you’ve boxed.
  5. Below that, make a list of all the verbs you’ve circled.
  6. Below that, make a list of all the adjectives and adverbs you’ve underlined.
  7. Put away your image and your original description, so you are looking only at your lists.
  8. Do a quick free association for every word on your three lists. That is, look at each word, and then next to it, write down the first thing that it makes you think of. For example, if your first noun is “key” and that makes you think of “palm tree,” then write “palm tree” next to the word “key” on your list. Do this for every noun, verb, adjective, and adverb. Go quickly and don’t think a lot about it.
  9. Get back out your original description.
  10. Rewrite the original three sentences, but substitute in all the new words for the original words. (So, in the example above, where the word “key” appeared in the original sentence, now you will write “palm tree.”)

The three new sentences can be considered a complete piece—congratulations, you’re done! Isn’t it weird? Alternatively, students can keep adding sentences that try to continue the weird mojo of the first three, or that try to explain the first three.

Rationale: As odd as the resulting sentences may be, they are a reflection of the students’ own brain. Their original descriptions come from the details that they have observed from their image (whereas another person may have picked up on completely different details), and the replacement words all come from their own associations. So the new bizarre writing is a reflection, on some level, of the way their brain works. 

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