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Warm-up Exercise: Brain Dump

This warm-up exercise is perfect for days when your students are feeling stressed, frustrated, or unfocused. You can use it at the start of class to help students clear their brains, or mid-class as a way to interrupt any feelings of negativity. If you are working on any sort of dramatic writing, this activity can help students practice sitting down and writing, even when they are having a tough time doing so. It’s also a technique you can use yourself if you are feeling stressed or upset. 

This low-tech activity can be done in-person or via distance learning.

Materials Needed:
  • Writing implement (pen, pencil, marker, crayon – for this activity, it doesn’t matter)
  • Scrap paper (can be lined or unlined, or “g.o.o.s.” paper – good on one side)
  • Timer or stopwatch (teacher only)
  • Recycling bin or garbage can

1. Have each student grab a writing implement and piece of paper.

2. Set a timer for five minutes (or whatever time you prefer).

3. For those five minutes, students will free write about everything that’s on their minds. For example:

  • What is something that recently upset you or made you angry?
  • What’s something that’s currently stressing you out?
  • Describe a sound that annoys you.
  • What is something you’d like to say to someone but feel like you can’t?
  • See below for a list of more writing prompts.

This isn’t a time for perfect writing or self-censoring. Students should not stress about spelling, grammar, or perfect penmanship. They should not feel that they need to come up with a reason, justification, or solution to the topic at hand if they can’t or don’t want to. If students are having trouble thinking of what to write, have them write “I don’t know what to write” over and over until the timer goes off. If they are really struggling with words, have them draw or scribble how they’re feeling. Just encourage them to keep the pen to the page for the full five minutes.

4. When the time is up, have students put their writing implements away. At the same time, they will all take a deep breath. When you give a signal, they will take their papers and scrunch them up, making lots of noise. They can vocalize if they want to while they’re scrunching – it can be a great release of stress and tension.

5. One by one, students will take their scrunched up paper and dramatically throw it into the recycling bin (preferred) or garbage can. Students can stomp on and chuck the paper, toss it into the bin like a basketball, rip it into confetti and let it float down, or pick it up with a pincer grasp like it’s something smelly and fling it. Again, they can vocalize when they throw out their paper if they feel so inclined.

Note: If you are in an in-person classroom, once all the students have thrown out their papers, take the bin and make a show of disposing of the papers. This is both a symbolic gesture and a practical one – you are removing those negative thoughts from the room, while ensuring that the papers are not found later (in case someone has written something about another student, for example).

6. Ask students: How do you feel now? It’s best for students to respond verbally if they’re comfortable, either as a full class or in small groups, as their hands might be sore from writing! The goal is for students to experience catharsis. Some students may have a different reaction – see if those feelings are shared with other students.

7. If you wish, have students complete this exercise at a different time, as homework. Have them submit a brief written reflection (a few sentences is plenty) describing how they felt afterwards, and whether the experience was helpful or not.

Click here for a free list of additional writing prompts.
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