Foldify enables users to create a cube with images, roll it across the desk, and then apparently write on the topic it randomly lands on. I'm pretty sure this is how Hemingway got his writing start. Cute? Yes. Will teachers buy it? Probably. Does it come remotely close to authentic writing topic selection? Don't think so. Writing Challenge may be the worst of a bad lot. Not only does it provide writing prompts, but it adds the pressure of a countdown timer to turn writing into a "game" (Oh, boy!).
I have no particular objection to Book Writer or Writer's Studio, but I would characterize both as a multimedia publication tools rather than creative writing apps. I'd rather kids had a developed writing draft or some completed research before they started working to incorporate video, voice recordings, images, and other file types.
Now, let's get back to that creative writing support notion. The first four apps don't support creative writing, they turn it into something else (e.g., a game!) and remove part of the responsibility (coming up with your own topics) from the writer. "They've got to learn to write to prompts, because that's what our state writing test requires," notes a concerned teacher (to which I respond, narrowing a full year's writing curriculum to test preparation is short-sighted, counter-productive, and entirely understandable in the absurdly high stakes era of American public schools these days (here's a reasonable response to high stakes assessment by the American Psychological Association). It's also unethical and unacceptable. Students deserve better.
So, can we get students writing without telling them what to write? Sure. Here are some tested alternatives to helping students learn to come up with their own writing topics and write more willingly. Each of these strategies are used to help students identify their own ideas and then have the freedom to choose them during writing time.
• Many teachers use a Gimme 5 strategy. Using a couple of mini-lessons over time, they have students list such topics as "5 things that make me happy," "5 things that make me sad," "5 places I'd rather be right now than in school," "5 people I'd like to meet," "5 things I like to do on the weekend," "5 things I enjoyed reading," "5 books I hate," "5 things teachers do that help me learn," etc. Each time they have students make a list, they also have students share their lists with one another. This accomplishes two things, 1) lists of 5 often become lists of 6 or 7 ideas; and 2) students become more aware of their audience's interests. Save the lists in the students' writing folders/notebooks.
• Photos. Give students a camera to take home over the weekend to take pictures of activities and places they enjoy away from school. Download the photos to classroom computers/iPads and/or print them and save in writing folders or notebooks. You can find inexpensive digital cameras at discount stores and online (e.g., Kidz or Vivitar are > $20). You can get very nice resolution for less than $20 if you search (PTA or service organization might make a donation).
• Drawing. Many students enjoy drawing. Drawing can be a form of planning, if done before writing (see, e.g.,
Sidelnick, M.A., & Svoboda, M.L. (2000). The bridge between drawing and writing: Hannah's story. Reading Teacher, 54, 174–184.).
• Can't-Stop-Writing. Have students write for a short period of time, 2-3 minutes. Whenever they have no ideas, they write repeatedly "I can't stop writing," until they think of something. I had middle grade students when I taught public school, who decided to test me, so they wrote "I can't stop writing" for the entire 3 minutes. For several days. I waited them out. They ultimately discovered, in the sharing of ideas by their classmates after each session, that it was easier and more interesting to actually write about topics they cared about. Save these exercises as additional topic choices.
• Keep a class list of events, activities, unexpected happenings, enjoyable experiences that occur through the day, week, and school year on chart paper in the classroom. Some teachers negotiate this list with students by debriefing about the day before children go home.
• Teach your students to keep a writer's notebook. They can write things they observe during the day or evening, make lists of people's odd habits, write down interesting words, write down memories from childhood, save quotes they enjoy, paste in magazine and newspaper articles/headlines, copy jokes, and more. Ralph Fletcher has some wonderful ideas on writer's notebooks and more. Ruth Ayres has a marvellous video that let's you (and your students) peek inside her writer's notebook.
• Here's one that will never fly. It's too simple. Do what real writers do, and have your students write daily. When it's a habit of mind and not a surprise, students generally respond well.
Help your students find their own topics, and they'll have more to say, be more engaged in your writing class, and you'll have more time to figure out how to teach them how to write better instead of generating topics for them.