Ok, so no actual tears have ever been involved with freewriting for me. But I did think about crying when I observed one of my student teachers mind-wrestling with her students in back-to-back classes over what they should do during freewriting.
She read a picture book, If You’re Not From the Prairie, aloud to them, then invited them to freewrite about the book or about anything on their minds. There was a wonderful potential prompt borrowing the repetitive “if you’re not from the prairie” and writing about your own place. I know these teen writers have plenty to say about the place they live (the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation), but they didn’t seem to make the connection between the book and their own writing lives.
Instead, there were lots of blank stares, followed by lots of questions:
- What are we doing?
- What should I write?
- How long does it have to be?
- Wait, I can write about anything?
- What do you want us to do?
- Can I go to the bathroom?
- How long does it have to be?
I thought these students had never done freewriting in their live–but no. It turns out they’ve done it multiple times. It would be easy for my student teacher to dip a teaching toe into a presumably simple practice like freewriting, become overwhelmed by student confusion, reluctance, disengagement, or resistance, and jump out of the pool.
But that would be a mistake, because freewriting or quickwriting can be a very powerful classroom practice.
As a writer, I value freewriting for the low-stakes space it gives me to practice, play, explore, and discover.
I don’t figure out what to write or how to write by thinking about writing or talking about writing. I figure it out by writing. Freewriting helps me identify subjects to write about, develop pieces, experiment with different styles and points of view, get unstuck. Freewriting is where I make messes, run into a thousand dead ends, then find a way through. It’s how I live like a writer.
As a teacher, I value freewriting as the foundation of a workshop classroom where students develop their own subjects and write to make sense of their lives.
I also value it as a tool for thinking. I appreciate how a couple of minutes of directed freewriting in my classes that aren’t writing-focused can uncover reactions and responses that might have remained silent or hidden if we launched directly into discussion first. Discussion is richer, more varied, and generally includes more participants if we write first about the text or topic I plan to discuss. Writing, for so many of us, is how we think.
When I’m doing freewriting right in my classes, students value the practice. Nobody groans when it’s time for freewriting. Nobody asks how long it has to be. (Not after the first couple of times anyway.) A magical silence falls over the classroom when we sit down to write together. It’s a different kind of silence—the silence of a community of writers deeply engaged in a common task.
This is how I make freewriting work.
Have a purpose. Freewriting is most powerful when teachers use it for the same purposes as writers use it—as a space for practice, play, discovery, and exploration. When used for daily bell work, brain dumps, or rote practice of assigned writing tasks, freewriting loses its meaning and value and becomes something to resist.
Examine your rules. You need only one rule for freewriting: keep your pen moving. Imposing word counts, page lengths, required numbers of sentences, incorporation of specific grammar rules or punctuation isn’t necessary or appropriate. Resist your need to control. Resist your students’ desire for crutches.
Model it. I always sit down and write with my students. If you do only one thing to make freewriting work in your classroom, make it this: sit down and write with your students. I try out different approaches and techniques in my writer’s notebook and share those as potential models for my students. I try to be a working writer in my classroom.
Do it daily. Writing comes most easily when it’s a daily practice. When I haven’t done any freewriting for awhile, I feel out of shape when I sit down to do it. The words come much more easily when I’m in the daily habit of looking for things to write about and thinking of my life as something worth writing.
Keep it short. Three minutes, five minutes, no more than ten minutes. Set the timer. It’s better to call time when students are still in a hot rush of writing.
Give a trigger. “Write about anything” only leads to writer’s block. Even writing practice guru Natalie Goldberg wants a writing prompt. Consider prompts carefully, however. There’s a huge difference between assigning a prompt like “I remember” and asking students to write about whether they’d rather have blue feet or go to outer space (an actual freewriting prompt that my poor son had to write about this year.) I invite writing by sharing picture books, photos, paintings, quotations, poems, and many sentence starters like “I remember.” I also invite students to draw maps of their neighborhood and heart maps. Penny Kittle, Linda Rief, and Georgia Heard have wonderful ideas for quickwrites that generate powerful writing.
Give yourself permission to write badly. I write badly all the time. And I share plenty of my own bad writing with my students. It doesn’t matter if it’s good or bad. What matters is that it’s yours and that you share it.
Read your own freewrites to your students. My students only begin to see the possibilities for freewriting when they have models to learn from. My writing becomes the model. I play with different structures and forms, incorporate different writing techniques, and let my students hear these pieces. Sometimes my freewrites are boring, stupid, messy, full of complaints about how I don’t have anything to write. I share those with my students too. They need to know that not every freewrite is going to be special. In fact, most won’t be. That’s why it’s a practice.
Require sharing, but give options. Occasionally we just write and close our notebooks, but usually we do something with the freewrites. Sometimes I ask for volunteers to share entire pieces. Sometimes we do a read-around where I ask everyone to share something—even if it’s just one word. And yes, students do sometimes choose to share only the word “and.” But that’s okay with me. It’s scary to share your writing. If “and” is where they’re at, it’s a place to start.
Reread it. One strategy I really like from Penny Kittle is instant revision. Reread your piece, find a word or sentence that you want to keep writing from, skip a space, copy the word or sentence, and start a second piece. This simple five-minute technique shows students how writing generates more writing, how writers develop their ideas and mine their own work.
Use it. My writer’s notebook contains hundreds of seed ideas that may be developed into polished, published pieces of writing. Most of my blog posts start life as freewrites. Because freewriting is the foundation of my own writing life, I can show students how the daily practice of writing uncovers ideas and topics that I develop. I can show them how I use freewriting throughout the process of every piece of writing I do.
What has worked for your classroom in developing a practice of powerful freewriting?