Friday, March 2, 2012

Free to Write

Time in my classroom is one of the most valuable resources we have, as most teachers will tell you. Making good use of mine today, freewrite in class helped me flesh out a rough draft of this blog post.  One of my favorite writing times in my classroom this year has been when we are doing timed freewriting every Thursday. We are writing every day, but our freewriting time is sacred in terms of topic choice.  The only rule is don't stop writing.  Of course this week, it got moved to Friday this week due to testing, another eater of time.

Our freewriting focus has been on lines per minute and we have used the time to experiment with the "science" of writing.  The science of writing in our class has to do with conditions that may\may not increase the speed of our writing.  Today, we traded pencils for pens.  I opened up my personal pencil\pen bag and let the students choose. One student even used our principal's pen to write today and he found that her pen made him write many more lines after many weeks at a plateu.  I admit it is a extra fine pen that I was happy to find in my hands after a meeting one day. I let him walk out of class with it. Another day we experimented with "cushioning our paper."  On days when the phone interrupts, we learn about writing distractors.  Mostly we just learn about how to keep the words flowing and get our ideas onto paper. Every writer needs a time and space to do that.

I have always used freewriting in my classroom, but I have never had students calculate lines per minute (lpm) and track it over time, a first for me each year. As a former track coach, I use the language of PRs or personal records as we talk about writing fluency and lpm.  We are working toward our personal best that day.  We also rank ourselves as a way to study who is writing the most during the time and ask them what is going on so we can pick up tips from them.  Kids flow up and down the chart with me.   For the first time, my students seem comfortable with the idea of doing work without receiving a grade. It also could be related to the ownership that they take for their work as well and that they feel they are learning something without the extrinsic qualifer related to grades.

In the beginning students often had trouble writing for five minutes, but now it is a routine practice that they look forward to each week.  Today I had two students in my regular class English I class sustain their writing for 22 minutes.  I look forward to reading their lines this weekend.   The quality of my students' writing has improved and I have only changed two of my writing instructional practices this year, my approach to freewriting and the other I am saving for another SOL.

For our freewrites, the power of choice has always been a motivator.  But earlier in our writing practice this year, we learned that topic choice is most important when writing.  We discovered it together as we figured out people who have topics that they know well or care about wrote more.  Now students are more thoughtful with their topic choice.  Unprompted, some students generate rough drafts for a review of a book that they most recently finished. Some create a story, while others just tell me what's on their mind.  I learn the most about them from what's on their mind.  It's becoming a state of the union of sorts for some, our weekly check-in.   Many share that they find it liberating to write without a judge, themselves as they are learning to write quickly without the voice of the critic. 

We've discovered that writing can be influenced by the tools we use, but also our state of mind.  Did Dr. S have her coffee today?  Did you have your breakfast?  How many hours of sleep did you have?   My students are learning to articulate that there's something else going on right now that's distracting me or to use writing as a way to rid themselves of distractions.

I never forget the first day that a student in my regular class beat me.  It was an amazing morning of organic celebration where students were high fiving him and out of their seats cheering.  We were so excited we didn't notice the instructional coach and the assistant principal stop by.  (To my chagrin, no I-Pad captured the celebration as part of the new teacher evaluation system in Florida...again another topic for SOL)  A memorable moment for the entire class.  Now students routinely beat me.  They are encouraged because they know I have peaked and that they haven't pushed their limits with their fresh hands and vision of the world.   

What I've learned about the power of this time in my class, is that 10 minutes once a week is just one way to carve out out a space to develop lifelong writers and help them find some balance. 


  1. I like your scientific approach to writing! I am learning that the key to writing is just to write and write, and that is what you are teaching your students with these exercises. I enjoyed reading this,

  2. I love how the first paragraph and the last two really bring it home for me. I wondered how they would read just together. I wanted to see a picture of all of those sticky flags you're using to track lines! Tell me more about that process. Do kids just get up and move their flag posty when they finish writing? Do you move them? How's the traffic pattern working?

  3. Lee Ann--would love to add pictures as soon as I figure it out! They get up and move. It is part of our exercise for the day. I try to get the up at least once a day. Jama- Opportunities to write more frequently are part of the process to developing writers. My quasi-scientific approach is more about them thinking metacognitively about the process than anything else.


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