Learning from Students About Daily Writing Practice
Write freely and without censor.
Free-writing is a stream of consciousness writing. The ideas flow to the page as they arrive even if the connections are not initially seen. It’s not about structure or grammar or spelling. Free-writing is the most powerful type of writing practice as it teaches students that writing is essentially about expression and thought.
My English classes usually started with free-writing. Students arrived, took their seats, prepared their workspace, looked at the board for a prompt, and began to write.
Most students liked structure, routines, and clear instructions. Among the most engaging prompts were student-generated ones.
Even with a prompt writing can feel like getting in a big bubble and rolling down a hill by a farmer’s field. At first we feel strange, a lack of control, but then we realize it is safe, we will end up somewhere, and we accept the surprises that come with the experience.
Write about the ideas in books. Writing is about making connections.
One year we studied John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany, a coming-of-age story about an extraordinary boy and his friend growing up in a New England town in the 1950s and 1960s. Owen believes he is an instrument of God and prepares to live out his self-prophesized destiny. The book sparked many questions for the students about friendship and faith and fate— after an exhilarating debate about family, students struggled to reconnect to the literary devices or plot details. We often spent most of the class exploring how Irving’s themes related to our experiences. Story was a vehicle for students to develop understanding about big ideas that mattered to them.
They gravitated to the big questions. Is there a God? What happens when I die? Does love have a limit?
Anytime we shifted out of the mechanics of story and into the realm of life, students engaged eagerly. The questions offered big empty spaces for diverse perspectives. Students respected that we could have different ideas about death or love. Abstract thinking was fascinating to them. For many, it was the first time they talked freely about death, exploring theories and beliefs without the influence of their parents by engaging in structured dialogue with their peers.
Our daily writing prompts became the big questions students posed while reading Owen Meany’s story.
Reading and writing are interdependent activities.
Students demonstrated the most growth in their critical thinking and expressive writing when the topic was relevant to their experiences and when it complemented the other work we were doing in class.
Some days I put this on the board: “Free choice—write what you like.” Students spent much more time chatting with their friends about the party on the weekend than writing. Many students didn’t get past putting the date on the page, saying “I’ll do it when I get home.”
Students consistently wrote less when they were given free choice.
On the days where I didn’t put anything on the board, students defended their right to skip the writing part of class because the topic was missing. “We could just take a break,” they’d say.
To write every day, teenagers need to be interested in the topic, to be invited to explore big ideas in fresh ways. Students also need the routine (accountability) of writing daily.
Adult writers often need structure and a purpose too.
Otherwise we can look for distractions and excuses. The paradox: to liberate our writing we need limits.
Every day we write is a beginning—
We can allow the words to guide us through the complexities of memory, forming details on the page without censor or expectation, welcoming surprise, opening up pathways and bridges and yellow brick roads to memory that seem to belong to another far-off version of ourselves.
As I get older, I learn that memory can be a tricky coyote, filing my experiences in non-linear ways, mixing them up with others, sending out pieces at a time as memory.
Can you remember specific details about your childhood? What happens when you look closely at the moment and try to recall what happened just before or just after?
And so it’s time to begin.
I sit at my desk. I breathe. And go.
Luckily I have no shortage of ideas now, just a shortage of writing time.