Which one sounds more familiar?
- My students look forward to writing every day, and frequently ask for more time to work on writing pieces.
- My students don’t write every day. When they are asked to write, many groan audibly in protest.
In honesty, I’ve had both situations over the years. Through trial and error, I hit upon two key factors that led to students learning to love expressing themselves through writing. It’s not magic; it’s totally within reach.
First, they needed more than writing assignments; they needed writing instruction. Duh, right?! And I’m embarrassed to admit that it took me awhile to realize I wasn’t doing enough actual teaching in the early years. I’ve talked about teaching writing a bit more on this post and this series too! (Find more on painless persuasive writing here.)
The second thing my students needed was lots (and I mean LOTS!) of high-quality practice.
What exactly is “high-quality”?
Writing prompts that are:
- inspiring (or at least interesting)
- on a variety of topics
- from a variety of genres
- varied in task & length
And what do I mean by practice?
Every.Single.Day. In Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers, he claims it takes 10,000 hours to become expert at something. 10,000 hours! Obviously, not all of our students will go on to become expert writers, but it’s clear that they need much more practice than they often get to become even capable and confident writers!
This does NOT mean you are going to grade it all, or even read it all. Some practice is just practice, after all! If you feel compelled to grade every piece of writing your students produce, you are inevitably going to assign far less writing than you should, simply due to constraints of space and time! So, you’re going to want to let that idea of grading it all go right now.
It can be really freeing for students to know that a lot of their practice will produce writing they aren’t particularly proud of or inspired by, and that’s to be expected. There will be lot of awful ideas mixed in with your gems. It’s a numbers game, really! You’ve got to do a lot of awful work to get past the awful phase!
How can we implement high-quality writing practice?
As I’ve said, I believe writing should happen every day. My general pattern is about two weeks of daily quick writes, followed by one or two weeks of taking one idea through the entire writing process. I like to use quick writes every day as a warm up, even when I plan to do additional writing lessons or activities. Part of the reason for that is I’m working on getting students to stretch their creativity and imagination each day. Another reason is it gets students into a routine of writing right away and not worrying about whether they like their ideas. Finally, quick writes have become a student favorite. They want to do it, and they get upset when I try to cut it out to save time for something else.
How does it look in the lesson plans?
Quick writes are the start of a writing lesson and last 10 – 20 minutes in total.
I like to use visual writing prompts when possible (more on this below). Students free-write on a prompt for about 5-10 minutes, depending on the prompt and what else is going on in the writing block that day.
I always reserve another 5-10 minutes for students to share out what they wrote. This is always on a volunteer basis. I like giving this time because it gives students a chance to hear how their peers may have stretched an idea out of a prompt they might not have thought was that interesting. They will frequently try to write something to impress or entertain their peers. In general, I find it raises the bar of everyone’s writing and creativity the more they hear what others are writing. Of course, I also enjoy hearing which prompts triggered their imaginations, and I will often find mini-lesson ideas from what they share.
Every 2-3 weeks, students go back into their journals to select a piece to take through the writing process, all the way to publishing. This means students will be submitting on different prompts. In some cases, you may need to constrain them a bit and request they look back and choose one piece to develop into a short story, descriptive paragraph, or something else you want them to do based on your standards.
Why does it work?
Students know what to do
My least favorite things to hear is, “I don’t know what to write!” Because the prompts are visual, even the students who don’t feel terribly imaginative that day have a strong place to start. I’ve taken great care to select images and prompts that are inspiring (or at least interesting)!
Students have choice
While I give a prompt, students have permission to go off on a tangent and let inspiration take them where it will. My goal is to get them writing and learn that inspiration can come from anywhere, so I don’t sweat it if they don’t do exactly what the prompt asks for quick writes. Of course, there is a fair amount of instruction about the differences in freedom with quick writes, and prompts for exams, where you can’t ignore the prompt. Students can and do get the distinction, but if you are worried about that, you can ask them to stick to the prompts given.
Students care what their peers think
Because students want impress and entertain each other, they naturally start bending prompts to their will. Those who may not enjoy writing hear daily examples from their peers, and over time many of them come to appreciate and enjoy writing more as a result.
Short, focused, & consistent
Students practice for just a few minutes a day, which helps them get more comfortable with the terror that is the empty page! Those who are reluctant know you aren’t going to make them go all the way through the writing process, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Some prompts urge a full paragraph, but others ask for lists, opening lines, movie titles, etc. The main goals are to get students sparked creatively and get them writing, even if the ideas aren’t ultimately great, right away. The daily consistency builds comfort and stamina, and once those are in place, even reluctant writers can get out of their own way and begin to create!
Student choice (yes, again!)
Every 2-3 weeks (10-15 quick writes) students only have to take one to develop into a full, published piece. They can combine ideas, or shoot off in an unexpected direction. This allows them to experiment and try a number of ideas before anything is ever graded. Not every idea is a gem; we all know that. This format acknowledges that reality by empowering students to throw out all but their best ideas. It’s so much more fun to write when you like your ideas and are inspired by the prompts, isn’t it?
Students are basically workshopping ideas every day. This gets them good at fluid thinking and fluid writing, and just getting started writing quickly.
Inspiration can be found in so many places. May you never hear, “I don’t know what to write!” again!
Two Ways to Try it Out
I have created 10 sets of 20 engaging quick writes prompts, more than enough to get you through the school year that are available in my TpT shop, linked below. The files come in editable PowerPoint and editable Google Slides(TM), so you can tweak them as you like and push them out easily to your students devices in 1:1 classrooms.
But free is also fun, isn’t it? So I’ve put together a sample set of 10 prompts to let you try it our in your classroom for two weeks for free.
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