It never fails. When I ask my 8th grade students to take out their independent reading book and read during Reading Workshop they whip out their books, find a comfy spot in the room, and have at 'er. However, when I ask students to take out their Writer's Notebook and free write, the response is severely different: a series of moans, immediate off task behaviors, me having to give several "reminders" of what the expectations for independent writing are. So here is my question: why do students love to read but hate to write? It is my belief that somewhere in our school system we have failed students as writers. They have come to view writing as the teacher telling them exactly what to write about and how to write it. And then once they do, the teacher tears that writing apart. It is a deadly spiral. Deadly because in the process, we literally kill our students' creative spirit. At the beginning of third quarter this school year, I decided to tackle this problem head on. Not because I thought I could fix it, but I did believe that I could improve it.
Implementing Biweekly Free Choice Pieces:
At the beginning of third quarter I stood in front of my class and explained that I would be collecting a free choice writing piece from them every other Thursday. The piece could be on any topic, written in any genre. Students would be expected to free write in their writer's notebooks for a minimum of 40 minutes per week outside of school and would receive 40 minutes per week during class to free write as well. Every other week they were to select a piece of writing as a result of this free write time, type it up, and submit it to me. I would be grading the free write piece using a Six Traits rubric. You honestly would have thought that I just announced we were going to stand on our heads all hour as I glanced around at the horrified faces of my students, grumbling under their breaths at my bizarre request.
Throughout the following two weeks, we committed 40 minutes of class time weekly to free writing. I would by lying if I didn't say it was a struggle and I questioned giving up on the concept all together. The first fateful Thursday arrived, and my students submitted their first free choice piece. While reading and grading them over the weekend, I was pleasantly surprised by a few students who really put themselves out there. I was also disappointed by another handful of students who did not even tiptoe outside of the box. We came back together and continued with our routine of committing time to free writing inside and outside of class.
It is now the middle of fourth quarter and our routine of free writing and turning in free choice pieces on a biweekly basis has remained consistent. I am amazed at the results. I have students who submit a chapter of a fiction story to me each time a piece is due. Whenever I have received fiction stories from students in the past, they commonly start out strong and then rush to a hurried ending and never seem developed. This is simply because students don't have enough time to write them. I am literally at the edge of my seat waiting for the next chapters of some of these stories. My students have me hooked into the plot and are using narrative elements such as foreshadowing, character development, dialogue, and setting details to put together chapters which will become more like a book than the usual rushed fiction story.
I am having conversations with students about what they are going to submit next, why they made the decisions that they did in their free writes, and really getting to know who they are as writers. I have learned more about my students as writers throughout these free write pieces than I have from reading their persuasive essays, research papers, literary analysis papers, and narratives combined. It's interesting to see what they produce when there are no limitations put on them as writers. Some students have found their inner poet, while others have taken the opportunity to do a research investigation on a question they've always wondered about, while others have decided to write a memoir of a significant moment in their lives.
Building a Community Through Sharing:
We also take time once a month for students to share a piece of their writing with small groups within the classroom. One share technique that I really like is separating students into four small groups and deciding on an order of sharing. I tell students that they must present one piece of longer writing or several pieces of shorter writing. Students decide on a presenting order, and I time three minutes. If a student finishes presenting their writing before the three minutes are up, the other group members give feedback and ask the student questions about their writing. That presenter then rotates clockwise to the next group and presents the same or a different piece of writing for the next three minutes. After this, presenter #1 returns to his or her original group, presenter #2 begins, and we repeat the process until all students have presented their writing for three minutes to two different groups. By having students share their writing with one another, we celebrate what they have done as writers, practice their public speaking skills, allow other students to hear a variety of writing and form new ideas for their own writing, and create a community of writers.
What I like about this free write process is it allows me to still use Writing Workshop to teach students about specific genres of writing and having them work on these genres in addition to their free choice pieces. Students are doing so much more writing than I have seen them do in the past and having a variety of free choice, along with writing instruction on specific genres and Common Core expectations has allowed them to become more well-rounded writers. Is it a perfect system? Absolutely not. Has every single one of my students made a significant change and bought into the free write system? Nope. However, as a whole, this has made a positive impact on my students as writers. Free write time during Writing Workshop looks and sounds very different than it did just a few short months ago. I highly encourage incorporating free choice pieces into Writing Workshop in order to develop a community of writers within your classroom.
For those wanting to try this in your classroom, a great first step is to create a list as a class of ideas for free choice pieces. Go back to this list frequently to expand ideas of what free write pieces may include.
Here is a sample of the handout I give to my students with their list of guidelines for the free write: