I started a practice of nightly, independent writing with my students this year on a whim.
(For the record, if you are ever going to start a giant, year-long project with students on a whim, do make sure that the idea came from Nancie Atwell. I think that makes a difference.)
And so, since September, my students have written for 20-minutes outside of class on five nights per week. After the freaking out ceased and we got into the swing of things, I have received every kind of feedback you would predict:
“I love this! Now, I don’t have to feel bad about spending homework time writing my novel!”
“Yeah, I guess it’s okay. I mean, I write some stuff, so that’s cool.”
“Uh, yeah …I write,” said whilst avoiding eye contact and smirking.
Some students are really into it, some have grown to love the practice, some report that they can see a change in their writing because they are writing so much more frequently, and some, I know, are totally phoning it in or faking it. I’m okay (more or less) with all of these outcomes. To do what’s best for my students overall, I have to be.
And now, we need to do something with some of this writing. If students are going to dedicate their time to developing pieces of writing on their own, I need to legitimize that by bringing those pieces into the “real” writing workshop of the classroom. I’ve come to believe that if I want my students to maintain writing lives after their year in my classroom is over, I have to give as much time to their writing projects as I give to the writing studies that are my instructional priority. Their independent writing projects need to become my priority.
But even after months of nightly independent writing, when I told my students that they would get to develop one of these projects into bigger piece of polished, publishable writing, I got a roomful of blank stares. Because, you know, where to begin?
In response, I taught a little mini-lesson — Four Launching Points for Your Independent Writing. I offer them here to you to help your students get started with independent writing large and small, from nightly writing to big, self-directed writing projects.
Sometimes past writing, even tiny bits of it, can lead us to present writing projects. Notebook Time is designed to provide seeds of ideas that could someday be developed into something more. And, of course, this is the very purpose of the 20 minutes of nightly independent writing — to give writers an opportunity to try on ideas to see if they might want to develop it into something bigger later.
Past writing from other classes can also provide ideas, though. Sara used a Mari Andrew illustration as inspiration to write a piece about how her friends’ zodiac signs speak to their friendship style. Katherine used the first sentence of a discarded personal essay as the first line of a new poem describing a house that is special in her family.
Perhaps your student wrote a book review in English last year, and they really enjoyed it. They might choose to write another review. Or, conversely, maybe that review didn’t go so well, but now that he is older, wiser, and has more writing experience under his belt, he wants to tackle it again to get it right. Maybe they started a novel years ago when they were wee bitty, but the idea has stuck with them — this might be a place to which they return now.
This is the easiest and most predictable starting point. “Well, what do you like? What do you know a lot about? WHAT do you want to write about?” Students who begin with topics might find them within their writer’s notebook, but they also probably come instantly to mind. Soccer, video games, superheroes, a Netflix series — these are our students’ favorite things, and so a natural starting point for a piece of independent writing.
What students don’t do as naturally, though, is brainstorm the different genres that might help them explore this topic. When I walked through this mini-lesson with students, I did some brainstorming in front of them using one of their topics — music.
(Beware – -this big, broad, vague topic will always come up in your classroom. Mark my words.)
Here’s what we brainstormed together:
- Personal essay about a time music made a big difference in the listener’s life
- Informational writing about a genre of music or a musician
- A review of an album, a song, or a concert
- An opinion piece on why one genre of music (or musician) is the best of the year.
- A story where music features prominently
When they begin with a topic, students need to next walk through this process of seeing what the topic would look like in many different genres. Then they can pick the genre that best matches their vision and get to work.
Will & Charlie are two writers who began with the same topic (football) and moved in two very different directions. After brainstorming different genres in which they could write about football, Will decided to write an opinion commentary about the need for stricter cuts in youth league football, while Charlie wrote a free verse poem expressing his position on the NFL kneeling controversy.
Conversely, students may find it easier to start with a genre — a kind of writing they want to do. In fact, this is where most of my students began. They said things like, “I’ve never written fiction, so I think I want to do a short story” or “I want to write something really opinionated that would change someone’s mind” and “I want to write something that’s going to make someone cry.”
(Notice that student writers don’t necessarily have “proper” genre words at hand — they more often describe the kind of writing or the effect of that writing. That’s when we can swoop in with a quick writing conference and give them a name: “You want to write something that would change someone’s mind! That’s awesome. Sounds like something you might find in the newspaper in the opinion section. Why don’t you start looking there?” or “You know, the genre writers use the most to elicit pure, raw emotion is poetry. How does that sound to you?”)
When students know what genre they want to begin with, the next best step is for them to do some writing off the page — an Atwellian brain dump — to search for ideas. Harry wanted to write historical fiction, a genre he’s always loved reading but never tried writing. In his notebook, he began by brainstorming the time periods he might want to write about. He decided he already knew the most about the pre-Civil War south, so he wouldn’t need to do oodles of research. With a time period in mind and a genre chosen, Harry started drafting.
And sometimes you just come across a mentor text that makes you say, “Ooooh, I wish I had written that. Maybe I could write that …”
Students can only do this if we let them loose to explore, recommending a few favorite sites along the way. But I’ve found that just a very few minutes of strategic web-surfing yields huge discoveries.
(I showed my students A.V.Club, Vulture, The Ringer, The New York Times, and Vox to get them going. I briefly scrolled through, read a few headlines (some of which were not appropriate), and told them what kinds of writing they might see on this site. That was it.)
From their travels around the Internet, Fisher and Amani both got ideas that led to final pieces of writing. Fisher loved Pitchfork’s music reviews (he had started with music reviews on A.V. Club, but I nudged him toward Pitchfork when I saw that he wanted to write a review). Amani stumbled upon The New York Times’ 36 Hours In… series and used it to create a piece about traveling to Chicago, her favorite city.
Starting with a mentor text usually creates a product most attuned to the inspiration and guidance of the pros.
What are other starting points for authentic, independent writing? How do you help your students move past the panic of a blank page to the writing launching pad? Leave a comment here, find me on Facebook, or on Twitter @rebekahodell1.