Write Where You Are: How Writing Helps Us Process Life

Things are a little stressful in Texas, where I live. 

We just survived a snow-pocalypse the likes we’ve not seen in a century. Many of us had power outages, no internet, no water, or busted pipes, and this was just during the week of SNOVID! That doesn’t include all of the trials of the aftermath. And our governor just rescinded the mask mandate. Plus, in Texas, we are entering “testing season” (Isn’t that sad? But that’s a blog post for another day.), so not only are teachers, and students, stressed about COVID and the busted pipes that flooded the numerous schools, but we also have to figure out when are we going to get our writing samples done for TELPAS?

As I began to think about what to write for this blog post, I was stumped. I thought my well had dried up. When I took some time to sit and think about it, I realized all of the above-mentioned factors were clouding my focus. Then I started to think about teachers and students. If I’m feeling this way, I know I’m not the only one. And I know some of the items I mentioned above are extreme and only happen once a lifetime (possibly), but there are so many other things going on in our lives that get us to lose focus. I’m an adult and should be able to separate work, home, etc., but sometimes I can’t compartmentalize everything. Just imagine the kids who don’t have the cognitive function or the knowledge of how to do that. 

How can we support students in processing what’s going on in their life, and then help them to sort through the mess to help them focus? How can we use writing to move our students not just through Blooms but also through Maslow? These questions and their answers left me pondering. 

How writing can help us

According to the article “Science shows us something surprising about people who still journal”, people who journal and free write are healthier physically and mentally. (Note: this includes writing on paper or a computer screen.) The article goes on to describe all the benefits of free or journal writing, but I wanted to dive deeper. I found this study published by the Cambridge Press, and it details their findings on how writing can improve a myriad of symptoms. 

The study had its subjects write about traumatic or emotional experiences for 3-5 sessions, most often over consecutive days, for 15-20 minutes per session. Participants reported they were, sometimes, retraumatized by their writing experience, but they reported that they found it valuable, meaningful, and it helped them process what had happened to them. 

What was the outcome of this study? The authors of this journal article, Karen A. Baikie and Kay Wilhelm, found the “immediate impact of expressive writing is usually a short-term increase in distress, negative mood and physical symptoms, and a decrease in positive mood compared with controls. However, at longer-term follow-up, many studies have continued to find evidence of health benefits in terms of objectively assessed outcomes, self-reported physical health outcomes and self-reported emotional health outcomes.”

After reading all of this, it made me wonder why we don’t all write? If it has proven to have such great side effects, why aren’t we all doing this and why aren’t we using this in our classrooms more? 

How we can use writing in the classroom to help students

If we want to move our writers, we have to meet them where they are, and that includes emotionally as well as academically. If our students are enduring trauma or stress, they will bring it into the classroom, but here are some ideas on how writing can help them process while you can also teach writing skills. 

  1. Freewrite – This is exactly what it sounds like – students start writing and let the words take them where they want to go. Set a timer for a certain amount of time (If you are starting this, I would start with 5 minutes and work your way up from there.), and let the students jump in, writing about whatever they want (hence the word “freewrite”). If you want students to write about something specific or if you want to start this process with a little scaffold, you can give them a topic or sentence stem. As you do this more often, and as the trust in your classroom grows, students will start to write about things they normally wouldn’t write or talk about with people. This will lead to students feeling better mentally and physically, which will increase their motivation to write.
    • Teach Writing Skills – you can use these entries as revising and editing practice with grammar. You may also stipulate to the students they need to have a beginning, middle, and end to their writing entry. This won’t stifle their creativity and writing per se, but it will help review that important storytelling skill. 
  2. Pen Poetry – this can be in the same vein as the freewrite but could also be more structured. According to the article, “The Power of Writing: 3 Types of Therapeutic Writing”, have the students make a list of images from their childhood. (The article suggests starting with positive images.) After they have their images, have them write down their feelings associated with the images and the sensations they experienced. Then, using the details they collected, have them write their poem.  
    • Teach Writing Skills – You can easily integrate this into your poetry unit or into your instruction on how to write a poem. They can’t get better if they don’t practice, so let them practice writing poems. 
  3. Write a Letter You Will Not Send – Give the students a situation: imagine a (chosen) family member or friend has written to them with the question of “How are you doing, really?”, and then write them back explaining exactly how you are doing. Another exercise is to let students write to someone who they have some feelings of anger or aggression toward, and they can confront that person on paper. As stated in “The Power of Writing” article, this allows the writer to gain a clearer understanding of their thoughts and feelings about a particular person or event. 
    • Teach Writing Skills – Writing a letter is a life skill, and I know some states (like Texas) still require us to teach it, so this could easily fit into a letter-writing lesson. You can also take this and make it an email and tie it into email etiquette. Like I said in the “Pen Poetry” section, they can’t get better if they don’t practice, so let them practice writing a letter or email. 

If you can add in a little dash of social-emotional writing strategies into your classroom, your students will be healthier, happier, and, most likely, will be so excited to come to your class and school. Plus, it will help them realize just how helpful (in school and life) writing can be. As Julia Cameron says in her book The Right to Write, “We should write because it is human nature to write. Writing claims our world. It makes it directly and specifically our own. We should write because humans are spiritual beings and writing is a powerful form of prayer and meditation, connecting us both to our own insights and to a higher and deeper level of inner guidance as well… We should write because writing is good for the soul… We should write, above all, because we are writers whether we call ourselves writers or not.”

How do you help your students process through writing? What types of social emotional prompts and activities do you use? You can connect with me on Twitter @shawnaeaston03 or on Facebook at facebook.com/movingwriters.

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1 Comment

  1. Wow! How appropriate your opening is! I just turned in my TELPAS writing samples, and we are getting ready to benchmark next week with a test from 2019 with the old TEKS. All this is amid a proliferation of spring activities; yesterday they were out with FFA, track, softball, baseball, and one act play. Our school opened up so we can give students the opportunity to participate in extra-curricular activities, but only a few are really participating. I feel like I’m hovering on one side and putting out fires on the other. I’m glad spring break is a week away!

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