Genius Hour, but for Writers

Breather Routines and the Misdiagnosis of Writing Stamina

I produce a podcast called Write Answers, and about a month ago, Beth Rimer (co-director of the Ohio Writing Project) and I recorded an interview in which she talked about a between-unit-plans break that she called “Breather Routines.” A Breather Routine can be a 1-3 week series of lessons that reviews something from earlier in the year or addresses a need. It’s a chance to reset and/or come up for air after a long and winding unit of study.

I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this concept since our chat, and recently, I tried a new application: build up what teachers sometimes call “Writing Stamina.”

First of all, I think that 90% of the time, we misdiagnose “Writing Stamina.” Take a second and think about what really goes into a writer’s ability to produce a large quantity of content.

When I was a kid, and the idea of writing more than a page felt like an insurmountable task, it actually had nothing to do with physical or mental energy. I had plenty of both, just ask my parents some time. It wasn’t because I just needed more practice either. When teachers prescribed this kind of mindless practice, as you may have predicted, it only made things worse.

I can’t remember the exact moment writing clicked into place for me, but I know this: there were two factors that unlocked my “Writing Stamina.” As I go back through my earliest memories of sustained writing, I was always excited to write about the topic, and I was usually trying out a couple of key craft moves (most often ones I’d noticed in a book). Oh, and there was one more thing: more often than not, the element of play was involved. I was either experimenting with an idea or creating a parody that poked fun at what I’d later call a “mentor text.”

So, when we think about building “Writing Stamina,” I wonder if we might consider shifting our approach to the problem. I wonder if we might consider using “Breather Routines” to infuse our instruction with joy, useful craft moves, and play.

With all that in mind, I’ll be outlining a “Breather Routine” I implemented to help students unlock the ability to create more well-developed pieces of writing. It ended up being kind of like Genius Hour, but for writers…

Coming Up with Ideas

It’s hard to be a joyful and inspired writer if you aren’t excited about what you’re writing. And although I’m well aware that we can often work our way into joyful writing, it can also be nice to just have fun once in a while. So, when we got started, I did not open with an essential question, assignment overview, or learning target. I just opened by saying, “So, for the next few weeks, we’re just going to try to have fun with writing.” Pressure and deadlines can be useful, but when the main focus is to build joyful writers, these might be counterproductive.

Next, we dove into two different idea generators:

  1. Some students already had ideas or had access to ideas in the Writing Territories section of their notebooks. I went into how you can build these up here. These students just want to do their own thing, so why not let them!
Check out my “Deep Dives and Side Quests” post for more ideas on developing writing territories!
  1. Some students are completely freaked out by this kind of open-ended work. Maybe they’re afraid they won’t be able to write something good, or maybe they feel anxious without clearcut and concrete expectations. So, I created a new classroom job: Writer-in-residence. The Writer-in-residence is typically the first to share their writing at our classroom “Open Mics” or end of workshop sharing, and they come up with daily writing prompts. These prompts are usually something ridiculous like, “I was having a picnic, and all of a sudden, I saw a flying hotdog.” I’ve noticed that the more ridiculous the prompt, the more carefree–and joyful the writing tends to be. Probably not a coincidence…

All-purpose Mini-lessons

For some students, as I’m sure you’re well aware, just injecting some joyful play is all they need to be off to the races. For others, they need some easy-to-implement strategies to unlock their “Writing Stamina.”

Lesson 1: Structure

If ideas are a faucet, structure is the bathtub. Without the tub, you’ve got a mess on your hands. There’s a TCRWP Units of Study strategy that can help. It goes something like this: pretend like the piece you’re going to write is a book. Make a table of contents. What would each chapter be called? Now, look at your title for “Chapter 1.” This is going to be the topic of your first paragraph. Chapter 2 will be paragraph 2, and so on. I can’t tell you how many kids started writing two to three times as much (and used actual paragraphs!) just using this strategy alone.

Lesson 2: Upgrading and Getting Unstuck

This one’s cool because it can be used as a revision strategy or as a way of breaking through Writer’s Block. In Notebook Know-how, Aimee Buckner describes a strategy called “Try 10.” Let’s say your intro lacks a hook, you simply try to write as many versions as you can of it in a short period of time, and see how close you can get to 10 different ideas. You might remix this strategy by showing students some great opening lines as mentor text inspiration first.

Students in my class use this strategy to revise their opening and closing lines–but they also use it when they have a bit of Writer’s Block. They get out some scrap paper and test ride a couple different possibilities.

A section of my “Breather Routine” anchor chart

Lesson 3: Address a Need

While students write, take a couple minutes before you confer to study where they go right and where they founder. Both can serve as inspiration for mini-lessons. You might teach students to “point the camera,” “mic the characters,” or maybe “pause and share some inner thinking.” Now that they’re having fun, you might even use the opportunity to get students playing with writing conventions!

Conferring into the past…and future

Remember, this isn’t just a free-for-all. It’s an intentional “Breather Routine.” As kids play and experiment, you can confer with kids to see how (or if) they are transferring past strategies to their current work. You can also front-load students you work with to prepare them for a strategy you’ll be teaching next.

The most interesting thing I’ve found is that, during this “Breather Routine,” my students are producing their best work yet. It shows me that the floors and ceilings for their learning are much higher than I’d realized. And their “Writing Stamina?” It’s off the charts. When we exit our “Breather” and jump into our next unit, we’ll have reset the foundation. Now, the main struggle shifts from, “How do we get some momentum?” to “How do we keep it going?”

This is where conferring can play the biggest role. Every writing conference ends with something like, “The important thing is, now you have a strategy you can use in this piece–and whatever else you work on this year–to help you ___________.” I don’t want our “Breather Routine” to be an island oasis where students enjoyed a fleeting, magical moment in their writing. I want it to be a place where students can relax…and learn.

Do you use something like “Breather Routines” in your classroom? I’d love to hear all about it. Leave a comment below, or find us @MrWteach and @MovingWriters on Twitter!

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