4 Launching Points for Independent Writing

June 23, 2020

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!”

and

“Yeah, I guess it’s okay. I mean, I write some stuff, so that’s cool.”

and

“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.

Past writing

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.

Topic

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.)

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Charlie’s free verse poem about the NFL kneeling controversy

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.

Genre

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.”

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The first paragraph of Harry’s historical fiction

(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.

Mentor Text

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.

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Amani’s NYT-inspired 36 Hours in Chicago

(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. 

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Managing Independent Writing

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I love a giant leap. A big swing.

I want to tell you that I carefully research, weigh, and plan each and every instructional decision that rolls forth from my desk. But I don’t.

More often than not, I don’t think all that much.  I come up with a wild “What if?”, jump, and see what happens. This is how “What If I Just Threw Away Everything I’ve Ever Done With Writing Before and Do This Writing Workshop Thing?” and “What If I Stopped Grading Individual Assignments?” were born.

(Note that these are particularly successful examples of this principle. These experiments are not always so successful. See: What If I Taught Pride & Prejudice To These Seniors? and What If My Students Wrote Letter Essays? and What If My Students Used Voxer for Book Clubs Across Classes? and What If I Wrote an Entire Chapter Comparing Literary Analysis to Both Pizza and Broccoli?)

This school year, in my brand new middle school classroom, there have been a lot of these giant leap moments as I feel my way through the days and weeks. I blame the biggest one on Colleen Cruz and Nancie Atwell. Last year, I read Colleen Cruz’s Independent Writing, and it completely knocked my socks off. (I very awkwardly and inarticulately told her so at a cocktail party. I hope she doesn’t remember.) This book reminded me that if students should be choosing anything they wish to read, they also need opportunities to choose anything they wish to write. As in, completely free choice writing. But, of course, not pages of random “free writes”. Rather the ultimate choice in writing workshops that are meticulously planned as the best genre study.

Of course, In the Middle has been on my bookshelf since college — the very first professional text I owned.  And Nancie Atwell is the best teacher in the world. So, when she assigns 20 minutes of outside-of-class writing to her students each night, who am I to argue?

And thus I made a giant leap, a big swing, and told my students that this year they would write independently for 20 minutes outside of class each day on completely free choice, independent writing.

They balked. I spent a week trying to generate good PR with parents and students about my writing plans. We generated lists and lists of 20-minutes-of-writing ideas. (Here you go: 20 Minutes of Writing- Ideas)

And then I panicked, wondering, “How in the world will I manage all of this writing?” Because beyond the simple and beautiful act of regular writing, there were some other things I needed:

  • I needed to teach the rest of my curriculum. Although throwing out everything and doing only independent writing all year is a little bit appealing, it’s just not realistic. (Yet.)
  • I wanted my students to share what they were writing — as publication, as community-building, as a source of ideas and inspiration for one another.
  • I hoped for positive peer pressure to keep writers on track and truly writing (rather than fake writing).
  • And if I was going to walk out on this limb, I knew I needed to do something with this writing. More specifically, parents wanted to know how I would assess it. So I needed a plan.

One day, after a lot of thinking and even more texting with Allison, I devised a plan:

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I went full A Beautiful Mind -meets –Tricia Ebarvia and wallpapered a white board with charts where students record their nightly writing work. This has helped accomplish a few things for me:

  • Students feel they are being held accountable — whether or not I’m carefully scrutinizing each entry (I’m not), students feel like they are “doing something” with their writing immediately. That is, recording it. Each week, students earn five points per night for writing. This adds ups to a nice little homework grade. If you miss one night, you lose 5 points. It’s very concrete, it takes me about 10 minutes tops, and both parents and students easily understand the “assessment”. (Students will soon use and develop this writing. But more on this later.)

Let me hasten to add that in order for this to work, I had to quickly let go of the same chest-tightening need-for-control that has so often threatened to consume their independent reading. Some kids will fake this. Even with a vigorous honor code, some students will lie. A handful will find clever work-arounds and loop-holes and fail to honor the spirit of the assignment. Just like they do with independent reading. To do what is right for all students, I have to be okay with knowing that I will not be able to micromanage every student.  We need to take a deep breath — it will be alright.

  • The charts let me do a quick check to assess student progress & make plans — Casually glancing at the charts last week told me that I probably need to chat with Mary (who has been writing a “log of my day” every day for the last three weeks) and Caden (who has missed at least two nights of writing each week). They could probably use some topic-brainstorming help or strategies for squeezing in time for writing.  It also told me that most of my students are writing fiction — short stories, novels, even a graphic novel — so, I did a quick mini-lesson on other genres (argument! persuasion!) to help them branch out if they are ready.  Six students are writing in partnerships! I know a little something about this, and Ways to Write with a Buddy might be great fodder for a mini-lesson down the road!
  • Students love spying on the charts & stealing ideas — Since we have not yet gotten to the point of polishing and publishing any of this work, these charts are as close as we get. But every day, I hear murmurs from the board: “Cool! I want to write about my soccer game!” and “Man! I didn’t know we could write comics” or “Oh yeah, I need to write some thank you notes, too.” Students are sharing ideas and running with the inspiration they take from the charts.

IMG_6229So, What’s Next?

Like Notebook Time, this rhythm of nightly writing would be good for my writers even if they never did another thing with it. The muscles built through regular writing are a worthy end in themselves. I hope that this will make writing such a normal part of each student’s day that they will find themselves a little bit lost without it when school ends. And then they’ll find their writer’s notebook and start again.

I’ve always thought about beginning the school-year with a brief Tour of Writing Genres. This little experiment has almost certainly given me the nudge I need to do it next fall.  But I have noticed that students don’t seem to know how many different kinds of writing are available to them in the world. So, I also intend to use this writing work as a reason to intentionally introduce students to different genres of writing. This can be a great way for students to preview genres we will hit down the road ( Op-ed, perhaps?) or explore genres that we just won’t get to this year (historical fiction or “how to” writing).  I’m planning a regular (every 2 weeks or so?) Genre Spotlight during which I can quickly introduce students to the purpose of a given genre, where it lives in the real world, and a couple of mentor texts to glance at.

But, of course, we are going to use this independent writing for something bigger. At least some of it.

Like Colleen Cruz, I plan to soon launch a whole independent writing study — helping students find their own personalized mentor texts and encouraging them to sign up to teach mini-lessons on techniques at which they are an “expert”. While I am not as brave as Colleen and don’t think I can yet manage whole class writing + whole class reading + independent writing + independent reading simultaneously, I do hope to punctuate our regularly-scheduled writing studies with independent writing studies throughout the year. In fact, I’m thinking this could make a great “exam” when I am forced to give one! (And if you haven’t read Colleen’s amazing book, you have time to read it while I tinker! I’ll update you on how this plays out.)

Do you assign your students nightly writing work? If so, how do you use it? How might you use the ideas shared here? How do your students engage with independent writing? Leave us some ideas (or questions) below, on Facebook, or Twitter @rebekahodell1. 

Books That Move Us: Independent Writing by Colleen Cruz

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This past fall at NCTE, I think startled Colleen Cruz when I gasped and, like a true fangirl, exclaimed, “Ohmygosh! Independent Writing! I read it on the plane! That book is major. REALLY major.”

She was completely lovely to me but probably surprised to hear me raving about one of her older titles. I picked up Independent Reading after reading Colleen’s new title, Unstoppable Writing Teacher, which is a gem. In it, she references the independent writing projects she undertakes with elementary school students.

“Yessss,” I thought. “That’s exactly it. The thing I want my students to be able to do. Truly independent writing.” So, I ordered a copy and took it with me to NCTE.

By the time we landed in Minneapolis, I had five pages of notes in my notebook — written edge-to-edge and up the sides. And as Allison unpacked in our hotel room, I sat on the bed and read her every one.

Independent Writing fired me up, made me want to run back to Virginia to try new projects with my students, and turned me into an independent writing project evangelist.

60-Second Book Review

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Colleen Cruz looked around her fourth-grade-classroom and realized that while her students were creating strong writing in their workshop studies, they were never writing entirely for pleasure. Sure, her students were becoming good writers, but they didn’t see writing as a part of their daily, personal, outside-of-school lives. They didn’t yet see themselves as writers.

So, while still teaching whole-class genre studies, Cruz began loosening the reigns and opening the possibilities, allowing students to “make or write anything they wish[ed].”

In Independent Writing, Cruz walks readers through a year in her classroom, from introducing independent writing projects, to setting up the physical classroom space to support this work, to helping students use their notebooks and study mentor authors as inspiration for their own writing. This book is FULL of charts, calendars, sample student handouts and worksheets. Like the very best professional books, Independent Writing is practical in the extreme, ready for you to pick up and implement in your classroom tomorrow.

My Big Writing Takeaways

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