Inspiring Independent Writing in a Jam-Packed Curriculum

About five years into teaching writing workshop a few colleagues and I began to notice that so many of our students loved writing, but the genre we were working on in class didn’t always give them room for their individual writing passion.  Or, that the students were writing entries in their notebooks, but they were remaining just that: entries in a notebook without a real audience and without a vision that they could be more.  We knew they had great stories and poems and graphic novels brewing inside of them, so we began to experiment with fostering their independent writing lives using methods similar to teaching into independent reading lives, and we quickly began to see writing passion in a way we had never experienced.

Over the years, I’ve experimented in different ways.  Once we had an independent writing period once a week.  I’ve also set it up as a few two-week stints in between our other major units.  As curriculum expectations have changed, it often feels hard to give my students independent writing time and the past few years we haven’t been able to do a unit until after the state test in the spring, which is where it’s slated in my current year long plan.

This year, though, in light of the ever increasing requirements from the state and the weariness that can so easily creep into both students’ and teachers’ lives, I decided I wanted to prioritize sharing my passions about reading and writing and to, as I’ve told them, “let my ‘geek flag’ fly.”  For me, this meant sharing in a dramatic, overly-enthusiastic, cheerleader type way about my—and in turn their—literary lives outside of school.  I am also harboring hopes that this enthusiasm will help prevent the typical, teenage apathy that can creep into the attitudes of 8th graders sometimes.  I’ve set up some year-long rhythms and structures to support flying this flag.

On one of the first bulletin boards I set up, I wrote across the top of it “Your life and your ideas are worth writing about.”  This was like a mantra during the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project’s writing institute this summer.  It is the phrase that has always brought me back from the frustration of inane paperwork and learning the new teacher assessment systems and back into the heart of why I love my job: the kids.  If there is one thing I want them to take away from my classroom, it is the fact that they matter and they have something to say.

I decided to put 3 literary rhythms into place each week, even though they’d take away about 7 minutes from the mere 42 I see them per period.  One of them is called Wednesday’s Writing Window and for the first 5 minutes of class I give them a prompt that either encourages them to use writing as a way to reflect and grow in their lives or a prompt that sets them up to write some kind of creative story, poem, or whatever they can think up.  Of course, using prompts isn’t totally “independent” writing, but after years of teaching a creative writing after school class I’ve found that kids love them: they see prompts as a challenge and as something that gives them a quick starting place.

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I watched 100 students this Wednesday fill up entire notebook pages in five minutes.  When I gave a “bonus minute” to either share or keep writing, the energy that buzzed from both options was palpable.  When it was time to move onto our “real” lesson of the day, I reminded to look at the writing bulletin board.   Each quarter I have a reading and writing challenge, and the current writing challenge is to submit a draft to me that they can polish and submit to the Scholastic Awards in December.  I told them that the prompts we do each week are the perfect way to start that writing, especially if they have ideas for what they just wrote swirling around in their minds.

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So my hope is that these five minute bursts of writing energy can help encourage them into developing an independent writing life outside of school, at least until the sweet spring when we are done with the state tests and can dive into it together for a few weeks.  And, that each of my students can count on having at least a few minutes a week to let their brains run wild and escape from their day to day with paper and pen.

Kristen Robbins Warren just started her tenth year teaching reading and writing at a public Brooklyn middle school. She has presented at the NCTE National Convention about writing with her students and published in their Voices from the Middle Journal about smart assessment. She has been blogging about her reading life at A Kind of Library for almost 8 years.  She tweets @robbins_kristen.