Education Opinion

Free Write Wars

By Emmet Rosenfeld — September 19, 2008 5 min read
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9: 53. I’m writing fast. Not at a sprint, more of a brisk walk. I’m timing myself to see how far I can get in ten minutes, because this is the assignment I asked my 8th graders to do today and I want to do it, too. Actually, I asked them to do it three times this weekend, not all in a row. For each time, in a comfortable setting where they can focus, they are to freewrite for ten minutes and then get a word count. We will get the average words per minute based on this as a baseline for each student.

One of the goals, I told them, is to increase fluency. This does not just mean words per minute, of course. It is the ability to outrun the censor in your brain, to let ideas spill onto the page in a generative way, that freewriting develops. Even now, typing, my ideas are outrunning me and I have to consciously keep my rhythm regular. Of course, the experience on a word processor is different than with pad and paper, and one that might be more suited to IM’ing kids today. But there’s something about writing in a marble comp book, and despite my previous declarations to the contrary (March 17, 2008), I don’t in my heart or my hands believe that handwriting is dead.

Back to our task. Still walking briskly. I didn’t just throw the freewriting assignment out there without preparation. We’ve been building up to it. As I mentioned earlier, we started with baby steps: 2-3 minutes at a time after book presentations. “Just keep the pen moving,” I instructed. “Use the book topic as a diving board.” Most of those quick writes ended up being addressed to the presenter, and saying something like, “I thought it was cool in your book when…”. In other words, not really genuine freewriting, more feedback. That was okay—the assignment’s fault, not the kids’.

Next step was yesterday in class, where we did a topic BS (titter here). That’s brainstorm. Kids made lists of twenty or more topics in their writer’s notebook, with plenty of chances to steal from one another. To facilitate this cross fertilization, I interrupted them every few minutes of bs’ing to “zoom around the room.” Roll call style, I asked each student to call out one topic from their list. We discussed along the way what made a good topic, and that topics could be a word, phrase, question, or even some other form. Pencils were waggling to keep up. For homework, they had to do one 10-minute freewrite on one of their newly generated choices.

Today, we really ramped up the freewriting. Note that what I’m about to describe is direct instruction. In the past, I’d operated under the assumption that “They’ll pick it up,” or, “They get it. It’s easy, just keep the pen moving.” Now, low and slow, I’m trying to make sure that I don’t assume they have a skill that I haven’t taught. So, here’s the fun lesson: Free write wars.

10:03 (I won’t stop now, but that’s ten minutes. I’ll try to get my average words per minute later. By the way, this might not be my most literary post; sometimes I wordsmith these to death. But I’m trying to do like I asked kids to do, so let me keep going and outrun the editor).

Free write wars. 4-5 kids per team. One chart paper and sharpy, 45 seconds a turn. Give the group one minute to choose a topic. “Sports” is too general , but “paintball” is okay. If they don’t have one, I give them one on the spot: Apples. Or, my personal favorite, bicycles. I’ve got a lot of memories related to riding bikes.

Anyway, that’s the set up. Turns it into a game, something 8th graders love. There was also a rule that it has to make sense, more or less. No writing “and, and, and, and” just to up the word count. Ready, go… and even kids who had been putting their head down because they were “done” before the end of the two-minute freewrites earlier were now engaged and excited.

After 45 seconds, “Switch!”, and the next kid starts writing. And so on. At the end, before doing a word count, a reader shared what the group wrote. It was disjointed, but there were snatches of good freewriting—associations, colorful language, a deep thought—that I was able to point out. And mostly, lots of giggling.

To get the count, see how many words are in each of the first three lines and get an average. Then, multiply that by the number of lines. Each group announced its total, and there was built in motivation for round two.

For the second time, a new topic and a confident focused approach by each writer. I extended the time to 1 minute per kid. We had 3 teams of five in one class, 3 teams of four in the other. If you have larger classes, just make more teams. Extending the writing time by fifteen seconds in the second round did not slow the game.

The fluency increased in the second round, for the most part. A team of squirrely boys went from 55 words to 105, changing topic from apples (teacher-provided) to football. A team of rather more studious girls went down, from 128 on graduating from the 8th grade to 119 on the Olympics (their total in round two was still the highest in the class). They speculated that the second topic was just not as stimulating as the first, so they wrote a little less feverishly.

My favorite bit was by Don, in Round 1 on bicycles: “I love riding bikes I always go down the big hill at the top of my pipestem I like to lean to the side and make quick turns.” Punctuation be darned, when you’re shooting down a half-pipe I bet that’s how it feels.

I wrote too, by the way, and not just because I was needed to make the numbers even. It helps to talk to them writer to writer, and to model the fluency I hope they achieve (or surpass!).

So that’s the sequence of freewriting lessons we’ve done so far, and I’m almost at the end of my second ten minutes. (By the way, I told them to find different times to write, not to do the sessions in a row. Hope they do what I say and not what I do, but then again, if they get excited enough to write for twenty minutes at a shot, something’s working.) By the way, my word count for the first ten minutes here is 481, and my word count for the second chunk (eleven minutes, it turned out) is 658, for an average of about 54 words per minute.

When they come in on Monday, I’ll record their baselines, but we’ll also start to mine the journal entries for topics for the first paper, a personal narrative. Stay tuned as we work our way from madman to architect in coming weeks. 8th grade writing rich with voice and clarity to come.

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