Dusting Off Strategies To Give Kids Time to Write Without Strings Attached

When I began teaching over 20 years ago, teaching writing in middle school was easy. I faithfully greeted my students every day with an inspiring quote or life question shining from the overhead projector, and my students wrote informal responses. This type of writing instruction didn’t require much planning, was typically not graded, and was only loosely related to the curriculum guide (gasp!).  And yet kids wrote. They wrote daily, and they wrote a lot. They filled their notebook pages with their opinions, reactions, life-experience stories, and their thinking. I know if I ventured into my basement, I could find resources from the good ol’ days with daily journaling prompts in the form of card decks, flip books, and spirals. And I’m pretty confident I would still think–even after all this time–that the prompts were thought-provoking, student responses would be entertaining to read, and the exercise would help me get to know my students as people. So, why are they covered in dust? 

I think a shift in my thinking happened when standardized test prep became the focus of curriculum design. With the exception of my first few years of teaching, I have certainly felt pressure to meet the expectations that my contemporary middle school writers not only be exposed to crafting expository and argument writing, but be really, really good at it! So good at it  that they can write on demand in high-stakes situations. For at least a decade, professional development has been focused on strategies for helping kids develop skills to explain and argue with support consistently. There has been no mention (ever?) about writing for fun and the purpose that, too, could serve. In fact, in the early years of this instructional shift, teachers were somewhat shamed if they engaged their kids in anything other than writing with an academic purpose. Who would have time for that!? Like many other really great initiatives, writing for pleasure took a back seat to writing to explain, learning to support thinking with textual evidence, and learning to synthesize information and form unique arguments. Over time, I became so consumed with other kinds of writing that I kind of forgot about personal writing. 

What a shame.

Sometimes, writers need to write without a scripted purpose, and just experience the joy of writing. Writing can have intrinsic rewards, but too few young people know what that can feel like because all their experiences as writers are with very challenging genres. When kids are led to explore and flush out their thinking through low-stakes writing, there are powerful lessons in intentionality that occur. And those lessons can transfer, making personal writing just as important to growing writers as any other genre.

I’m bringing a sprinkle of personal writing back to my classroom this year. I’m going to teach it like any other genre, keeping focused on its flexible structure, its freedoms, its value. As I research personal writing as a genre and think about ideas for mini-lessons, I am finding many more benefits than I originally anticipated. I can’t wait to open this door for students. 

In planning my approach to incorporating personal writing back into my existing writing routines, I want my student writers to understand this core writing vision:

  • I am a writer; I have things to say and they are of value
  • I can reflect and revise my thinking anytime, any place
  • My writing is worthy of reading

My mini-lessons will focus on personal writing as a genre, and how it compares to other genres. Writing does not always have to be for academic purposes. Personal writing is a safe space to:

  • Create
  • Sort out
  • Catalog
  • Practice
  • Express

In general, writing instruction looks much, much different than it did back when I started teaching, and my personal instructional design has evolved since my early days of teaching. I have gotten better at teaching difficult writing genres, and I am so proud of how my students’ voices shine through in all types of writing. That change was for the better; I do not want to compromise any of the high-caliber thinking my writers accomplish in the current design. When students can effectively craft expository, informational and argumentative writing pieces that capture their thinking, they hold power. I want that for them; I want them to be confident in any writing task life throws at them. But let’s not forget writing can also be therapeutic for the mind: a safe place to sort out thinking, explore ideas, and let out emotions–and I want them to have that kind of pen power, too. As I continue to learn as their writing teacher, I figure the more tools I have in my toolbox, the better. So, I’m going to dust off some of my old journaling prompts and do some vintage writing exercises, allowing kids to discover that writing can be personal–just for them–sometimes.

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