Just for Five

If you’re stumped and blank as a new field of snow, at least try writing, without removing your pencil from the paper or your hands from the keyboard, for five minutes. Just five.

The previous post focused on brainstorming a topic list, but said almost nothing about actually choosing. Although decisions often challenge me, even I can just ‟go with my gut,” as my daughter says, if I’ve brainstormed first. Students seemed to share that.

taking care of ducks recropHere’s part of the writing that came from one of the brainstorms shown in the previous post, about taking care of baby ducks.

(Once in a while, a student would ask, ‟What if I can find a way to put all of my brainstormed ideas together?” This made me think of my friend John Hodgen, a poet who sometimes seems to have done exactly that: to have noticed and listened to and named the different crickets chirping in the dark corners of his mind, and taught them to sing their brightness-against-the-dark songs together. How could I be doctrinaire about any of these instructions, given such models of make-it-your-own?)

One way or another, all of us sitting in the classroom together, almost always, could choose—just like that—and start writing—partly because this exercise only committed us to writing for five minutes.

I sat at the front of the room, at the little old wooden student desk I had rescued from the basement. (My big desk was back in the corner.) For other writing activities I moved around the room, conferencing, but for the fluency exercises I sat with half an eye on the clock and my heart in my throat, inspired by all that energy around me–and I wrote like mad, myself, for most of the five minutes.

As a young adult I attended Quaker Meeting, sitting every week in silent meetings of collective reflection and searching. In addition to meeting for worship, Quakers have specialized meetings, always beginning with silence, for specialized purposes—‟meeting for business,” for example. This intense short writing in my classroom was a silent meeting for writing, and we were all in it together, reinforcing each other.

Unlike ordinary open writing time, we weren’t asking each other questions, or getting up to consult dictionaries or spell-checkers, or losing time over punctuation, if that got in the way. We were just writing, writing, writing. The brevity—five minutes, no more, at the beginning—helped to create an intensity, a suspension of self-conscious critiquing, a focus on the act of inventing and constructing with words—and that led to some amazing beginnings.

test taking amanda croppedSome students at this age (in this case 12) are able to use conventional spelling and paragraph breaks, even in a quick first draft. 

What about paper vs. screen? I wrote in front of my students on paper, by hand, but I do this exercise at home on the computer. On the other hand, I don’t carry my laptop in my backpack when I’m out walking or bicycling, so plenty of writing, including brainstorming, happens in a paper journal. For me, different kinds of writing have emerged in the two different situations. It makes sense to me for students to be comfortable with both, if they can, and to have that additional option of switching, like having another gear on a bicycle.

With more and more computers in the classroom, I could encourage students who had already developed some typing fluency, or for whom writing by hand involved special difficulties, to use typing in this situation. Increasingly, over the past decade, students with writing challenges, throughout the older grades of my school, have been allowed to bring and use their own laptop computers. While some kids found their sheets of paper and pencils, others set up their laptops, or got settled at one of the classroom computers. It worked fine.

As the days and weeks went by, even the most challenged kids would figure it out: you can write about almost anything if you’re only committed to writing for five minutes, and if you focus on the meaning of what you’re exploring, not the mechanics.

I loved that point somewhere in the second week when kids would start looking at me warily, or actually wave their hands, in a universal gesture meaning, ‟No! Don’t you dare call time!” If everyone else seemed okay, I’d just go for it and give us a few minutes more. This could lead to sudden exhilarating jumps in word count. At the rational age of 11 or 12, kids knew they couldn’t make a direct comparison between quick writes of different durations—but they felt the power of their own stamina, and that’s what I wanted them to be able to feel.

about war2 croppedWhen I did call time, students counted words, including any words crossed out. (Those crossed out words got written first, so they represented part of the writer’s output.) Nobody was allowed to marvel publicly about how many or how few words they’d written. They were meant to compare not with each other, but with themselves, day by day, page by page in their notebooks.

I think of a child who wrote just nine words the first day, and was proud to do that, but even prouder to get to 43 after a few repetitions of the exercise format, over the next week. I think, also, of other children whose word count actually started high and went down, as they worked to figure out how to think and write at the same time. That, too, was a good thing.

So: if you need to write and you’re stuck, just write for five minutes. If you want to cast a line into the file cabinets of your mind, and see what comes up, you can make a surprisingly good start in five minutes. If you think you know nothing about a topic, five minutes is long enough to prove yourself wrong—to prove yourself ready to begin.

drawing cartoons croppedFinally, although there’s a special power to this exercise when a whole group does it together, you can do it by yourself, and kids sometimes did, in open writing time. I could see them glancing at the clock—or forgetting to glance at the clock, which is even better.

All in all, another slogan to live by.

On days when we did this exercise, kids typically had a choice for how they used the rest of that day’s writing time. A child could keep going with that piece she had just started within the exercise, and many students chose that. A child could also work on something else entirely, a story in progress, a letter to an editor, a menu, a poem–maybe a poem in the form of a menu? Some kids spontaneously began revising what they’d written in the exercise; many waited until we were all working on revision together, when I did mini-lessons to help support that.

Of course, the writing curriculum as a whole was much more complicated than this one brainstorm-and-free-write exercise. I want to write, in other posts somewhere down the road, about kids sharing their writing, and about revision, and about some specific genres of writing.

This exercise, though, was the fundamental practice, the opening of the heart, the first opening of that packet of seeds each of us carries, ready to germinate. We followed the exercise again whenever we needed to warm up, or to have a new beginning: after vacations, after the long individual research reports were finished in the spring, or after a week of very little writing time due to field trips or community events.

Writing this, I am moved all over again by the remembered hush of a class full of kids whose pens and pencils and keyboards are making the only sound; whose hearts and minds are brave, or surprised, or faithful, patient, excited—one version or another of busy. They could risk that little storm of intense composition; their hands and minds could work together that long; they could be that generous to themselves.

Think of Five

If you can’t think of something to write about, think of five things.

You have to be brave, no matter what. Still it helps, for writers of any age, to separate the work involved in generating topics from the very different kind of mental work involved in choosing a particular topic.

Here’s what can happen if you don’t brainstorm first. As one part of your mind thinks of ideas, another part tells you, brilliantly and impressively quickly, why they stink. A necessary and important but often bullying part of your mind treats each new idea as a clay pigeon thrown up into the sky of a video game, to be shot down.

In another kind of mood, more easily pleased, a writer can charge straight into the first idea, and never get the benefit of the second or third or fourth.

topic brainstorm 1 cropped

topic brainstorm quakWhen I go back to look at kids’ topic brainstorms, I’m struck by how rarely a writer chooses the first idea, having come up with alternatives. The student who brainstormed the list above chose to write about the ducks, something more tender than he might have thought of first.

He spontaneously added a sketch, and he also returned to some of the other topics on that fascinating list, later in the year.

A good brainstorming list is democratic, potentially including many flavors of initiative, because all the writer’s different selves get to throw in their two cents. Brainstorming provides a gathering place for a non-argumentative, additive (rather than combative) conversation among many selves: the logical self, the intuitive self, the irreverent self, the worried self, the exuberant self. (Never leave out the exuberant self, even if she’s inclined to go off on a flyer. She has momentum, and that’s worth a million dollars.)

If you can’t think of one, think of five.

Our first writing work of the year, aiming at fluency, began with a very open prompt, and the admonition to ‟think of five.” Five moments from the summer that stand out in your mind. Five objects in the classroom that have caught your eye. Five things you notice every morning on your way to school, or every afternoon on your way home.

‟Only five?” some kids asked. ‟Can I write down seven?” A student who said that might not be showing off.  Kids who thought naturally in the form of brainstorms found this easy, and they were asking if they could just keep going. Yes. Always yes.

For other kids it could be agony to think of even two ideas. A tremendously capable kid might harbor the most highly paid, tyrannical interior self-censor. Forget actual writing: for some kids, progress just meant brainstorming any kind of list.

topic brainstorm 3 croppedOn the other hand, sometimes two ideas could be enough. This student brainstormed learning situations that were hard for her. She wrote very effectively about her second idea.

Sometimes, while the students brainstormed, I’d make my own list, on the whiteboard where students could see it. That offered language and ideas for their minds to bounce off, and could model the democratic inclusion of many selves: my wandering-around-in-the-woods self, my family self, even my worn-out cranky self.

‟Don’t ask if it’s a good idea!” I’d say, in reaction to kids who wanted me to approve particular ideas. ‟It doesn’t matter! Write it down! Bad ideas lead to good ideas!”

When I moved away from my own list on the board, and wandered around the room, peeking over shoulders, I could feel the temperature of the group. Some days, any prompt could work. Some days, nothing would work very well. I had to be as loose as I was asking them to be—to let it happen however it happened; to trust the repetition of the experience over time.

Later on in the year, using the same engine of exploration, we’d try somewhat more demanding prompts: Five things that worry you, which led one girl to write an amazing piece about living with a challenging illness. Or five pieces of learning that you feel you handled well:

topic brainstorm 2 cropped

After a while, the prompt could be, “Think of five things you can probably write about for at least five minutes.” (That appears to have been the prompt for the work sample included first, above.)

In any case, after five minutes I’d move on to another important part of this brainstorming. With the kids still sitting at their desks or table places, we went around the circle of the room, sharing ideas.

First I said, ‟You don’t have to tell us the topic from your list that you think you’ll actually write about. Just say something.” That permission to put off a choice gave kids more room to get ideas from each other. I also wanted kids to be able to write about things that they wouldn’t announce to the group.

In one other piece of preparation for sharing, I’d ask rhetorically, ‟Are you saying your idea to show how clever you are? No. You’re saying it to be generous, to help each other. Writers help each other. They can and they need to.”

Most important of all, I’d also say, ‟If somebody shares a topic idea that rings a bell for you, write it on your own list, even if you already have five. Writers steal. They’re supposed to.” The collaborative energy among the poets I know well has been one of the joys of my life. I always wanted kids to have a chance to feel that chemistry.

As they shared ideas, I tried to withhold reaction, not always successfully. I did let myself respond to one common sign of potential difficulty. If a student listed going to camp for two weeks as a memorable summer ‟moment”, I’d advocate narrowing down, zooming in, diving in to the heart of what was interesting. We’d talk about what was meant, in this exercise, by ‟moment,” and why that could usually work better. Often, other members of the class could help that child who could only see the whole thing whole, and couldn’t, on his own, subdivide or refocus.

I’d give them a minute or so to add to their lists, once they’d heard each others’ ideas. Then they’d choose—bingo, fast—and we’d write, for just five minutes, which I would actually time on the clock.

That’s where I’ll stop, in this post. I’m planning to write next about the second “five” in this particular approach to writing fluency. If you’re stumped and blank as a new field of snow, at least try writing, without removing your pencil from the paper or your hands from the keyboard, for five minutes. Just five.

For now, though, I’ll repeat that other “five” mantra that has served so many of my students of every age, and my own writing self: If you can’t think of one, think of five. Don’t ever pretend you’re poor. You’re rich. You’re alive.