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.
(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.
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.
When 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.
Finally, 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.