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Feb 02

Writer’s Block Breakthrough

cartoon sandboxThere comes a time after a lesson when the students are directed to write on a topic. An enlightened teacher will give students choices or let the learners choose their own topic. But often times, there are students, sometimes most, who can’t seem to put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard.

The reasons for this block varies. It might be that the student has so many ideas in their head that it’s difficult to choose a start. Brain freezes occur, or the voices in the student’s head may tell them they have nothing “worthy” to contribute. I’ve witnessed this in students with the writing task of a major paper or journal, to drafting for a 6 word story. I previously blogged about the Window Activity, and here is another effective protocol.

Fastwrite – Quickwrite Protocol

This protocol helped my students find their writing voice and built their stamina to write. It’s simplicity makes the results so amazing.

Step One: Fastwrite (aka Quickwrite)

Have students write about a topic–one given or one of their own choosing. Follow the following rules:

  1. Write without pausing–do not stop writing for any reason.
  2. Do not stop to make corrections. Leave errors on the page and move forward.
  3. Write whatever comes to mind regarding the topic.
  4. When stuck, repeatedly write the same Target word, until you come up with another idea or detail to write.drawing_the_path

Benefits
The physicality of writing helps students/writers to generate ideas and details. This process enables students to unload their thoughts and not worry about grammar mechanics. The target word represents the topic idea or theme. The roving teacher will spot students repeating the target word, and can assist them in becoming unstuck.

When time is up–recommend 5-20 minutes, depending on experience–instruct students to…

  • Read their writing and circle or underline three key phrases that catch their interest. Option: Have the students pair up to read what they wrote. This activity can generate ideas to circle. Or, have them talk about why they picked the 3 phrases, which will percolate ideas for the phrase to choose for Step Two.
  • Next, have students skip a line and copy one of the 3 phrases they chose.

Step Two: Freewrite

Have students write about their chosen phrase for a length of time that is double the time from step one. A good metaphor is taking a magnifying glass to the phrase and expand the details about the phrase. Follow the following rules:

  1. Unpack the phrase with as many details as you can think of.
  2. Feel free to pause for thinking about the next detail you will add.
  3. If you get stuck, skip a line and copy the next of 3 phrases from Step One, and write more details about the new phrase.

Benefits
Where fastwrites enabled students to pour out their thoughts on a topic, freewrites allow students to organize their ideas and deeply focus on the phrases that they identify as important or relevant. Used as a second step, students have material from the fastwrite to compose and organize their ideas into coherent writing.

Final Thoughts
To prepare for this protocol, students need opportunities to improve their writing stamina,  something of particular need long before they take a standardized timed writing exam or compose a lengthy paper. My approach is to start with lots of fastwrites, starting at 3-5 minutes and than building up students’ writing muscle to 20 minutes. In 2-3 weeks I’ve gotten students from 2nd grade–my son–to high school students to effectively sustain non-stop writing for lengthy periods of time. This protocol could start with a 5 minute fastwrite, followed by a 10 minute freewrite. The structure works best when the freewrite is at least double the time of the fastwrite. For example, if done in a class with 40 minutes, a 20 minute fastwrite might mean a 30-40 minute freewrite that spans two class periods. Of course, feel free to adjust these times as needed. The key is how valuable is the student thinking and depth of the key learning targets.

2 comments

  1. campbellgrahamm

    I am just starting teaching a grade 8 humanities class and am excited to try this process out! I really like the idea of unpacking a phrase as thoroughly and thoughtfully as possible.I will share the results from this strategy on my teaching blog http://campbellgrahamm.wordpress.com/

  2. John McCarthy

    That’s great that you’ll use it with your students. What topic will it be for? You might also check out my post about the Window Activity http://openingpaths.org/blog/2013/07/inspiring-the-writer-in-everyone/ It uses this fastwrite/freewrite strategy through pictures. Good luck. Hope to hear about the results.

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