Classroom Management: Why We Freewrite
It’s kind of funny that as a teacher I can relearn the same lessons over and over again—I’ll forget how affective a strategy is or how crucial one step is—until I am brutally reminded when a lesson falls flat or an assignment turns out terribly. One of the lessons that I learn over and over is how important the freewrite is.
Last year I was grading the midterm exams from my junior honors American Literature class, and there was one message that I got from every single essay: My students had learned nothing.
Their essays were devoid of insight, examples, or ideas of any kind. Even my favorite students were completely letting me down.
So it was a good thing that I had also collected their notebooks on the same day that they took their midterm exams.
In theory, the work that they did in their notebooks was not going to be as good as what they did on the midterm. It was all just classwork—not anything polished or summative. Most of the work had been done during a few informal minutes.
But what I found over and over again was that the work in their notebooks was much much better than what they had done on the midterms—especially the freewrites. As I graded the freewrites in those student notebooks, what I realized was that for the most part, if those students had been as insightful and specific in their midterm essays as they had been in those notebooks, they would have all had A’s on the midterms.
So how do I explain this bizarre phenomena?
To me, the answer lies in the magic of the freewrite. There are a few different ways to do freewriting, but whether students have prompts on probing questions or prompts for creative or personal writing, whether they write for five minutes or ten or three, they key is that a freewrite is as informal as it gets. They don’t have to read them out loud, they don’t have to make them perfect, and it’s very possible that no one will ever read them.
Over the years, I have noticed four main benefits of freewriting.
Freewriting helps with fluency. This one might seem to be the most obvious. The more we write, the more we are able to write. But the results have also been documented. In the study “A Case Study of the Influence of Freewriting on Writing Fluency and Confidence of EFL College-Level Students” published by Ju A Hwang in the Spring 2010 edition of Second Language Studies, researchers discovered that doing focused freewrites for eight weeks, “had a statistically significant influence on improving the students’ writing fluency.” And any teacher who has spent class time trying to get students to write more, be more specific, and just be more comfortable writing, knows that fluency is key.
Freewriting helps us know what we think. One of my favorite quotes is from Flannery O’Connor who said, ““I write to discover what I know.” Another pattern that I often noticed in my students’ freewrites was that they would start off vague, “The author has many different views on oppression….” but as they would start writing through different examples and specific parts of the text, they would inevitably stumble upon a great thesis. Peter Elbow, the writer who is often credited with coining the term freewrite, has another great explanation of this process: “Meaning is not what you start with, but what you end up with.“ I love a good discussion as much as anyone, but there is something about spending a focused time writing through an issue that really helps me develop my thoughts.
Freewriting makes writing normal. When I tell my students to pull out their notebooks for a quick freewrite, they always complain—but they don’t complain too much. They know that they will be writing now, later, and again tomorrow and probably the day after that. If I had been asking them to write polished essays each and every time that they took out their notebooks, they would likely never get any writing done, but those five-minute freewrites really add up.
Freewriting gets us past writer’s block. Nothing stops a writer faster than trying to make each and every word perfect. I like to begin every writing assignment with a freewrite, usually more than one. But sometimes I skip that step to save some time or because I don’t feel like asking students to do one more thing. But when I don’t start with a freewrite, I always regret it. Just about every student ends up sitting in front of a blank computer screen. Peter Elbow has said, “It’s an unnecessary burden to try to think of words and also worry at the same time whether they’re the right words.” In other words, we are almost guaranteed to fail if we start off being critical of our writing before we even begin.
Obviously, students still need to learn how to write essays, but the lesson that I learned that day (and have relearned many times since) is to always require students to start any writing assignment with a freewrite.