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Pedagogy Column: Free Writing in the Classroom

Matthew Marcus, Developmental Skills

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Free writing is a classroom activity that I have found to be indispensable, regardless of the subject being taught. My procedure for free writing is to put a prompt on the board and give students between 5 to 15 minutes to write, with the following ground rules:

·         Write the entire time.  Keep you pen or pencil moving. 

·         Think on paper, not in your head.

·         Start on the given topic, but if you get off topic, so be it.

·         Be concerned with getting thoughts on paper, not writing mechanics. 

·         Nobody else will read what you’ve written unless you want them to do so.

Some students need to be broken of the habit of chewing on their writing utensils and planning out the next thought. I gently remind them to keep their pens moving. This element is crucial, since one of the goals of free writing is to get students to treat writing as a process with stages rather than a “one-draft-and-you’re-done” approach. We need messy first drafts to work with, and free writing is a way to simulate the writing of a messy first draft. Free writing may also help students develop their writing fluency, the ability to get ideas effortlessly onto paper. 

Free writing can help the teacher structure a lesson. The prompt I give is always related to the material being covered that day.  For instance, when my Critical Thinking class is exploring personal beliefs, I begin with the prompt, “Write about a belief you have recently questioned or changed.”  Their responses are a good jumping-off point for a systematic look at factors that shape our beliefs. 

In my Academic and Critical Reading classes, I give prompts that are relevant to the text we are going to read. For instance, students respond to the prompt, “What does it mean to be intelligent? Is intelligence something you are born with or something you acquire?” before reading Isaac Asimov’s essay, “What is intelligence, Anyway?” Students are thus activating background knowledge on the topic and preparing their brains to engage with the reading actively.

Many students at BMCC are developing, often struggling writers. To improve, they need opportunities to write in a variety of formats and contexts.  Informal, low-stakes assignments are beneficial. In free writing, the stakes are as low as possible. Free writing is an ideal platform for playing with words and ideas. This is the very foundation of critical thinking and good writing.