Recently, I received a Facebook message from Travis, a student that I’d had the privilege of working with in my 11th grade English class several years ago. He wanted to tell me “In the spirit of Thanksgiving” how much my quick writes helped him “grow as a person.”
This message surprised me, as my quick writes are nothing revolutionary; students are given a prompt and simply write their thoughts on the topic for 5 minutes. Next, the class discusses their ideas about the topic – usually for about 10 minutes, sometimes more if the discussion takes off, and then we move on to the next activity. Occasionally, the prompt is related to the main activity/lesson of the day and sometimes it is just a topic I think the students might like to discuss. You can find countless great prompt ideas on the internet – a wonderful one I found recently was in the New York Times titled Questions that Lead to Love. But all that’s really required to make a good quick write prompt is that it’s thought-provoking. Later in the year, you can even mix things up by letting the students write the prompts.
I originally decided to use quick writes as a form of classroom management. I noticed my classes were more focused and on task when they had a regular activity that began right when the bell rang to begin class – also known as a “bell-ringer” – but I quickly learned that this simple activity had an effect that rippled far beyond my original intentions.
Quick writes as bell-ringers
When I first started teaching, I noticed that it was taking a significant amount of time every period to get my students started on the lesson for the day. With the more active groups, it could take up to 15 minutes to get them quiet and focused on the task at hand. In a 55-minute period, this would add up significantly over the course of a semester. Also, my repeated and increasingly frustrated exhortations “May I have your attention please?” were stressful for my students and me alike and did little to form the community I was trying to build in my classroom.
Discussion is a crucial tool in my pedagogy and these students definitely wanted to talk, so I decided a good way to focus this desire would be to have students write briefly about a topic and then discuss it. I had the prompt up on the board, ready to go when the students walked into the room, and I instructed them that they would write for five minutes, beginning exactly when the tardy bell rang.
Of course, this behavior wasn’t immediate. I had to develop ways to reinforce it, walking around the room and saying “Thanks for getting started” to the students that had their notebooks and pencils out when the tardy bell rang, occasionally adding a Hershey’s kiss or a Bobcat Buck (our school currency) to my word of thanks. A timer ticking away on the SmartBoard was also a crucial tool, as it was a reminder that class had started and the activity had begun, adding a bit of urgency to the necessity to get started. For those students who hadn’t begun immediately, I would quietly remind them to go ahead and get their notebook and pencil out and get started, directing their attention to the prompt. It wasn’t long before most of the students immediately took out their writing supplies upon sitting down and the beginning of class was full of the furious scratch of pencils rather than the chaos of the halls. We still were able to greet each as students arrived, but the best part came next – the discussions.
Quick writes as communication builders
I also discovered the power of discussion in the classroom early on in my career. Because I was not the best public speaker when I first entered the classroom, my lectures left a lot to be desired; I had to find another method of instruction, and quick. I figured out that students learned from each other when they had productive discussions, both as a function of hearing others’ ideas and through the practice of formulating their own ideas for expression. I also figured out that most 10th graders did not come into my classroom with the ability to have a productive discussion. Students would talk over each other, occasionally yelling angrily or making disparaging comments when passionate about a disagreement. Other students would have side conversations, completely disengaged in the whole class discussion and some students would never utter a word at all. In the beginning, we had some engaging, thought provoking discussion, but only about a third of the class participated on a good day, and students were much better at stating their ideas than listening to others. It was essential that, in addition to setting up some guidelines for effective discussions, we have ample opportunities to practice the skill of conversation.
I use many modes of discussion in my classroom, including fishbowl, Socratic seminar, think/pair/share, and Socratic chairs, which I have discussed in other posts, but quick writes are the simplest and a good way to get started with discussion in your classroom.
The basic format of a quick write
There are many variations on this format, but this is usually the one I start with at the beginning of the year. There is an open prompt on the board when students enter the classroom and they write their thoughts furiously for five minutes. I reiterate again and again that spelling, punctuation, and grammar do not matter on this assignment. It is about getting their thoughts down on paper, as quickly as possible – stream of consciousness style – and if they have nothing to write, that is what they can start with. “What the heck are we writing about right now? I have no idea what to say . . .” There is no wrong answer except for no answer. As long as they keep writing, they are doing it right. Students will need some practice and encouragement with this. Many of them are not used to the concept of “no wrong answers,” but one of my missions is to show them, in many ways throughout the year, that I highly value their thinking.
Leading a discussion
Because writing is such a valuable vehicle for thinking, it is a great foundation for discussion in the classroom. Any teacher who’s taught for more than a week knows the pitfalls of classroom discussion, and one of the most fatal is the cricket-laden silence of the class who will not talk. You, the teacher, pose a fascinating question, rich with the potential for sparking diverse viewpoints, and then you stand there for a seeming eternity, gazing out at a sea of averted gazes. We’ve all been there, and the art of facilitating discussion is one that I learned through trial and error and many years of practice, but one key reason that students don’t speak up is that they’re really not sure what to say. Giving them five minutes to mull over and develop their thoughts about a topic does wonders in increasing the number of willing participants.
Popsicle sticks with the students’ names on them (or some such other method of randomly choosing names) also does wonders in increasing participation and deepening and broadening discussion. When I introduce the popsicle sticks, I tell them about the discovery I made years ago that some important voices in the class were not being heard. I learned this when I read the quick writes students were writing and realized that some of the people who were not speaking up had some amazing things to say that would make our discussions even more interesting. I also mention that I was one of the quiet ones in the class when I was in school. I had plenty to say, but I could rarely find the right time or way to express my ideas.
I find many ways throughout the year to let my students know how important their ideas and voices are to me, and quick writes are a quick introductory method for getting them thinking and talking. But, occasionally, it leads to something more.
My former student Travis ended his message to me by writing: “to be fully honest, I feel I learned more about being a good person than I did about using good English (intentional mistake there lol).” I don’t know precisely what it was about my class in general, or quick writes in particular, that caused Travis to feel that he developed character in my class. I remember him as being a kind, thoughtful young man from day one. But I can’t think of a better endorsement for creating opportunities for students to develop and share their thinking.
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Jori Krulder is a veteran AP teacher who teaches in paradise – literally – Paradise, California. In addition to teaching, she enjoys long bike rides, a good cup of coffee, and spending time with her family.