About Dan McConnell

Husband, father, and teacher. Hoping to earn full redemption through the written word and shaping the dangerous young minds of tomorrow.

Getting students to write can be difficult.

For students who don’t like writing, being confronted with a lengthy writing task will turn down the will and up the resistance quick. Think about it: they are uncomfortable for a reason. Who knows why: unsure of their skills, confused by the task, maybe just uninterested in that particular academic area. So, starting light is starting right for getting them ready to write.

Start by understanding that just getting words down is a great start.

Use what I call the “Fill-n-Spill”.  It’s something I do myself when writing a story. It can produce an impressive amount of text when I am working through how to establish a mood or describe setting in a way that draws in a reader. The activity comes in three stages that, once familiar to you and your students, can happen from start to finish in under ten minutes.  Its main purpose is to generate written words and thoughts quickly, without pause for concern over punctuation, spelling, and grammar. The results can reveal great phrasing, neat ideas, and metaphors for future development.  If getting students to write is a struggle, this will help. A break from the overly prescriptive, narrowly purposed, and then rigorously graded and reworked writing will unleash creativity by lowering the “threat level”. There is no right or wrong; it’s just getting down words and ideas.

An example of how and why this can work can be found in the practice of journaling.

In Rosalind Atkinson’s article about journaling:

Too often, a teacher’s ideal piece of writing is something correct but gutless, with grammar but no exuberance, wildness, or spirit…. A journal is the place where you can let the wild beasts out again! Don’t worry, they may be a little timid at first, expecting the red pen to descend at any moment. Give them a while roaming free around your pages, and you’ll be amazed what comes out.

I encourage journaling, do it myself, and believe in carving out time in the day for students to do it. The  “Fill-n-Spill” you’ll use here works in much the same way- encouraging writing by opening up possibilities for what might come out of the mind and onto the page. Once a writer becomes more familiar with using the mind this way, calling up those skills on-demand becomes a little more within reach, and students become less averse to writing. I’m not saying they’ll like it, but they’ll be more willing.

The three stages of the “Fill-n-Spill:

Before you start, use this link to a Google doc that I often use for this writing drill. Take it, make it your own, tweak it, adapt it if you’d like, but retain the bones-those places to note Topic, Think time, Write time, Word Count (WC).

This started as a “keep it in one of those speckled composition notebooks” thing, and that’s the way I usually use now. This allows students (and me) to track development over time and have a retrievable bank of useful ideas all in one place. It also keeps having to put a name at the top of every page out of the process. If it’s in a composition book that has a name on the cover, I’ll always know whose it is. The pre-made template allows for more flexibility for when/where/why you use the method if you want a supply of individual pages.

The Preparation

Prepare your room and your writers before you start this. I have access to my Pandora account in school and often put on the “Zen Gardens” channel. I might even have one of those “cruising through the galaxy” screensavers up on my smartboard. It gets very hippie in Mr. McConnell’s room during these times. Writers get the page ready by writing the date and the topic in their spots.

Write “1” next to THINK, and “2” next to WRITE. One minute is plenty at first for the thinking, believe me. Two minutes is great for the writing because it’s not so long that it becomes excruciating for students (or you), but it isn’t so short that you don’t get some good stuff out of them. You’ll be surprised sometimes at which students beg for just a few more seconds to get a final thought down. I always let them have those seconds. How could you not?

When doing this for the very first time

Make the topic choice something easy for them to visualize or contemplate:  water slide, spicy wings, ice cream sundae, a warm bed, etc. Come up with three choices that give every student one they can easily imagine, that they have vivid experiences with…You know, something they could easily steal ten minutes of class meeting time telling everybody about when it’s someone else’s turn to talk. Write the three choices where they can be seen and have them choose their one and then write it onto their “spill” page.

Once they are familiar with this process, it is more often a focused, single topic that I provide.  For example, if I’m looking for students to demonstrate an understanding of the concept of Neverland from Peter Pan, I might use “My Neverland” as the topic.

The three stages:

1) Meditate (“Fill” the mind): One minute

2) Write (“Spill” it onto the page): Two minutes

3) Review the writing: five to seven minutes (more at first when discussing the process, and more when you decide to highlight and “golden nuggets”)

1) Meditate (Fill)

That’s meditation is all about. Not a clearing of your mind, but an intentional narrowing of your focus. That’s what encourages “letting go” of the useless garbage that interferes in our thought processes. Once you become more adept at turning your mind inward to focus, the more aware you become of what your mind is doing.

It’s the moment right before I fall asleep.

Write (Spill)

Immediately after that minute of focused meditation, students do two minutes of what is almost “freewriting” within that topic focus. The idea, again, is to spill out everything you can onto the page. Whatever comes to mind goes down on the paper as quickly as possible. The way I describe it to students, in order to prepare them, is a thought-bucket that is filled and then dumped onto the page. That gives me a reason to tell them they get to take a dump on their paper, which is fun for me. A pedagogical reason to never let go of my inner adolescent I guess. Essentially, I instruct them to let their mind take them: thoughts, moods, phrases, sights, sounds, smells…

The two minutes, if students are prepared right, is a thing of beauty. Even my most reluctant writers, the whiners, the “Awww, do we haaave to?” kids will try to get down whatever they can, intently focused on the page and their thoughts. That’s the key right there: their thoughts.

Review

Your students will probably end up looking at a tumble-jumble of words and phrases. Maybe there will be a sentence here or there. No worries about proper mechanics yet. That happens during the expansion and development phase, which comes in Part 2. The first thing you do, after taking a breath and congratulating them on their focus and furiously scratching pencils, is a word count. Count them up. Every single word. Put that number on the WC (word count) line.

This number might go up and down depending on the day and/or topic, but production is key for these young, developing writers. Their hands will get stronger over time, their coordination and flow will improve, and they will become more familiar and comfortable with just spilling (“taking a dump”) onto the page. They will see an overall increase in the number of words they can write in two minutes, and that is data you can use to help them self-validate and motivate. Also, as Riina Hirsch describes in this article:

“The more we read and write, the better we read and write. That doesn’t mean volume alone leads to excellence. It doesn’t. But progress without volume is almost impossible.”

Next, do some sharing for those who find something from their “spill” they’d like to share. Remember, this is supposed to be non-threatening, so don’t force it. Some great stuff will come out of them. I had a tiny little third-grade girl once, in writing about spicy wings, come out with “flaming roller coaster of death”!  They can write. They can think of something, and if needed, they can be reminded to try “Fill-n-Spill” if they think they’re stuck on a writing piece.

Track successes and growth

The best part of this stage is that it encourages the production of writing. It engages the students and even the more reluctant ones who may never really like to write will write. The word counts give you the teacher and the student writer a very concrete measure of the thoughts and ideas, vocabulary, imagery, and metaphors, and you and the students will see the growth and acquisition of skills over time.

Writing

education, elementary school, learning and people concept – group of school kids with pens and papers writing in classroom

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