I have learned that if I wait to write until I think I have something to write about, it is often a very long wait. On the other hand, if I simply open to a new page in my notebook and write whatever comes to mind at that moment, I am often surprised by what flows from my pencil.
More than anything else, it was that feeling of surprise I wanted my fifth-grade writers to experience when we began doing our “15 Minutes on Friday” writing.
Last fall in a daylong literacy institute, Ruth Ayres told us about a Friday meme she participates in on her blog. It is called “5 Minute Friday.” She opens a blog post, writes for five minutes, types “stop” and hits “post” at the end of her time, links in with other participants, and comments on the blog of the person who linked before her.
Ruth had us write for five minutes, just so we could experience how much we could write in that time, and how surprised we would be at where our ideas led us.
I was hooked. I wanted to try this with my students.
Because I know that five minutes is likely not long enough for most fifth graders to work up a good head of steam in their writing, I extended the time to 15 minutes. I write alongside my students. I do not assign or suggest a prompt. We each open a new post on KidBlog, I set the timer, and a hush punctuated by the clicking of keyboards settles over the classroom for 15 minutes. When the timer goes off, we type “stop” and click on “post.” I ask one question before we spend some time reading and commenting: “What surprised you?”
My students have been surprised by how much they were able to write, by the story that emerged from only, “Once upon a time . . . ,” and by how much fun they had.
Along with the joy of the surprise, I have a couple of teacherly goals for this writing and a few questions that I want to keep track of over time:
1. I want my students to build stamina for extemporaneous on-demand writing and functional keyboarding as we move toward Common Core and the PARCC assessments.
2. I want to use this weekly writing as a formative assessment that can drive my instruction in minilessons, small-group work, and individual intervention. I also want to use this writing to make sure that the lessons I’ve taught have “stuck.”
3. I want my students to know each other as writers as well as they know each other as readers. It’s easy to see what books others are reading, and this gives everyone a weekly peek at classmates’ writing.
4. My personal goal is to write fiction, which is my own weakest writing genre.
1. What difference will it make to have my writing on the blog as a model?
2. What trends will I notice in each child’s writing? In the class writing?
3. What kinds of conversations will develop in the comments?
4. How will sharing writing deepen our classroom community?
On a weekly basis, I monitor my students’ writing (both posts and comments) by reading and commenting on every child’s blog post. To track my goals and questions over time, I created a simple chart for notetaking as I read back over three weeks’ worth of posts on each child’s blog. This way I can look for growth as well as areas of concern on both an individual and a class-wide basis. The categories on this chart for now include length, capitalization/punctuation, sentence complexity, dialogue, paragraphs, and “notable.”
In a recent whole-class review of “15 Minutes on Friday” writing, I was pleased to discover that there are only a couple students who need serious intervention with the use of capital letters and punctuation for correct sentence formation. On the other hand, hardly anyone in the class is using paragraphs. That might be something we need to study more as we read, and to explore in whole-class craft lessons. This is when it will be very helpful to have my own writing to use as a model for the students. I can go through a post and explain how I decided where to break my writing apart into longer and shorter (sometimes single sentence) paragraphs. Seven students have given dialogue a go. This will be a good group for exploring the tricky conventions of dialogue.
I can’t afford to experiment with all of my instructional practices at once. Nor, for the sake of my own sanity, would I want to. Doing “15 Minutes on Friday” is one small slice of my teaching that I can afford to devote to inquiry. Because I have relatively few preconceived notions about the direction this weekly writing exercise might take, and because I have resisted the urge to add any more constraints than the time limit, I have given myself the gift of a teaching experience much like the writing experience itself. Now that I’ve started, I am open to and delighted by the surprises that I am discovering along the way!