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“It must be a piece of writing which, even if someone else reads it, doesn’t send any ripples back to you. It is like writing something and putting it in a bottle in the sea. . . . Freewritings help you by providing no feedback at all. ” Peter Elbow, 1973

“A quickwrite is a first draft response to a short piece of writing . . . . This is writing to find writing, but using someone else’s words to stimulate their thinking.”  Linda Rief, 2018


Now comes the fun part – gathering ideas for writing!

Every writer can struggle to get started.  Sometimes our commitments demand all of our attention.  Sometimes our worries crowd out every other idea or thought.  For many of us, our inner critic smashes down every inkling of an idea before it blossoms.

If all writers struggle, how does a teacher get a classroom full of students to write at the same time ?  Quickwriting!

I first learned of this concept from Peter Elbow’s work.  I was a new teacher at the time, and Elbow’s “freewriting” not only made sense for use with my students, but also helped me with my own writing through college.  Freewriting as Elbow defines it is writing without stopping for a designated length of time.  Then the writer chooses an idea from the freewriting and writes again. The goal is to keep going no matter what, even if you repeat a word or phrase over and over until a new idea comes.

In recent years, I’ve heard educators use terms such as “writing sprints” or “quickwrites.” Writing sprints increased in popularity alongside NaNoWiMo’s climb into the education world, and writers can even join a writing community of sprinters through Twitter ( See @NaNoWordSprints )Linda Rief uses the term quickwrite to combine mentor text models with writing ideas quickly as she described in her book The Quickwrite Handbook: 100 Mentor Texts to Jumpstart Your Students’ Thinking and Writing.  Lots of educators, including me, use the term “quickwrite” to refer to a variation of freewriting and writing sprints.

All variations of a quickwrite have a few key qualities in common.  They all

  • Increase the amount writing in the classroom
  • Help the writer focus on ideas without critique, either by an inner voice or the teacher
  • Increase fluency over time
  • Help writers of all ages find success, even enjoyment, in writing
  • Utilize little class time
  • Provide starting points for writing conferences

For our flash fiction unit, I used a variation that focuses the writer on brainstorming for a particular writing task.  Although I altered the quickwrite prompt each year, here is an example:

Choose one of the following settings (or one of your own) and build the picture by focusing on imagery:  What do you see? hear? smell? feel? taste?

  • a real or imagined classroom
  • night time in a woods (or city!)
  • a childhood bedroom
  • distant relative’s house
  • an abandoned car on an embankment of a stream
  • a setting of your choosing

My classroom routine for quickwrites looks like this:

  • After I share the prompt and students have written the date in the quickwrites section of their notebook, students have a couple of quiet minutes for thinking. Then everyone, including me, writes for three minutes without stopping.  I volley between writing and “kidwatching” to notice who might be struggling or to note someone to give a shout out to for their work.
  • I quietly tell students when they have 30 seconds remaining. At the end of 30 seconds, I ask students to stop without finishing the sentence they are working on.  If they know they want to come back to this piece, they can put ellipses.
  • Everyone tallies their word count and writes it in the margin next to today’s quickwrite. I ask students to give me a thumbs up if their word count is at least 5 more words than their previous word count, a “thumbs to the side” if their word count is plus or minus 5 words, and a thumbs down if their word count is 5 or more fewer words than their previous word count. I make it clear that everyone is working on fluency at his or her own pace.
  • Depending upon the goals for the day’s lesson, students might do a two-minute share with a shoulder partner, a few whole-group show of hands for who wrote to which choice, or a whole-group workshop session if a writer wanted to share his or her piece to get advice for next steps.

This routine is something I introduced every year, no matter which grade level I was teaching that year,  in the first few days of school, and the classes practiced with high-engagement prompts until everyone knew the routine.

Yes, there were usually students who tried to avoid writing by writing “I don’t know what to write” over and over for the full three minutes, but that often stopped without my intervention.  Students quickly realized how boring it was to write the same thing over and over, or they realized all writing was celebrated and none of it was perfect.  If we were a week into the routine and the avoidance behaviors were still in place, it was time for a one-on-one conference to find out why and to do what I could to take away the student’s fear of writing.

For this assignment, I often chose a whole-group show of hands to get a sense of which settings appealed to each class, and then students shared with a writing partner. The partner’s job was to ask questions so the writer could continue to think about how the setting could be developed. We spent about 10 minutes of partner time, so this lesson was not a whole class period.

Next, students go back to a mentor text to read like a writer with a purpose.


Remember assistant principal Richard Vernon from The Breakfast Club?  Who could forget his hostile approach to supervising adolescents during a Saturday detention!  We would like to think his character is more caricature than realistic, but versions of Richard Vernon seem to haunt most schools, and of course, as a new teacher, you will want to avoid being sucked in by them.

Instead, find your tribe. Teaching can be as emotionally draining as it is fulfilling, and you will need your tribe to help you along the way.

I have been fortunate enough to find many, many people in my tribe over my teaching career.  My very first department chair became my career mentor, and we still get together.  When we do, we talk passionately about education, books, previous students we run into, and we still lose track of time.

One of my interdisciplinary teams became a strong support system for the day-to-day stresses.   Anyone who needed to talk through an issue would email the group to email and ask to “meet on the square.”   The carpet pattern created a blue square in a spot in the middle of a hallway, and we would stand in a tight circle on that square to listen, to support, and to offer suggestions if the person asked.

My district committed to long-term relationships with consultants, and two became mentors for me:  Ruth Culham and Ellin Keene.

Ruth and I bonded over our love of YA literature and writing.  We got to know each other waiting in a long line for the final Harry Potter book.  What a night!  My seventh grade daughter was with us, and she still talks about that night.  Ruth used some of her experiences visiting my classroom in her book Traits of Writing: The Complete Guide for Middle School, which required monthly conversations and sharing of stories — such fun!  She invited me to contribute to Using Benchmark Papers to Teach Writing with the Traits, which pushed me way out of my comfort zone and created my interest in sharing lesson ideas.

Ellin came to our district to help us grow as reading teachers and to guide our curriculum revision.  We spent many long hours together on these tasks, and her quick wit and talent with students made every minute enjoyable.  She worked with me and a team of teachers to develop an in-house lab system of professional development, which was the best PD model I experienced in my career.  It remains a topic I am passionate about.  She suggested many times that I write a book, and that’s a current goal.

Find mentors that push you to grow.

My main tribe consists of all the talented, intelligent ELA teachers I worked with through the years. Members of both my high school and middle ELA departments became friends both at school and in life, and they still fill my soul with joy over shared interests and passions.  Some of them are pictured above.

How will you know if someone should be in your tribe?

This seems like an easy question, right?  Most likely, you will be assigned a mentor.  Other people who are nice, friendly, and welcoming will probably approach you.  Teachers in your hall or who have the same lunch shift will definitely want to share stories with you.  So how do you know whom to gravitate toward?

Pay close attention to the words people use when describing the students in their classroom.  While all of us have students who try our patience or who frustrate us, we have many, many more students who delight and amaze us.  Teachers who never seem to share their happy moments will probably make the job harder than it needs to be, so avoid spending your precious time listening to constant griping.  According to Raj Raghunathan Ph.D., “Constant exposure to such negativity can make deep inroads into your bank of positivity, leading you to . . .become negative—diffident, anxious, and distrustful—yourself . . . .”

Look for teachers whose philosophies and pedagogy aligns at least somewhat with yours.  While you are still growing your knowledge base, you have a sense of what feels right as you try different ideas.  Be true to those feelings.  I almost quit teaching in the first few years because I tried to teach exactly like another teacher, and it did not work for me.  Students know when you are aligning your practice with your beliefs, and they will know when you are not!

Trust your gut.  Unfortunately, many people feed off of dragging others down. Some teachers are so afraid of change that they attach themselves quickly to newcomers so they can ensure the new folks won’t initiate change.  Many people equate change with loss, as Zachary Herrmann discusses in his blog post The Challenge of Change, so it’s not a surprise that this reaction is one you can find in most schools.  Listen to your gut feelings about a person’s motives for befriending you.  Those feelings will generally be correct!

Passion is contagious. Teaching is a career that is as much a calling as it is a skill, so you probably became a teacher because you felt passionate about education, literacy, children, etc.  When you talk about what you love, don’t be afraid to let your passion show.  We all get excited when we find others who love what we love, and that shared passion will forge a natural bond.

So find your tribe, and then nurture the people in your tribe.  You will be able to withstand the pressures and stresses of teaching if you stand together in joy with other teachers.



A few years ago, our state standards added fiction (Why fiction?) under the narrative mode strands, and in my roles as ELA teacher and instructional coach, I began a hunt for lesson ideas, resources, and research to share with my ELA team.  After all, for most of my career, teaching students to write fiction was limited to creative writing classes. I felt out of my element.

And then I discovered the world of flash fiction.

At the time, I did not find much information from any of my go-to PD professionals, nor did I find much in the way of research.  But I did find an overwhelming number of sites that promoted and published flash fiction, including student flash fiction.  These sites also offered tips and reviews, and I knew that’s all I really needed.

I dedicated our first class of the unit to immersing students in flash fiction.  For some genre studies, I advocate for total discovery, allowing students to search online and in print, but because many of the flash fiction sites are targeted to adult readers, I pulled grade-appropriate examples for my students.

My students were already familiar with the protocols for “reading like a writer,” so I did not need to model the general strategy.  I piled several selections on the center of each group’s desks, and they started by simply reading the piece they chose.  Some students annotated; others chose not to annotate.

Since each person in a table group read a different selection, students regrouped all around the room with other students who read the same text.  I provided time for students to discuss and to ask questions, and then I directed students to “read like a writer with a focus ” while I listened in and guided groups as needed.

Read like a writer with a focus  takes on various purposes for me.  In this stage of the lesson, the focus was to notice elements of flash fiction.  In groups, students wrote notes of what they noticed in their sample flash fiction. Once students wrapped up capturing their thinking, they moved back to their table groups to share across several text examples, discussing similarities and differences.

I think this is an important step.  I know many teachers limit this part of a “notice and note” lesson, to borrow a term from Kylene Beers and Robert Probst, by asking all students to use one model text.  In this way, teachers ensure students focus on the elements they have predetermined as important.  But I think one key to keeping students engaged is to allow for true discovery.  If students know they are simply trying to “find” what the teacher wants them to find, the joy of the hunt disappears.  Other teachers feel their students would be completely lost without a demonstration first. If you determine your students need to see you model the strategy first, definitely work that into the plan.  See a model here.  In my experience, though, if students have done this with any mode of writing, they are able to apply the strategy without a demo.

Another benefit to allowing students to discover elements of a genre themselves is the lesson is automatically differentiated for the students in each classroom.  What students notice and articulate will reflect their current knowledge about the topic.  This can help determine mini-lessons or small group instruction that each class needs.

Which leads me to another benefit – time.

Almost every literacy teacher I know feels the pressure of time; there’s never enough to do all that the students need.  So why waste time presenting predetermined mini-lessons over basic information like elements of fiction or the structure of flash fiction?

Each table group then contributed to our class Elements of Flash Fiction chart.  While there are many methods of creating a chart, my favorites always include time for students to get up and write on the chart (or multiple charts) themselves or to negotiate what I should write on the chart by using a strategy.  One strategy I like is  Four Corners. For this lesson, a group will throw out a strategy, and then students can move to the corner of the room to indicate how strongly they agree or disagree that the element is important enough to go on the chart.  (The four corners are labeled strongly agree, agree, disagree, and strongly disagree).

The question in a secondary classroom is “How do I avoid ending up with 5-7 charts of the same information?”  Sometimes I use all of the charts, switching them each class period, but I didn’t always want to have to remember to switch charts.  One tactic I used with success is posting all of the charts the second day, and asking students to choose their top 4 per class period, and from these lists, I created one universal anchor chart.  This is a wonderful way to review the information and to ask students to critically evaluate each idea at the same time.

Depending on your school’s class periods, this is either one or two class periods. I was fortunate to finish the class chart, but that’s all the time we had.  If you have more time, you could ask students to reflect in their journals about what they discovered about flash fiction, what element they want to be sure to try when they write, or their main take-aways.  If you prefer, students could jot one thing they learned about flash fiction and one question they have on an exit ticket.  This would provide a quick check for understanding and provide a record of ideas for explicit mini-lessons.

What’s next?  Students apply their learning to new text.