I am a little behind in teaching this year, so my students are just finishing up their first round of free choice essays. This means they can pick any topic/type of essay they want. My only parameters are that it has to be prose and at least a page double-spaced (normal font, margins, etc.).

The way my students view this assignment is split pretty much into two. One group is paralyzed by it. They will ask me over and over, “What should I do?” “What should I write about?” and they do not like it when I tell them I want them to choose. I do give them a huge list of ideas. I have a binder and an online folder of assignment ideas. But even that list is too many choices.

Have you heard that story about the boy whose kindergarten teacher told him exactly what color to color everything, and then later when he was given freedom he just continued to use those same colors?  Some of my students remind me of this. They are so used to being told exactly what to write and exactly how that they just cannot function with the freedom. It may seem harsh, but I force them to work through it and I will not give them suggestions on how to start other that the assignment sheets I mentioned above and maybe a few very general ideas I toss out.  Once they’ve started and have their own idea, I give them suggestions on how to move forward/improve. But, it’s important to me that they are able to start with a blank page and create a piece of writing.

Then there’s my other group of students, who are overjoyed with this assignment. They simply cannot wait to get started. Some will ask a few (more like several) times, “I can write about anything I want?” or “I can write about ___?” Once they start writing, they don’t stop. They will write pages and pages. I think twelve pages is the most this time around, which is an awful lot of writing for a 6th or 7th grader.

Here’s the amazing thing.  When we are writing structured essays, or at least essays in which I definite the type and/or topic, I do recognize a handful of gifted writers. However, when given free choice, the quantity of great writing increases exponentially. Students who have struggled to revise essays over and over and over in the past can whip out an amazing story on the first try when given free rein.

I realize it’s important to be able to write to a prompt. That is the reality of most classes in school, college entrance essays, job applications, etc. However, free writing is important too. The confidence alone is worth it. They are so excited about these stories. Not one student was excited about the argumentative essay they wrote before this one. They are proud of these stories that are pages long and actually interesting to read. And of course, they are increasing their writing skill in the same way that reading books on any topic increases your reading skill. Yes, you need to be able to read and understand books that you are forced to read, but the true love of reading comes in selecting books you WANT to read. Writing is the same–free choice writing is where the love and magic happens. It builds skills that carry over into all types of writing.

I’m not sure what the point of this post is. I guess I just wanted to share the joy so many of my little 6th and 7th graders felt in this assignment. And for those who were paralyzed at the beginning? Well, most of them did pretty well in the end, once they got started.

It does make me think about school in general. We learn so much more when we are learning about/doing things we have control over. It’s really too bad the structure of school doesn’t allow for more independent learning. That’s where the magic happens.

What was the last piece of writing you wrote that you were excited about? For me, it’s been a very long time. I actually can’t remember…I know I write often on my blog, but I don’t consider that “real writing”…more just journaling. I’ve written a few sample essays for students over the years that were fun, but nothing stellar that I feel like bragging about. Maybe I should work on a free choice essay of my own!

11 thoughts on “Freedom

  1. I remember way back when I taught (hard to believe it has been over 16 years since I was in a classroom full-time) – I loved my 8th graders. I taught science and tried to make most of our labs and experiments open as opposed to the traditional “cookie cutter” ones. The kids who struggled the most were the gifted ones because they wanted to know the right answer and couldn’t wrap their heads around the fact that there wasn’t always 1 right answer.
    Kim recently posted..Stability Balls and Running (2/1 – 2/7)My Profile

    • Oh yes those gifted kids do not like assignments without a clear right answer in subjects like science! That sounds awesome though. See you were so ahead of your time!

  2. I used to LOVE free writing assignments! I used to write stories for fun and wanted to be a novelist for most of my middle school/early high school years. I was also the kid who finished all the assigned reading early and asked for more books from my teacher. 🙂
    Becky recently posted..A Good Run, Finally!My Profile

  3. This really made me think! First, I hadn’t heard the story about the boy and choosing colors – WOW! And secondly, this makes me think of how I feel about writing on my blog. Most of the stuff I write, I am passionate about and get joy from it. It might not be my best work, but it’s genuine, and makes me feel good… unlike being forced to write something (at work or for a product review, which I really struggled with today)!

    But I don’t write much outside of the blog anymore. That might be good for me!
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    • Oh man it’s SO HARD to write things you’re not interested in. I definitely have felt that. For me, it’s news releases on events at school. I HATE writing those. Plus everyone knows I’m the English teacher so they gotta be good! 🙂

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