Extreme Writing Basics

“I can’t believe I can write that much,”, “Can we do it again?” How many times have your students said that?…probably never.

What is this variation on journaling that captures student interest and is designed to build the ability to write quickly (fluency) and get ideas fast (ideation)?

It’s so simple…

  • give them an inspiration for writing,
  • give them 3 choices of topics
  • Say: “Pick a prompt. There are no rules. Just, keep writing for 10 minutes. You don’t
    have to stop to think – your pen should not leave the paper. Stay neat so that
    someone else can read it. Are you ready?…go.”

Well…of course there are variations on this theme and lots more to tell you, but that’s the nutshell.

Do We Do Extreme Writing Every Day, All Year?

No. Planning an entire year is easy.

  • Try 20 minutes a day
  • For only 10 school days – 2 weeks.
  • Stop. Don’t do it again for a month. Repeat for 2 weeks.
  • Stop again. Repeat about 8 times in a year.

Should it be the same two weeks each month? No…variety, variety, unpredictability.

Do I Have to Mark Extreme Writing?

No. You have too much marking already.
“But, at university they said we should read the student’s journals and respond so that they are communicating with someone.” Really!?!

So as teachers we start out enthusiastically – then decide it is good enough to read once in a while – then quit altogether because students don’t like journaling anyway.

Don’t do that. The good news is that it is actually professionally unethical to mark it – yes. You didn’t teach them anything. In fact, except for making it neat and readable, you didn’t say much at all. Ethically, you can only mark it, if you taught it.

On the other hand, you can mark Extreme Writing for volume – because this writing is to build fluency – which is the production of volume.

Students trade papers and count the words putting the total in brackets at the end. You are going to ask for a specific number of words in a specific period of time – more about that later.

  • Exceed expectations – more than 10% over what was asked for – 5
  • Wrote 100% – 4
  • Wrote 75% – 3
  • Wrote 50% -2
  • Wrote 25% – 1
  • Wrote less than 25% – 0 (you weren’t trying.)

Ta da!  If you wanted you could get a mark every day for two weeks with no real effort on your part – but you won’t because that would placed too much emphasis on fluency which is only part of the writing process.

I Want Them To Write For 20 Minutes.

How Do I Know How Many Words To Ask For?

Your point is a good one. If you say, “write for 20 minutes”, they could write 50 words and tell you it took them that long to write it. You want a certain number of words every day…the amount it would take them 20 minutes to write.

Your students will love this speed assessment. Just don’t tell them it’s an assessment. If I’m being “assessed” I tense up. It’s called The Rapid Write.

Here are the rules:

  •  Write for one minute.  Do not lift your pen up to think.  Just keep writing.
  • Follow your brain wherever it goes. Don’t worry about staying on topic…just whatever your brain is thinking about.
  • Stay neat – periods and capitals and all that.
  • Keep it so it can be shared with others.

What if you get stuck?

  •  Just write, “I can’t think of anything. My brain is frozen and nothing is coming. I wonder if everyone else in the room is having the same problem.  Maybe we’re all just writing about how we can’t think of anything,”  until something pops into your head.

Are you ready?  On your mark, get set, write.

Time them on your phone.  At the end of one minute say, “Stop.  Put a slash after your last word. Count how many words you wrote and put it into brackets after the slash.”

You can repeat this process if you want a more accurate count. Before the second write tell them that sometimes they will write more the second time, and sometimes less.  A lot depends on how big the words are. 

Use the class average to help determine how many words to ask for.

When it’s fun, someone in the room might say, “can we do that Rapid Write again?”  Gotcha! 

How Do I Find the Average Number of Words My Students Can Write In One Minute?

One way is to collect all the samples.  Line them up in order of number of words.  Pick the middle student.

Another way is to have students all put up their hands.  “There are 24 students in here. That means when 12 students put down their hands we will be at the middle of the class.  Everyone put your hands up. How many wrote 10 words or more – keep your hands up. 15 words? etc.” Keep going until you have 12 hands down and then say, “That’s the middle. Our average speed is…”  and stop.

Why not keep asking until you reach the student with the most words? The gaming industry does lots of research. Apparently, unless you are within striking range of the top a “leader board” it is actually de-motivating. And we want to keep our slowest writers “in the game.”

Why Replace Journaling (which students understand)…
with Extreme Writing (which they’ve never heard of)?

Well… because students don’t like journaling. Studies have shown that student interest in journaling peaks in grade 2 – that is before they can really write – and declines from then on. When your students sigh and role their eyes if you say ‘take out your journals” that’s your clue. If they have trouble finding their journal in the morass of their papers – that’s another clue.

And…boys in particular think a journal is like a diary. Even calling it “personal writing” won’t save it. “I’m going to have to talk about my feelings…yuck.” Now, call it Extreme Writing – like an extreme sport – no rules other than staying alive and keeping going. Great!

Suddenly they are in – more later on how to keep it engaging all year. It’s not a “draft” – heaven forbid. It won’t be “marked” – well it will sort of but we won’t go there yet. You get to share it with a partner after (the “publishing” element). Altogether – it’s super fun.

And…you get good at what you do a lot of. Wayne Gretzky said, “People say I’m a natural at hockey. What they don’t see is the practice, practice, practice!”

So, fluent writers write a lot. – they just do. That’s what we want for our students too. Lots and lots and lots of writing practice.

I remember hearing a basketball coach in a premier private school saying to his team. “I don’t want to see you in the halls without a basketball in your hand.” A bit extreme – but my dream is students who are uncomfortable if they don’t have a pen on them.

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