Grief is a house. We were using this quick write from Linda Reif’s The Quickwrite Handbook since in AP Language and Composition we were beginning an analogy essay (For this essay, students extend compare/contrast form and write an extended analogy.). As I wrote my quick write about how grief is like a black hole, I soon discovered that while I could produce words like point of no return, event horizon, gravitational pull, I wasn’t confident in my use of them. AHA. Impromptu mini lesson: after we “[rode] the wave of someone else’s words” (Ralph Fletcher wisdom at its finest) and experimented with analogy writing, shared our best line or idea with someone in the room, and revised some part of that quick write, I shared my writing and explained how I realized I needed to research my known (black hole) more if I was going to write about it accurately. Quickly, I directed students to share their topics at their table groups and ping pong ideas off each other until they had ideas for further research for improved development. Undoubtedly, this quick write was just-in-time for us as writers. In Linda Reif’s words, it gave my students “frames and ideas for their own writing”; it encouraged them “to take risks in a non-threatening, informal situation”; it offered “ongoing practice for writing in sensible, realistic, and meaningful ways on demand”; and it provided an example of “fine, compelling writing.”
From that moment, I began to reflect through the lens of my AP classroom on all the other ways my students benefited from quick writes this year. While quick writes serve so many of our novice writers (and less-so-novice writers like me!) well, they partner well with the aims of an AP Language and Composition course. Moreover, they serve many of the students with whom I work in this course, students who tend to be advanced learners (with labels like gifted, talented, twice exceptional, high achieving, college bound, etc.), students who tend to be highly self-critical, perfectionists .
Slaying the Beast That Is Perfectionism (or at least wounding it)
Some of my students in this course maintain a distorted or unrealistic perception of self, believing, as Sal Mendaglio writes in “Gifted Sensitivity to Criticism,” that “knowing everything and doing everything right–perfectly–the first time” is actually realistic. Of course, it’s not. And, in a high intensity course like AP Language, where students must write, write, write, it’s important to address these perceptions of writing: writing doesn’t have to be perfect. It rarely is in general, let alone on a first stab.
Quick writes arm my students again and again with opportunities to slay this mindset. These short, ungraded bursts of writing get pen to the page–with urgency. There’s no time for second-guessing or trying to compose just-right language or–common with gifted and high achievers– avoidance. There is only writing. Quick writes have not completely destroyed this mindset, but they’ve poked holes in it, particularly useful when students later face the high pressure of the on-demand writing of the AP exam. I wonder: how many of my students who struggled to get words to the page or to finish an on demand writing might have been helped had I employed quick writes sooner? If thinking, on demand, and getting words to the page had been a routine?
Sky Diving But With Language
Within my population of gifted and talented learners and high achievers, there is the potential for their creativity to soar in their writing. But for many of them, unless I optimize conditions for jumping, keeping them safe while they take risks as a writer, they won’t. They won’t jump because it might mean a spiralling-out-of-control, fall-flat-on-your-face, splat kind of failure (to them), which is precisely what so many of my students want to avoid. They’ll cling tight to five paragraph essays and divided thesis statements. They’ll grasp on to worn topics and expressions. Why? Because they maintain image this way; they can’t look stupid or inferior.
But the quick writes give them parachutes–a controlled way to jump into the possibilities of language because they offer that “non-threatening, informal” and mostly private opportunity to jump into possibility. This semester in particular (teaching on a block schedule sure accelerates my learning as a teacher–this is my second lap through AP Language this year!), I see my students jumping, taking risks in form and expression. I wonder: with so much beautiful, powerful meaning to explore in these micro bursts, why wasn’t I giving them this opportunity to dive before?
Paper, Paper, on My Desk, What Line Is Fairest of Them All? THIS ONE!
With the students I serve in this course, quick writes–in addition to serving as a way to dispel assumptions about writing and encourage risks–also help address tendencies toward self-criticism. For some of my learners in this course, self-criticism debilitates. It is not enough that the teacher or peers recognize writing that is good; the learner needs to as well. For the exceptional learner, this tiny shift in perspective may reflect in their self-talk.
Quick writes afford this, a glimpse at a time. Routinely, I ask students to highlight or underline an idea or a move they feel good about or they feel successful with. This trains them to look for what went well. We then affirm these successes by finding a partner to share with. And, as Penny Kittle would recommend, we try to share those ideas and words of beauty with the class. There’s affirmation from self and others, which is critical for ALL learners (even I need this when I model writing in front of my students or in front of peers) but especially for those who expect so, so much of themselves. I wonder: how might quick writes–had I implemented them sooner–have improved the self-efficacy of my writers?
Sneaking Vegetables In–Mini Lesson in Disguise
Of course, one of the more known attributes of gifted learners (and often high achievers and definitely creative thinkers) is their propensity for learning, transferring their learning, and applying their learning.
For my learners in this course, quick writes serve as a way to scaffold toward mini lessons, as Lisa writes about here (or for more on 3TT about quick writes, here; here; here ; here); however, I can also sneak in a mini lesson, serving up a particular skill I want to see them absorb and then apply into their own writing. The element of novelty, too, as Noah Waspe writes about here, nurtures these learners. Hungry, they consume the mentor texts used in these quick writes and find ways to fuel their writing, often benefiting them in wholly unanticipated ways. I wonder: if I had implemented quick writes sooner, would I have nourished my writers more?
The value of quick writes abound for my AP Language and Composition learners: finding topics (and themselves), practicing revision (another way to counteract perfectionism), further rhetorical analysis practice. And more. Linda Reif’s rationale lays it out beautifully (please purchase The Quickwrite Handbook if you have not yet!). I know: in the ever-expanding universe of workshop moves, quick writes, for me right now, have the greatest gravitational pull.
Kristin Jeschke teaches AP Language and Composition and College Prep English at Waukee High School in Waukee, Iowa. She knows the force of quick writes personally: they’ve helped her own writing and her own self-talk. She’s at a point of no return–no return to the days in AP without quick writes. Follow her on Twitter @kajeschke.
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Fantastic post, Kristin! A thorough and clever reminder on the power and impact of low stakes writing. And — the importance of modeling. Your students are blessed to have you write beside them!