Jody on First Free Writes

Although Jody works with elementary kids, I think her approach to early writing, described below in a comment from last November, is a great way to get some writing going on in any classroom. Many of us have not yet this year seriously turned our attention to writing in our level one classes, as it should be, but now, over the next four months or so, we will probably be doing more and more writing, even though it still should be very limited and low key in level one classes. Jody suggests (in a comment here last November):

How about doing a 4-6 panel cartoon drawing of the reading they did in class? Have them write a descriptive phrase in each box with the drawing or write labels all over their pictures. This also helps those kids who just can’t seem to get a story into six panels (I always have kids who want to draw more or kids who don’t want to draw at all.) With elementary ones, sometimes I don’t even know what it is they drew, so the labels/phrases can be very helpful.

Here’s what I find: Kids, who are ready to write, write up a storm on these cartoons. Kids, who aren’t so ready, stick with the shorter labels. I encourage my kids use their “word cards” and, of course, the reading, to copy words or phrases. I notice that my “faster acquirers” don’t copy and easily use original language on their assignments. My lower kids use the readings/cards to help scaffold themselves to writing.

When I come back the next day, I am greeted with (by several): Read mine. Show it to the class. With their permission, I show them on Elmo and we have another review round of CI with our structures.

Thoughts and advice on elementary free-writes:

If I am smart (not always), I can ask one of the kids, whose drawings are stellar and cover the story well, to do a “blank” drawing–no words. Next we have a session of modeling:

With that drawing on the overhead, I ask the class, “How can we start this story?”. This is really important to do. Many kids actually get stuck right here, when they first begin free writes on their own, choke, and then believe–”I can’t do it. I hate this, etc.”. We come up with a beginning: “There is a girl. Her name is Tuti.” (simple, simple). I write this on another piece of paper, skipping lines (on the doc projector). After I write it, I read it aloud. Someone says what it means. Back to the drawing. More discussion about Panel #2. I write on the writing paper. I read it aloud again–from the beginning. Someone tells me what it means. Panel #3, etc.

The next time we meet, I give them a copy of the drawing. Not all kids are good at far-point observation (on screen). The constant shifts from paper to screen to paper, and back, are difficult for a number of kids, so having their own copy can help them get the task done more efficiently. Now, they just write the story from the drawings.

Interestingly enough, not everyone’s story looks the same when they turn them in. Some write much more than others. The spread is all over the map–even on the first writing. They are not permitted to ask for any help during the writing period. I encourage the “whipper snappers” to be creative, add descriptive words, change the ending, add a scene, etc–with a little whisper in the ear. I don’t time it–way too stressful for 10-11 year olds and unnecessary. I write the current structures on the board. Most don’t even look up there–but some do. I want the first several (4-5) writing events to be successful for every kid. The first couple of years (grades 5-6), all writing is done from picture prompts which reflect our target structures. I have to remember what I am assessing: their language, not their ability to make up a story.

I don’t correct their writing. I read it. The next day, each kid folds the paper in half and we paste it into a flimsy, cheapo, composition book of about 20 pages. Every writing they do goes here. It is very instructive to see their progress in this way. I can pull that book out for phone calls, conferences, team meetings, narrative grade reporting, etc. I have found it invaluable.

The last writing of the year, we count words. Then, THEY count the words from their first writing and compare. It is ALWAYS a joyous moment as you can imagine.

Elementary kids are still acquiring so many basic skills, I hesitate to use “high school” templates, like timed free-writes, with them. What I do now has evolved over the years and will probably continue to evolve.

As the kids get better at this, during the “pre-composition” writing on the doc projector, I also write augmented ideas on the skipped lines. For instance: There is a girl. (I ask for a word to describe the girl and write “intelligent” with a ^ underneath between “an” and “girl”. Of course, this is in the target language.) Her name is Tuti. (On skipped line, I write an alternate way to say this.) My higher kids will tune into these things. My lower ones can’t even remember I wrote the alternate things–so I dont’ worry about it. They will only write what they’ve acquired.

Doing pop-up grammar during this pre-writing process is PERFECT–but I don’t do too much of it. It can get overwhelming really fast for beginners. Not necessary.

I use the cartoon panels from Cuentos Fantasticos (Amy Catania) or Cuéntame and C Más to do this most of the time. Sometimes, I use student drawings.

Hope these ideas are helpful.



10 thoughts on “Jody on First Free Writes”

  1. Yipee! I had thought about writing for next week. I want us to do our own stories now that we’ve broached the concept with Brown Bear. My students are really all over the gamut from K-6. So I’ll be using lots of pictures and word cards. I liked your concept of a writing notebook that collects their work.

  2. Jody, this was very helpful.

    I like your idea of doing “augmented ideas on the skipped lines” to embed the story with more details. This a great way to leave room for creativity, while not having to worry about getting off track and possibly out of bounds.

  3. This is fantastic. But I have a question: what is your reasoning for not counting the words on the first write? I did my first free write with my 6th graders (in their 3rd year, but 1st year with TPRS) right before vacation. I told them the day before what I was going to ask them to do. Then, on the day of the activity, I gave them one minute to think about what they were going to write. Then I had them write for one minute. I had a range of 9 words to over 50! It was amazing. I told them spelling didn’t count and if they got stuck to just write a word in English. They were amazed with themselves, as was I. They used a lot of expressions from our stories. I was so proud of them, and want to do one a month from now on. Maybe I was setting them up too much by giving them time to think, but I didn’t want it to be too scary. I’d like to try with my 5th graders, too. I really like the idea of the cartoons, though, as they can serve as training wheels. Slowly but surely, I think progress is being made!

  4. I second Allison on that, the comic approach of plugging in short phrases or even just words is an excellent idea!

  5. We start writing in our Level 1 classes by adding details to a framework. We started about 3 years ago when we saw the success of Embedded Reading. This seemed like the next natural “A ha!” idea from that. It has made an incredibly powerful and positive impact on the writing skills of our less-confident writers.

    I know that it sounds a bit negative, but I’m with Jody on the word count early on. Our students are sooooooo trained to be measured, and identified, by their numbers, that they are too susceptible to damage when numbers get brought into the picture.

    It is hard enough to convince students that I am interested in them as human beings, not as test scores. I know that that is not our intent…we do want to celebrate their AMAZING abilities, as Allison said. But sadly, when we start asking for numbers, they see us as another number-cruncher. Our actions always speak louder than our words. I might be overly sensitive about this issue.

    But then again….so are many of our students. The most prolific students LOVE the word count. The least prolific don’t even bother counting. They know it won’t matter….they will be at the bottom of the heap.

    Now…using Jody’s idea of waiting…and pointing out their growth later on…that sets them up for recognizing and pursuing growth. Now that is REAL data.

    with love,

    1. I think that if students want to count their words for the aha of their own knowledge that is okay. You won’t stop a 4% from doing that. The other first-timers writing may benefit from just seeing their progress through the year as Jody and Laurie suggest.

      What matters most is not the count, but the WILLINGNESS to take their knowledge to the next challenge–writing. And encourage them to just go for it. No judgement at this point–because their interior editor IS JUST WAITING to slam the process for them down. You have to encourage them that editing–self-editing is not in the process that you are doing now. There will be time enough for that later as they become more comfortable writing. Now it is FREE WRITE time. Emphasis on FREE.

  6. But, as far as I am aware, there is only one Jody and one Laurie. Honestly, what do you do when proven experts are so alone in their area that many of them aren’t even recognized by their bosses, as in Chris’ case in Ohio with that wingnut running things at the state level? I don’t think anybody around Jody has any idea of the kind of work she is really doing every day in the shadows, and yet what she is doing is some of the most significant, radical, streamlined and wonderful work in education going on right now in the entire world. And that is an understatement. I know what you will say Laurie, that we can only do what we can do. You are right. It’s just frustrating to be in contact with people like her and you and to see clearly what is being done and then to be only one of a handful of people who can see the great work being done against huge obstacles by so many people who have to fight to even be able to do it. AGH!

  7. You know Ben…I don’t even think Jody knows how many incredible and beautiful things she offers to the world. :o) I truly believe that only others see our real beauty.

    If someone cannot see, that is their burden. Don’t take it on. Let them have it. Breathe through it. Keep shining the light so that others can see their own beauty and the beauty of others. That is where your energy belongs Sir Ben the Brave.

    with love,

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