Positive results from previous free writing activities is what inspired me to incorporate the activity into this section of composition. In my previous freshman composition classes, free writes have been low stakes writing. Students understand that if they do the free writing, they will receive credit.
I use daily free writes as a way to calm the pre-class talking. That is, I like to challenge the energy students bring with them to class into warm-up exercises for their brains. This way, the students feel as if they’ve “shared” something personal, much like when they talk before class. By channeling the students' focus onto a particular question, they are prepared to start class.
Another positive from daily free writes is the ability to get to know students. Peter Elbow, author of High Stakes and Low Stakes in Assigning and Responding to Writing, claims low stakes writing often generates “livelier, clearer, and more natural” prose (7). These free writes are a chance for students to release the silly, creative, or witty voice that formal academic writing does not allow. When writing about serious topics—or when using their “academic” voice—students often seem to block off their personalities or stifle their creative genius. However, when I see students answering random writing prompts, they appear so brilliant, funny, and wise. It is a way for me as the teacher to see what their writing is capable of. Likewise, free writes give me the chance to see what grammar or syntax problems students may have early on in the quarter for potential lesson plans in the future.
Lastly, free writes are a quick step to prepare students for the day’s lesson. A five-minute free write can be used as a brainstorming activity. For example, one of my favorite free writes is called “Making Lists.” I name a category and students then list words, phrases, or subjects that fit that category. The categories range from casual (bucket list items, classes I wish OU would offer) to serious (things I wish I knew more about, things I believe strongly about.) Later in the week I ask students to look at a few of the serious categories and they free write about two or three of the things they wrote down. They then take one of these subjects and write an exploratory essay about it. The scaffolding of free writes and in-class writing allows students the chance to choose a topic they are interested in and to examine how the researching process can change their original stance.
There were three new goals of free writing that developed with the use of Twitter.
The first was that students would get to know each others’ personalities and interests because some of the free writing would be displayed on Twitter feeds. By changing the audience (from the teacher to the entire class) I assumed writing would become even more informal and colloquial. Students would even have the chance to reply back to one another in the span of a few minutes.
Second, I hoped answering writing prompts on Twitter would help familiarize students with the medium. Therefore, free writes would not only be practice for using the site, but would also be practice for students to learn to write with the 140-character limit. Finally, free writing on Twitter was a way to verify my attendance records in the event that students came in late and their presence was not marked in the grade book.
For the first week of class, I was too afraid to do freewrites on Twitter. I was already paranoid that the students hated the idea of Twitter, and I swear they looked angry every time I told them to log in at the beginning of class. This was complete paranoia on my part. But it wasn’t until the “Would You Rather” freewrite—asking the question “would you rather [blank] or [blank]”—that I saw my students engaged, laughing, and being creative. It was after this that I tried harder to come up with free writes that could start the class off on this positive, happy note. I thought that maybe if I could make my students happy right away that those good vibes would last through the entire class period. Obviously this was wrong—it’d be idealistic if students could stay perky for a two-hour morning writing class—but it did make the classroom a bit more interesting.
Although I assume that the students enjoyed this time during class, it is probably safe to claim that I enjoyed it more. Previously, I have found that free writes are a way to get to know my students personally, which helps when it comes to responding to their writing and communicating with them. This quarter was unique because my students had the chance to get to know my quirks and personality a little bit better. Some free writes were exceptionally informal and random, and it seemed that students liked to see that I could keep up with their cleverness and creativeness.
Even more important, I was able to give a teacherly nudge during some free writes to challenge students more. One freewrite examined Kim Kardashian’s appeals to logos, ethos, and pathos in a letter she released to her fans when she and her husband declared a separation after 72 days. The students were engaged because it was relevant—not one was unaware of who Ms. Kardashian was—but they needed guidance on how to analyze the letter. I tweeted, “Her excessive use of exclamation points lower her ethos because I don't take her as seriously” as an example, and I believe it helped them understand the assignment a little better. This could have happened with a pen and paper free write, but I would have had to lecture at the students. On Twitter, I blended in and my presence was less authoritative.
"I think twitter is a great way to get students in class to communicate with each other. Twitter gives everyone a chance to know one another and in my opinion it makes us feel more comfortable in the classroom setting.
I love when we do fun and creative activities at the beginning of class on it [Twitter]. It makes everyone laugh and puts us in a good mood for the rest of time we have in class. Some classes are extremely boring and all we do is listen to the teacher talk about the notes that he/she has on the screen, but Twitter in this class makes it more enjoyable…Like I stated in the past Twitter reflection, I loved the “would you rather” assignment and, although it was strange, the “create your own Pokemon” assignment. I like the creative things that make the class laugh.
One thing that I did not like about using Twitter for the in class free-writes was that some of them required answered that were much longer than 140 characters. I did not like using Twitter for those ones because it was really hard to follow along with the points and ideas that classmates were posting. Since the answers were too long, the posts ended up being separated. When the responses got too long, it tended to get extremely frustrating for the rest of the class."
- Tara Lowe
It appears that students do not view free writes on Twitter as a serious heuristic—only one mentioned a free write that related to a classroom concept. It is therefore the instructor’s job to develop free writes that students view as fun, which can later relate to class discussion or activities. This will also help alleviate some of the problems that stemmed from assigning prompts that were difficult to answer in 140-characters.
Many students cite creativity as an enjoyable aspect of the free writes, while others like that they made the class laugh and feel more comfortable together. Although there were a few skeptical students, the overwhelming consensus from the students’ responses was that free writing on Twitter encouraged creativity and humor, class interaction, and to give more effort since there was an audience involved.
Perhaps one of the simplest uses for free writing on Twitter is that it breaks from the traditional pen and paper approach to writing. Allowing students to compose in a new space offers a chance to see a different kind of writing, one that is colloquial rather than academic. Seeing this kind of writing can help instructors learn what their students actually sound like in order to prevent an insincere code switch to that of the academic discourse. Even more, instructors can use this informal writing to discover what grammar or language issues plague students’ writing early enough to work on these problems throughout the quarter.