This summer I attended the Institute for Thinking and Writing at Bard College. For the past several summers, I have gone to some version of a week-long conference with the goal of getting better at writing, teaching, and teaching writing. ITW at Bard is right at the top of my professional development experiences.
One of the key concepts that I quickly learned to love at Bard, is focused free writing (FFW). Before every session, our teacher would offer a prompt and we would write silently for five minutes. After writing, we were required to share at least a line or two, and this provided a basis for the discussion that followed.
Though my colleagues in New England boarding schools are just starting preseason, we here at Western Reserve Academy are going into our third week of school. (Our unofficial motto is “We try harder”.) I’ve used FFWs to start most of my sophomore English classes, and often will add FFWs in the middle and end. When discussion is getting hot and many kids want to say something, I’ll create a FFW prompt and capture those thoughts.
Next week we will discuss A Temporary Matter, the excellent short story by Jhumpa Lahiri, in my sophomore English classes. As I’m reading, I’m keeping notes of potential discussion questions or FFWs. One in particular I’m keen on for the start of class:
“Outside events affect both people in a relationship. After the event, people arrive at different stages of growth. Sometimes people will eventually arrive at the same, new understanding. Rarely does this happen at the exact same time.”
After reading the prompt I’ll ask my students to reflect openly. The point is not to get them to go directly to the text (although some will, and that’s a good sign) but rather to get them to start grouping together the personal connections they formed when they first read the text–probably in a rush the night before.
In other prompts I’ll ask for specific associations that include evidence from the text. However, I’ve come to appreciate the creative aspect of the open-ended prompt to start things off, especially as I write along side my students.