George Lucas Educational Foundation

Helping Students Get Beyond Writer’s Block

Middle school students may be nervous about writing, and low-stakes activities help them build confidence and get their thoughts on the page.

December 8, 2022
andresr / iStock

I love writing, yet an empty page can elicit feelings of anxiety and inferiority for many people. The first few sentences always feel a bit like being a deer in the headlights: What am I going to say?

As a new English teacher, I was tempted to grade anything my students gave me; I wanted to give them credit for their work and provide feedback. When I saw errors, I gave them a quick flick of the red pen, hoping to provide a gentle correction. I didn’t consider that my feedback might not feel so gentle and could actually impede my students.

Because so much of my students’ experiences with writing focused on being judged, they were quick to self-edit and critique their work before I even saw it. So, it was more important for my students to break through their own judgments and work on getting words on paper.

Move Away From a Mindset of Defeat

As Peter Elbow points out in his seminal text, Writing Without Teachers, “Schooling makes us obsessed with the ‘mistakes’ we make in writing… trying to get the beginning just right is a formula for failure—and probably a secret tactic to make yourself give up writing.” Recently, I attended a talk with Devi S. Laskar, the author of Circa and The Atlas of Reds and Blues, who shared how we have an issue with the “Delete” button: Many writers end up deleting parts of their drafts, losing a marker of their work and the words put on paper.

In doing so, we also lose a sense of progress we made. This can feel defeating for anyone, especially for students as they learn to write or when they have to take on longer-form writing, like essays. 

One way to help our students is to incorporate low-stakes writing into our classrooms. This type of writing is informal and typically ungraded or graded for completion. It emphasizes the practice of writing, and students are encouraged to write without concerns about content, grammar, or fluency. The purpose is for them to do their best to practice getting their thoughts down. 

By lowering the stakes, we can begin to break down the judgment, fear, and anxiety many students face when they start writing. This helps provide confidence in writing that also improves overall literacy. By providing a useful routine that allows students to practice getting their thoughts onto paper, we can help increase their writing fluency and speed. As a result, they develop a stronger written voice and build trust in their skills as writers.

While low-stakes writing is meant to help students feel freer with their words, we can still use guiding structures to help them get started. 

1. Implement Daily Journaling

I’ve incorporated daily journaling in my class for nearly a decade, using a system from the “Performance English” curriculum that my former school used. At the beginning of each class, students write for five minutes and are encouraged to keep their fingers or pens moving. At the end, students count their words. The goal is to get to 200 words. If they need to add words later before they turn in their journals—about every two weeks—they can do so with no penalty. 

I typically provide prompts, ranging from personal reflection (“Tell me about your favorite place”) to creative (“What would you change about our school and why?”). I’ll also provide prompts connected to our reading or ask students to respond to a piece of media. Additionally, I always let students know they can write about anything. 

I tell them their journals are not private: While I won’t actively share the journals with everyone, I explain how teachers are “mandated reporters.” I might share something if I’m worried about their safety. I will also occasionally make casual comments on what they write, like sharing that I also love watching reruns of The Office. It’s a great way to get them writing and also build connections with them. 

Over the years, my students have shared that this practice not only helps them write faster, but also allows them a moment of mindfulness. They’re able to settle in and work quietly for a few minutes, preparing themselves for class and letting go of the outside world for a bit. 

2. Offer Brain Dump Writing

I typically use this form of writing at the beginning of a project or essay. After reading the prompt or conducting some research, they have 10 minutes to write down as much as they can remember on a blank piece of paper. They’ll also use the DICE response method (which I learned from Mike Jetty) to react to the essay assignment itself or the research that they’ve read. This exercise allows students to get as many ideas on the page as they can, helping them release judgment about “good” or “bad” ideas. 

Once time is up, students take a highlighter and mark any ideas that they may be able to use later. This part of the process allows students to find hidden gems in their work, which gives them the satisfying experience of realizing that their informal writing can provide them with ideas to use in their formal assignments. 

3. Produce the ‘Worst Writing Ever’ 

In my college solo performance course, one of our first assignments was to write and perform the worst piece we could fathom. Not only did we all double over laughing multiple times that day, but also it helped us release our anxieties. Plus, as my professor noted, now that we got the “bad stuff” out of the way, we could get to the good writing. 

Since then, I’ve started using this as a way to get my students to engage with writing in a playful manner. Once students first have their assignment, I encourage them to write the very worst version of the paper they can imagine. They’ll use the worst grammar possible, be informal (and, often, hilarious), and come up with the silliest connections possible. My students always end up laughing, and it gives them permission to write and purposefully “fail.”

More often than not, though, some students come up with an interesting connection that they use later. I’ve learned that an essential part of my job is to provide space and support so that my students find confidence and joy in writing. Suspending my feedback on my students’ writing helps them learn to release their own judgment and find joy in the consistency and practice of getting words on paper, not for a grade, but simply for the sake of words.

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Filed Under

  • Literacy
  • Critical Thinking
  • English Language Arts
  • 6-8 Middle School

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