It’s the end of an English class at the high school or college level.
Students have spent the session discussing some issue like gun control, the ethics of abortion, the limits of free speech, even the current American election and the phenomenon of the rise of Donald Trump—all contemporary American issues that actually do extend beyond the United States’ borders. Or there are the more eternal issues—having to do with culture, language, the value of higher education, and so forth. The students, albeit with some prompting of the teacher, have had a good discussion.
But there’s still twenty minutes left. What is there to do now? The instructor could just excuse the class, which is certainly an option, and one the students would probably appreciate. Another option is to just let the students talk on any topics they wish, which they seem about to do, in any case.
But what about writing? The students have spent close to the entire class period discussing an issue. No matter how much they protest otherwise, they are now ready to write about it as they have the ideas and the vocabulary to do so. If they have been discussing the topic of gun control, for example, they have the language and knowledge base to discuss the Second Amendment/right to bear arms, for example, and also have learned of some important cases and details related to the topic.
But writing well on an issue like the right to bear arms certainly take time. How do you incorporate impromptu writing on an admittedly complex topic in a relatively short time period? There are several ways to incorporate writing as an end-of-class activity that will further develop students’ vocabulary, writing, and critical thinking skills beyond just as a way to fill time.
8 Fast and Effective In-Class Writing Activities for Higher-Level Thinking
Focus on Content, not Correctness
In twenty minutes or a fraction of a class session, there is not enough time to edit one’s work. The writing should be treated as a journal reflection or perhaps the first draft of an essay, and the focus should be on content. Tell students directly that they will be graded for content only.
Grade for Credit Not a Letter Grade
If the student makes a reasonable and good faith effort, he or she will get credit. An option is to make these kinds of freewriting/journal assignments as part of a relatively small percentage of the total class grade: for example, I typically count them as part of “participation,” which is ten percent of the grade. With this policy, the concern that the overall grade will be falsely inflated by a series of such “for credit only” assignments is eliminated.
Stay in Teacher Mode
Don’t treat this as an opportunity to hide behind your laptop and catch up on grading or email. If you treat the ending class activity as a throw-away activity to fill time, so will students. Writing, especially first-draft, journal-type writing, is actually a critical thinking activity that offers the opportunity for students to put into conscious written form ideas that may exist thus far only at the pre-logical, subconscious, or emotional stage. Stay engaged with the class.
Circulate the Room
Make sure that students are actually writing, not doodling or sleeping with their eyes open. For those students who indicate wanting or needing help to get started, enter into a brief discussion. Often students will express themselves articulately on a topic in spoken language but then finish with “But I don’t know how to write that.” The answer to give is—just as you said it. Write down what you just told me. It is often a revelation to students that they are able to express themselves in writing as they do in speaking and that their writing makes sense.
Treat This As a Mini-writer’s Workshop
All the students are able to engage in the way they are most comfortable: they may sit and talk quietly with peers about the topic; they may work alone; I even offer the opportunity to leave the room to go write outside if the weather is good or compose in the computer room, if that option is available. Students must check back in with me, however, before they leave, showing what they accomplished, to keep accountability.
Be a Role Model on the Value of Writing
Consider sitting with the students and writing yourself to the topic. Model the stages of freewriting some ideas, outlining, drafting, etc., using your own writing process.
Treat This As a First Draft
You may offer students a chance to revise and extend the writing in a second draft for a grade if they would like. Or you may just decide to leave it as a first draft, journal-type entry only, for credit only, with little or no attention paid to nonstandard language. It is an act of courage, for many, to share impromptu language with someone else. Many masters of the language, such as Joseph Conrad, refused, never speaking publicly and only publishing work and subjecting to public scrutiny work that had already undergone extensive revision.
Future Directions for the Writing
Allow students take the work home for further development if they so wish. Some students will realize their work is strong, get excited about it, and want to further develop it into an essay. Consider allowing that option for a letter grade.
Any one of these options could be used for that “throw away time” at the end of class—or any combination of these options, or none of them at all. But no time in class should be “throw away.” Many strategies exist to fill that “throw away” time to create actual learning experiences, and writing is one such option.