We do a lot of writing in my classroom. Sometimes it is paper-and-pencil writing, sometimes it is typing-on-a-device writing, but we write. A lot. With all of the writing we do in our room, one would expect that my students all have excellent writing stamina. After all, conventional wisdom says that anything we do often we begin to do well.
But that isn’t always the case.
Instead of writing for extended periods of time, many of my students write for incredibly short periods of time, interspersed with excessively long breaks. They don’t, of course, call them breaks. In fact, if you were to ask them, they would probably claim to be writing the entire time. But what actually happens is that my students are very good at appearing busy while accomplishing next to nothing. A student will walk over to the pencil sharpener, pick out the perfect pencil, sharpen it to needlepoint accuracy, and then walk back to her seat. Then she will walk over to the paper tray, pick out several sheets of paper (none of them touching each other), and walk back to her desk. She will start writing for a few minutes until the tip of the pencil breaks and then she needs to sharpen a pencil again. While on the way, she grabs a tissue to blow her nose, picks out a clipboard, throws away the tissue, finally sharpens the pencil, gets a new tissue to blow her nose again, throws that tissue away, and then finally sits back down. This process goes on throughout our entire writing block. At the end of the 30-45 minutes, she has one or two sentences written and says she is done.
So this week I have decided that we need to go back to a component of the first twenty days of writers’ workshop and focus on building our writing stamina:
First I made sure that every student had a sharpened pencil, a working eraser, and a piece of paper. (The few students who had permission to work on the carpet also had clipboards.)
Then I gave them a prompt: How do you feel about cold weather? Do you love it? Hate it? Why? What do you do when it is cold outside? Why?
Finally, I gave them a set amount of time to write: one minute.
Yes, that is all. Just one minute to write on this topic. The expectations were that they would have pencils on the paper and voices silent for the duration of the writing time. Remember, though, that this was just one minute. Sixty seconds. That’s all.
Nearly everyone in the class was successful. A few needed some extra support. After making sure they were all ready, I told the students to continue writing for jut one minute. This time I had all of my students writing silently. Once we had established that everyone in the room could write independently for just one minute, I extended the time to three minutes. We repeated this twice. At this point the students had written independently for eleven minutes. So then I gave them five minutes to write. Once again, everyone was able to do it and they had increased their stamina more. Another five minutes brought them to a total of twenty-one minutes of independent writing. We had nine minutes remaining until lunch, so I challenged the students to write for the entire nine minutes, still on this same topic. Some said that they were done, but I told them that they were expected to actually write the entire time, not just write until they felt they were done. I told them that they could write poems, lists, essays, narratives, or even just write “I hate the cold” over and over again.
Nobody took me up on the last suggestion. What they did take me up on was the challenge to actually write for the entire time. When we finished, my students had successfully written independently for thirty minutes. Yes, we broke it into smaller chunks. Yes, some of them needed some extra help. Yes, there were a few who did not get much writing done because they were thinking about the prompt. But many students had an entire page or two of writing completed.
I informed the class that we would continue to work on building our writing stamina this week so that they can start working on their explanatory/demonstrative essays again next week. The goal is for every student to be able to write for thirty minutes without interruptions while I work with small groups on key skills.
How do you build stamina, whether it is for reading, writing, or other tasks?