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Born to run … and write

8 ways to liberate writing for students.

7 min read

Voice of the Educator

education boy running

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Jim Dillon for education

I have written six books. Most people would think I wrote them sitting at my desk using my laptop. That would be partially correct. I also wrote my books running around my neighborhood, riding in cars, during quiet meditation, talking to friends and colleagues, and at a variety of many unexpected times and places. 

Of course, I ended up transferring words to a page, but most of those words first appeared on Post-its, small pocket notepads, the back of receipts, theater tickets and anything else I could find at those unexpected times and places. 

Take a running start into writing

I will share just one example of how I have written my books. Out of my reading or interaction with others, or from curiosity, a topic of interest will come into focus in my mind. I jot down any thoughts related to that topic whenever they occur to me. This could happen over days, weeks or months. 

When I run my daily 3 to 4 miles (I am slow so that it can take close to an hour), I fit a tiny notebook and pen into my running shorts before I take off on a familiar route. When an idea comes into my mind, I stop and write it in my notepad. I repeat this as often as needed. 

When I return to my desk, I review the notebook and start to compose at my keyboard. Usually when I finally stop and look at the clock, one to two hours have gone by. And I then gaze at the thousand or so words I have written on my computer screen.

Share the write-anywhere tip with students

Jim Dillon for education
Dillon concocting ideas while running in a marathon. (Image courtesy of Jim Dillon)

I share my writing story because we educators have misled our students about the true nature of writing. To many students the verb “to write” implies sitting down with a writing instrument or keyboard. As a result, for many students, writing is like a magic trick: they are expected to stay in one place for an arbitrary amount of time, conjure words from the inner confines of their brain and then deliver them to a blank page.

No wonder so many students associate writing with being physically restricted almost as a form of punishment. 

For many students writing is a test of how well they can remember experiences, and/or offer their interpretation of the words of other writers. Add the fact that their writing is judged and graded by an audience of one, their teacher, and it is not surprising that students feel like bolting for the door when they are asked to write.

Approach writing as a form of discovery

Writing, however, can be an adventure when it is connected to moving, searching, discovering and interacting with their life experiences. In truth, writing is a verb composed of many other verbs: a multitude of actions, the least of which is sitting and using a writing tool. 

When students are immersed in meaningful experiences, their writing should flow in and out of their hearts and minds until they are able to finally capture it on the page. 

From my personal experience I am convinced that moving helps writing. If teachers let students approach writing without restricting movement, it can help them move forward with a more positive mind set. I am not proposing that educators release their students to run around the school, but they should actively seek a variety of ways to “liberate” writing for their students.

How to set writing free

Spend time dissecting/unpacking with students what writing is and is not. This means letting students freely express what they think and feel about writing. Some students will say positive things, but some, if they are honest, might reveal very negative feelings. Ironically, this conversation is a starting point and ultimately could be a great topic to write about.

Disconnect writing from sitting. Give students a little notebook and ask them to go for a walk somewhere appropriate. In nice weather, they could stroll around the grounds of the school. Ask them to stop and jot down whatever pops into their minds. 

Baby steps are OK. When students equate writing with producing lengthy pieces, the task can seem impossible. Give students deliberately timed, short bursts (30 seconds can be enough) of jotting down ideas many times throughout the school day. This can make writing seem less laborious.

Use technology as a scaffold. Every cell phone has a voice memo capability, so students could dictate their ideas into their phone and later transcribe them into print.

Emphasize thinking/expressing over writing  — at least initially. Give students time to think and let them know that their ideas and reflections are as valuable as words on a paper. If some students have trouble expressing themselves with words, let them do so by drawing pictures. They could later put words under them.

Let students know that writing is really just another way of telling their story. Except for the present moment, our lives are stories. What happened a few seconds ago becomes a story of the past, and what is going to happen in the future can be an imaginative story. Let students know that writing is a way of telling the world who they are or who they want to be. Agency is knowing you are in charge of creating/writing your own story, rather than following someone else’s story.

Let students write in teams. Most television shows have a team of writers who brainstorm ideas and then assign one or two members to turn them into a script. Students could have their own writers’ room. They could first research how these rooms operate. Teachers can structure the experience to insure that each student participates to avoid having a few students take on most of the work.

Create blocks of time for thinking, writing and sharing. Instead of lecturing for 30 to 40 minutes at a time, do so for 10 minutes. Ask students to think about what they just heard, jot down a few reactions and then walk around to find a partner to share what they have written. These movement breaks should increase their attention when they return to listen to the rest of the lecture.

These are just a few ideas to play with in the classroom. But the best source of ideas will be the students. Once students see writing in a different way, I am confident that they will have their own ideas for how to free up the writing process. Just give them something to think about and the freedom to find those thoughts.

Jim Dillon has been an educator for over 40 years, including 20 years as a school administrator. He is an educational consultant for Measurement Inc. and the author of several books, including Peaceful School Bus and No Place for Bullying. 


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