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Short & to the Point

By Doug Buehl,
Madison East High School teacher
Member, Wisconsin State Reading Association

March 2003

This passage on jazz reminds me of my first visit to New Orleans. I remember the distinctly European feel to the narrow streets, the cascading splash of flowers from second-story balconies, the beignets and chicory coffee. In particular, I recall the dim-lit shed of Preservation Hall, as I stood behind a line of crude benches, scrunched elbow-to-elbow in an eager crowd, listening to the elderly ensemble, many in their 70s and perhaps 80s, stomp and glide through ‘Dixieland’ and other jazz standards.” ...

“I wonder why Taylor didn’t think of taking the little Cherokee baby to the police. I think she was really taking a risk assuming responsibility for the child, especially considering that she knew nothing about the abandoned youngster’s background. It seems Taylor could be accused of being the person who had mistreated Turtle, or even worse, of being a kidnapper.” ...

Above are two rapidly written reflections, stimulated by a momentary pause in the curriculum. The first is a personal connection to a section of a history textbook detailing the birth of jazz. The second constitutes initial questions after the opening chapter of the novel “The Bean Trees” by Barbara Kingsolver, when the main character finds herself the caretaker of a young stranger.

Both of these snippets are examples of Quick Writes, a strategy that stimulates thinking while reading and encourages deeper processing during learning.

The Strategy
Last month’s column discussed the importance of engaging students in “talking the talk” about their learning, as they explore new ideas and become practiced using the language of an academic discourse. Quick Writes, advocated by Linda Rief (1998), are planned interludes during class for students to respond to their learning. As they express their thoughts and understandings, students become increasingly comfortable integrating new vocabulary into their “talk” about key concepts.

Step 1: Establish with students the purpose of this strategy in your curriculum. Quick Writes represent informal writing, not polished or edited composition. Students are allocated a prescribed period of time to quickly gather their thoughts about some aspect of a course of study. These Quick Writes might be collected as a part of a class learning log or included as journal entries. In addition, Quick Writes can be expanded into further study or elaboration.

The ground rules for a Quick Write are as follows:

  • Students are informed of time parameters (a one-minute write, for example).
  • Students are expected to begin writing immediately and use the entire (albeit short) time period.
  • Students quickly jot down the thoughts that occur to them as they respond to the writing prompt.
  • Students should not be overly concerned about writing form (the intent of a Quick Write is fluency of expression rather than careful writing).
  • Students may be asked to share their Quick Writes with a partner. A timer with a buzzer is an especially useful tool during Quick Writes, to reinforce that students need to transition directly into their thinking and that extended writing is not an expectation. An appropriate time reserved for a Quick Write depends on the students and the nature of the topic. Rief frequently uses one-minute writes to move students very quickly into casual thinking about a topic. With a short time expectation, students cannot ponder and procrastinate before they commence writing. Instead, when it’s “go,” everybody goes, and “says something” in their writing.

Step 2: Next, consider appropriate prompts to stimulate a Quick Write. A read-aloud from a portion of a class text can be a highly effective Quick Write prompt. As students listen, they have a chance to rehearse their thinking about the material. For example, students studying the Vietnam protests in the 1960s listen to the teacher read a couple of paragraphs from the history textbook describing student demonstrations on college campuses. Then students produce a one-minute Quick Write about what they were thinking.

Prompts are an essential element of a Quick Write. A prompt is intended to jump-start student thinking about some important aspect of a unit of study and to provide focus for their personal musings. Prompts do not need to be lengthy; a read-aloud of a minute or two may suffice. A striking quote could make an excellent prompt.

Step 3: A Quick Write may, of course, be open-ended, allowing students to pen whatever is on their minds as they respond to a prompt. But Quick Writes can also be constructed to elicit specific types of thinking. In addition to providing a prompt, teachers can also indicate a stem that students can use to frame their thinking:

  • “This reminds me of . . .” (to emphasize making connections between the curriculum and personal knowledge and experiences).
  • “I wonder . . . what . . . if . . . why . . . whether . . .” and so on (to stimulate questions that occur to students about the topic).
  • “What seems especially important to me . . .” (to help students narrow into key concepts and ideas).
  • “I was interested in . . .” or “I feel that . . .” (to engage students in examining personal responses to a topic).
  • “I think that . . .” (to encourage conclusions or generalizations about the material).

Step 4: Quick Writes are also an excellent opportunity for students to practice summarizing material or to explore new vocabulary. For example, students in a geometry class could be asked to “write down what comes to mind when you hear the term symmetrical.”

Students may use Quick Writes to summarize their reading. Also, the exercises are especially useful as a brainstorming activity for more extensive writing.

Posted March 10, 2003

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