Drawing from the Well

Chapter One - Digging the Well
Lesson 4 - Free Write Exercise

Setting the Stage:
A Free Write is an excellent way to have students flesh out their own ideas concerning a topic. The purpose of a Free Write is to "stir the pot." A Free Write is a technique for brainstorming and developing both a connection with one's own voice and one's own ability to put ideas on paper. Teachers and students will see the value in free-writing exercises. (See Appendix for a sample Free Write.)

Goals: Give students the opportunity to identify their own ideas, feelings, impressions and memories through narrative writing. The ease of writing to express one's own ideas can only come from practice. The Free Writes are a safe, non-judgmental way to access one's understandings and concerns.


  • Students will be able to express in writing their thoughts and feelings.
  • Students will identify aspects of their writing that have the greatest impact for the audience.
  • Students will develop fluency in their writing.

NM State Standards: Language Arts I-A (7-1 & 8-1), II-A (7-1 & 4), II-C (7-1, 4 & 8-2)

Materials and Resources Needed:
Notebooks for working portfolio and writing materials Tape recorders, microphones, cables, batteries, tape (if including the technology extension)

Narrative Rubric (See Appendix/Methods of Evaluation)

Duration: After providing instructions, establish 10 to 15 minutes for the Free Write. The full class period will be needed if you are using the Extension Exercises in this lesson.

Directions for a Free Write (reference Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones):

  1. Designate a specific length of time for the writing exercise - 5 minutes or 10 minutes (5 min. may be best for starters.)
  2. Start with an opening lead-in phrase and return to that phrase if the writing gets stuck. The lead-in needs to be open-ended. (See suggestions below.) One year the students focused on the essential question of "How does Water Impact Our Lives? In the Free Write they started with the phrase, "When I think about water I feel"... or, "I remember"... or, "I see"... or, "I hear". The idea is to get specific, personal memories, connections and knowledge on the page.
  3. Keep the pen (or pencil) moving. When the exercise starts, don't re-read what's been written, no scratch-outs, or corrections. The idea is to access one's stream of consciousness and put it directly on the page. The hand should be moving at all times, even if the writer repeats him/herself. Disregard any concern for spelling, grammar and punctuation during this process.
  4. Don't judge. As the writing progresses, concern oneself with the content. We have all been over-trained to be critical and to doubt our own voice. This is the opportunity to say good-bye to the critical voice, or the "monkey mind" whose purpose in life is to shut us down. The reason why this is called a Free Write is to be free of the "shoulds" and to simply tune in to one's own voice in the moment. If the critical voice enters, give it a place on the page and see where it takes you.
  5. Go for original detail. Often the best writing is the most specific. If someone is writing about an experience walking along a river, we want to know what river, what time of day, what was the light like, what season was it, who was with you, what happened - in specifics - during that walk.
  6. Go for the jugular. Challenge yourself. Go where it may be hard or scary or unknown. One writer stated, "I write so I can know my own thoughts." Writing can take us to places we've never traveled. Be daring and adventurous.

A minute before the end of the Free Write, alert the students to complete their current thought. Pens need not drop the second the clock hits the designated time. Simply allow students to find a stopping place.

II. "Lead-in" suggestions:

  • I know...
  • I remember...
  • A special place for me is...
  • My favorite time is when...
  • When I think of my community I...
  • My family is like...
  • My room (or another specific location) is the place where I go when...

Once the class has determined the project's essential question, form a lead-in phrase that will help flesh out ideas about that question.

  • Example: One year students focused on the essential question, "What is family?"
  • That question works well as a lead-in phrase. Additionally, it could be phrased, "What I know about my family is..." partnered with, "What I don't know about my family is..."
  • Other suggestions: "When I think of family I feel, hear, smell, remember, see.

The Free Write can also be a means to determine or clarify the essential question. "What is culture?" may lead to the importance of family traditions, which leads to annual butchering (matanzas) and the customs around food preservation.

Encourage students to access their sensorial memories, experiences and imaginations. This is the opportunity to let it all spill out.

III. Reviewing the Work:
Give students the chance to buddy up with other students to read their work. After the first student reads, allow a few moments for the listener to respond to the question: What stays with you? The listener gives feedback to the reader regarding what is significant in the piece.

When students are just beginning to form an expression of thought they need lots of encouragement and appreciation for what they have done. If the work is to go beyond a Free Write, then a more critical eye as to form and style will be appropriate. Right now the focus is on listening and reporting what was heard.

Note: Often it is the specific details that listeners and readers remember. Have students find this out for themselves and point it out as it occurs. Switch within the partners, who is to read and who is to listen and give feedback. Have the student writers circle the words, phrases, details and thoughts that stayed with them after reviewing the work. Students can add a reflective or responsive paragraph explaining why the circled words were memorable.

Consider setting up student/teacher conferences after three to five Free Write exercises.

IV. Extensions of the Exercise (technology skill development and oral presentation):

  • Have students volunteer to read their Free Write to the entire class and ask students to comment on "What stays with you?"
  • Use audio recording equipment and have students record their reading and have the "listeners" record their responses. (See Chapter One -Lesson 5.)
  • Still utilizing the recording equipment, have the student who listens re-tell what was just read.
  • Have each student within the pair write a third-person story using the information given by their partner.
  • Designate a week to have students start the class with a Free Write. At the end of the week have students choose one of their Free Writes and have them revise and develop the piece, according to the following assessment:

Student and Teacher Assessment:
All Free Writes can be numbered, dated and inserted into the WORKING PORTFOLIO in a separate writing section. We encourage Free Writes be done throughout the project while addressing the content in lessons.

After at least three Free Writes, introduce the Narrative Rubric. (See Appendix/Methods of Evaluation.) Have students self-assess one of their favorite pieces, using the appropriate rubric or a section of it. Have a peer read the piece and give additional feedback using the rubric. The teacher can begin one-on-one conferencing with those students in need of greater understanding or skills.

This strategy can be repeated throughout the project after every three to five Free Writes. It will enable students to have many opportunities to practice writing skills, as well as allow the teacher to help and monitor those who need extra help. Conferencing can be done any time that students are doing independent deskwork. Most teachers can conference with three students a day, and eventually get to a whole class over two to three weeks. Use the Narrative Rubric during conferencing.

Students should include all writing, feedback, and reflective pieces in a writing section of their portfolio, so it is always ready for a one-on-one conference with the teacher or for any classroom activity. Have students organize according to the teacher's preferences. Here is a suggestion for students: In the back of your portfolio have a separate section called, "My Writing Process". To this point it will include:

  • Your Writing Sample (from Chapter One, Lesson #2)
  • All Free Writes, in order completed, numbered and dated with any feedback received, self assessment, and/or reflective work done
  • Developed pieces (titled and dated):
    1. First draft (original Free Write or assignment)
    2. Self-assessed rubric (and any other done by peers or teachers)
    3. Rewrite
    4. Student reflection or preparation for conference
    5. Teacher response (utilizing the Narrative Rubric)
  • Other specific narrative writing assignments (Old Photo, Old Object—Chapter One, Lessons 6 and 7)

NOTE TO TEACHERS: Students gain understanding and ease with these steps if they are routinely used. Once the rubrics become familiar to students and teachers they actually take less time than traditional grading practices, and students begin to use the criteria in rubrics as their own prompts to improve and revise their writing. It is recommended that this assessment procedure be used with all the writing assignments. STUDENTS IMPROVE THEIR WRITING AND BECOME LESS DEPENDENT ON TEACHER DIRECTION WHEN USING RUBRICS.