Close-up of a student's hands writing in a spiral-bound notebook.
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ELA 09.1: Introduction to Freewriting

Building Writing Habits in a Nontraditional Classroom

Some call writing an art, and some say it can't be taught.  In reality, writing is just like any skill — it thrives in practice, and it withers under the weight of criticism.

In traditional English courses, the emphasis on "standard" English and "proper" grammar pushes away many students, especially those coming from marginalized groups that use some of the many variations of English.  When a student turns in an assignment and then receives back a sheet of paper bleeding with red ink, that student receives a painful message: "You can't write."

In reality, every student can write — maybe not with the same degree of comfort, and maybe not using the same "standards" of language, but everyone starts somewhere.  In this freewriting course, I ask my students to simply write — to write whatever comes to mind in whatever form it takes.  I don't mark up my students' papers, and I don't criticize their ideas — in this course, the students are the experts on themselves, and my job is to help them develop the comfort level to express their personal thoughts.

So What Is Freewriting?

My first real experience with freewriting came from a North Carolina Writers' Network residency with the late Pat Schneider of the Amherst Writers and and Artists.  The Amherst Method isn't a writing style, and it doesn't prescribe any particular genre of expression.  Instead, the Amerherst Method relies on a simple core principle: "every person is a writer, and every writer deserves a safe environment in which to experiment, learn, and develop craft."  From this belief, Pat Schneider developed a practice of workshops to promote individual expression supported by collective affirmation.

At the heart of this practice is freewriting — literally writing whatever comes to mind without any consideration of whether it's "good" or "appropriate."  The goal of freewriting is to allow the unconscious mind to come forward without the censorship of that inner critique we all have.

How I Approach Freewriting

Although I don't follow the exact Amherst Method in my YouthBuild classrooms, the practices I learned at the Amherst residency have significantly shaped my teaching.  For freewriting courses like ELA 09.1, I follow three key principles with my students:

Teaching Note: AI, Plagiarism, and Confidentiality

Sadly, due to advances in AI and the ease of copying outside websites, I can only provide complete privacy for handwritten materials.  When a student brings in something handwritten, I simply use a hole puncher to show that the points have been credited, and the student can keep the pages.  For anything typed, I have to check over it to ensure no plagiarism has occurred.  Although most students take too much pride in their writing to copy from outside sources, there are some who've tried receiving unearned points.

Course Activities

Through this course, you can write about any topic you like!

This class has three kinds of activities:

Quick Notes to Help

It’s okay to mix pages across assignments!  For example, if you’ve written 23 discussion pages, then three of those can count as a 3-page paper.  Or if you write a 9-page paper, that can count as a long paper and a medium paper.

Write about topics you care about!  The English requirements are meant to help you write regularly about the topics you care about!

If you write something personal, it can stay confidential!  Just show me the pages so I can check off how many you’ve written, and then you’ll keep the pages.

Both handwritten and typed assignments are accepted!  If you type an assignment, simply e-mail it to me — 250 words counts as one handwritten page!  Simply submit typed papers by e-mail