The Freedom To Create


“Can I share my book?” one of my third graders asks me as we settle into our morning routine. I check out the book that he is so excited to share. It’s a book he created- the concept, the words and the illustrations, and his mom even laminated it and bound it for him.

“Of course!” I reply, thinking about the other two students who have asked to share their newest creations as well. We decide to set up a sharing schedule at our Morning Meeting since we do not have time for everyone to share every day, and we need a fair system.

These are good problems to have.

Yet they are relatively new problems. It is November in third grade, and in the last two weeks I have seen a significant increase in students creating their own writing and wanting to share with the class. I trace it back to a few weeks ago, when I decided to try something different on a Friday afternoon. After lunch on Friday, almost half of my class leaves for an Academic Intervention Service (AIS). This poses a dilemma because I really can’t move forward in any content area with so many children out of the room. I need to do something outside of the regular curriculum that will be a meaningful use of time for my students.

My solution was to try independent writing. I’ve been wanting to launch independent writing projects for the whole class, but have been struggling to make this work. Part of the difficulty is I have a packed writing curriculum and specific units of study that I am required to teach, including personal narrative, personal essay, literary essay, and informational writing. I’ve been having a hard time building independent writing projects into the schedule that is so full with lessons that need to be taught for the genres we are studying. I know it can be done, but just haven’t found a way to make it work yet. (I would love any suggestions!)

The question might be posed: Why offer independent writing anyway? More and more, I’ve been recognizing the need to give students some freedom in their writing lives. I listened to The Heinemann Podcast in September, when Ralph Fletcher spoke about the importance of low-stakes writing, writing kids do for themselves and not for any type of grade or assignment. He said that students build a writing identity and stamina for writing when they are allowed that freedom to create. Dana Murphy wrote about Independent Writing and Katie Lieso shared about The Chance to Be Adventurous As Writers. Both of these posts really inspired me to want to try this with my students, too. I thought about the idea of a “Passion Project”, which would be writing about whatever you choose in a way that is personally meaningful. I shared my Passion Project (photos and haiku for the month of October) with my third graders and we brainstormed a list of different genres kids might want to try.

Then, on that Friday afternoon, with half my class gone, I announced, “Today you can write whatever you like. You can sit wherever you like. Let’s create!” I prayed that no one would pass by my room and wonder what the chaos was as students scrambled to find new spots, grabbed blank white paper, and got started. I took a deep breath and reminded myself to just observe- notice where they sit, what they write, what they say, how focused they are or how unfocused they might be. I grabbed a clipboard and took notes on what happened. Here is what I observed:

  • Everyone chose a seat different from their usual one. Some students sat together, perched on the windowsill. Others laid across the carpet, in clusters. Still others found a new seat, but off to themselves, to work alone. I found it interesting that nobody went to his/her assigned desk.
  • Some students worked together on a shared project, such as two boys who were creating a fantasy hockey league. Others sat near each other but worked on their own projects, seeking input from time to time from the friends around them. A couple of children worked completely independently.
  • Many students incorporated drawing and comics into their writing. Some students set their writing up like a graphic novel or comic book. The visuals were very important to their project.
  • Two students were writing a play, a genre we haven’t read at all this year.
  • Some students were making puppets and thinking of a story about the puppets.
  • One student was using emojis as her characters.
  • One student only drew, with no words on the paper.
  • One student said he was going to make a sequel to his book and was anxious to share his work with the class.
  • Kids asked for more time to write (!!). When I announced it was time to do our computer-based math program, which students usually love, students begged for just a few more minutes to write.

These observations led me to think more deeply about the different energy in the room with the open invitation to create WHATEVER they like. Students who often struggle with engagement during writing workshop were busy working. Students were collaborating in a more authentic way than when I assign them time to meet with their partners. Students kept asking, “When are we going to do that again?” It was also noteworthy to see the engagement and enthusiasm students showed when they could choose the form of writing in addition to the topic.

Since that time, one student has created a series of books based on the same character. He is up to the fifth book in his series and asks me if he can work on his books whenever his other classwork is completed. Several other students have been working on their own books and asking to share. It is interesting to me that most students have been choosing to write fiction- a genre I will not be teaching in third grade.

As the year goes on, I would like to incorporate Writing Makerspace into this independent writing time. Perhaps trying this open writing time out with a smaller group of students will help me figure out ways to incorporate more independent writing into the curriculum. I know that students need direct instruction and opportunities to study all different genres in writing workshop, but I also believe students benefit from time to just create, without any rules or restrictions.

What have been your experiences with independent writing time?