Exploring Feelings Through Writing: Authentic Purposes for Writing

This week, my TWT colleagues and I are writing about the importance of authentic purpose to writers. We all agree that our students will benefit from having strong voices, clear messages, and wide audiences in our quickly changing world. Sometimes, we sit down to write, and we know exactly what we want to say, and sometimes, we discover some important ideas as we draft.

During a recent professional development session, I asked teachers to write.

“We have to write?” One teacher was a little astonished at the task. (BTW- I think one of the most important ways for teachers to know how to teach writing is by writing!)

“You get to write,” I answered.

They were embarking on a personal essay unit, so I instructed them to write about their topic–just a free write. That particular teacher wrote about her place, but, after five minutes, when I asked them to underline what was important so far, she underlined visiting her father.  I had the group move into a freewrite about what they’d underlined, and her writing was emotional and authentic.

“I didn’t realize how much I was missing him,” she said. She went home that afternoon and called her dad. 

Many of our fourth grade  teachers duplicated this process in their classrooms, spending time with freewrites and lingering with ideas. One boy went from writing about video games to recognizing that an important aspect of the video games involved his father. His initial essay went from being about why he likes his video games to why his dad is important in his life. (He still managed to get in Mario Brothers, but is was about how he appreciates the time his father spends playing with him.)

Taking a quick aside…

I’m pausing here to acknowledge the fact that writing an essay about videos has value. (I can’t believe I said that.) Students learn and practice structure, development, and conventions with relatively vacant topics. These sorts of topics just don’t easily lend themselves to learning about themselves, developing emotional reactions, or containing much voice. Is it terrible to point out that we can meet standards without emotional content? I digress…Back to the post on hand!

So what are some specific strategies that could tap into more meaningful writing that taps into feelings?

  • Create time and space for low-stakes writing. Freewrites are a perfect example. Teach into what a good freewrite involves. While the chart I’m sharing was developed for a fourth-grade essay unit, free-writing is important for all grades and all genres. You could easily tweak the teaching point of “sometimes essayists get their best ideas by just spending time free-writing” to “sometimes writers get their best ideas…” We really do come up with so many ideas when we just set our pens and thoughts free.


    Chart inspired by Boxes to Bullets by Lucy Calkins, Kelly Boland Hohne, and Cory Gillette: Heinemann Press

  • Teach students about the value of rereading their own writing from the lens of “what are the important parts?” Highlight them. Engage in conversations about why those parts are important and teach into expanding them. Challenging students to use thinking prompts works really well for this:screen-shot-2017-01-26-at-6-14-08-pm


  • React to student’s writing on an emotional level. The simple phrase,  “This is big,” is a really useful one to add to your repertoire.


Even, “I don’t know why this is big, but it is” can work if you’re confused, but it obviously matters to the child.


As a writer, it is powerful to make an emotional connection when we write. Let children know when they are tapping into that power, and you’ll see its frequency increase.

  • Georgia Heard has done beautiful and important work around getting students to write what matters. If you don’t own any of her books, I highly recommend Heart Maps and Finding the Heart of Nonfiction, both by Georgia Heard. (I recommend anything by Georgia Heard!) Take some time to have students develop heart maps, and revisit them. What matters and what worries us changes over the course of a year. Actually, it can change dramatically over the course of a day!


When you give students time to freewrite in classrooms, you will be amazed at the energy and the results. Students come up with more ideas, and those ideas are more important than many they list when we assign them generating ideas. We all have many different reasons for writing, and certainly many students write because writing is part of the curriculum, and they are compliant. I encourage you, as the lead learner in the classroom, to see what happens when you explore ideas through your writing, and then give students the opportunity to try out that process as well. Writing serves many purposes, and sometimes we can discover hidden truths and feelings about ourselves that lurk just beneath the surface and feel great to recognize and share.

Feb17 Blog Series Image


  • This giveaway is for one copy of Heart Maps: Helping Students Create and Craft Authentic Writing by Georgia Heard. Many thanks to Heinemann for donating a copy of this book.
  • For a chance to win one copy of Heart Maps: Helping Students Create and Craft Authentic Writing, please leave a reaction to any post in the blog series, including this one, by Sunday, February 5th at 11:59 p.m. EDT. Lisa Keeler will use a random number generator to pick the winner, whose names she will announce in our blog series’ IN CASE YOU MISSED IT POST on Monday, February 6th.
  • You may leave one comment on every post in our Authentic Purposes for Writing blog series, which runs January 30th – February 5th.
  • Please be sure to leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment, so Stacey can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win. From there, our contact at Heinemann will ship your book out to you.  (NOTE: Your e-mail address will not be published online if you leave it in the e-mail field only.)
  • Heinemann will only ship the book to a winner in the United States. If you live outside of the U.S. and wish to be considered for this giveaway, you must have a U.S. mailing address.
  • If you are the winner of the book, Stacey will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – HEART MAPS. Please respond to her e-mail with your mailing address within five days of receipt. Unfortunately, a new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t receivedwithin five days of the giveaway announcement.