Uncensored self-expression, fourth-grade style

Schoolchildren find that writing for 10 minutes without stopping is harder than they imagined.

"Ms. V., are we gonna write today?"

"Yes," I answer, and the fourth-grade boy pumps his fist in the air and dances around as though he's just made a touchdown. My appearance as a substitute teacher has become a cause for celebration, because I let the students write whatever they want. And then we shred it.

"You mean we can write anything?" they asked at first. Kids are natural lawyers, since they live under a complex set of rules and regulations.

"Yes, anything," I answered.

They're sure that's too good to be true, so they verify the specifics – all the things they would normally get in trouble for. I don't condone most of it, so I simply answer, "Who cares? Because I'm never going to see it, right?"

They nod. It's 10 minutes of uncensored self-expression, and they'll take the deal.

"You have to keep writing for the entire time," I say. "Even if it's nonsense, just keep writing until the timer goes off. Real words, although they don't have be in sentences."

I learned most of this from reading Natalie Goldberg's "Writing Down the Bones, Freeing the Writer Within." She calls it "writing practice," and you don't need a topic or a special format such as persuasive, expository, or narrative writing. You just write nonstop for a certain amount of time.

Using a shredder is my own touch, and I call my version "write 'n' shred."

The students get out a few sheets of paper each, sharpen their pencils, and set up barricades of books between their desktops. I'm sure that the minifortresses aren't necessary, and I tell them so, but they keep on building.

Soon everyone is ready, and I look up at the clock for a dramatic moment to start. The second hand sweeps up toward 12. I set the timer and shout, "Go!"

Every head is bent over, every hand is writing. You could hear a pin drop – or a girl's metal bracelet as it bounces up and down on her desk, along with her writing arm. It seems so loud that I walk over and quietly ask her to remove it. "Huh?" she says. I repeat the question, she complies, and then gets back to writing.

Soon the kids get tired – much sooner than they expected. After two or three minutes, I see them stop and shake their hands as though trying to fix writer's cramp, and then they continue to write. Ten minutes is the limit because anything else would be cruel, at least in the beginning.

I never look at their work, although I observe it from the edges of the room. I nag anyone who has stopped or is trying to fake me out by writing squiggles. "Keep writing! Keep writing! Write anything, but just write! Go, go, go!" I encourage them.

There is a feeling of concentration befitting a high-stakes test. When the timer dings, I say, "Stop!" and they do. Some are relieved that it's over, most shake their hands, and a few sneak in a little more writing – they have time to finish while the rest of the class lines up.

The impressive crunch of the crosscut shredder begins. Students clutch their papers to their chests and look around to make sure no one is peering over their shoulders. "Three sheets at a time, unfolded, no more," I say. "No, you have to unfold it, or it's six sheets, right?"

I'm all business, but really I'm watching how important this is to the quiet boy and to the girl who looks panicked all day long. They wrote a lot, and they don't want anyone to see it.

I wonder what they wrote, but I'll never know. Other kids just tell me: "I wrote about my dog, who's really annoying me right now." Or "I wrote about a dream I had."

A few kids want to save their work, so I quiz them: Did they write anything bad? Is it anything they'll get in trouble for? Is it anything I'll get in trouble for? Based on their answers and their facial expressions, sometimes I let kids keep their work.

Writing practice is not exclusively for feelings, secrets, or things we shouldn't say in public. Once a writer gets used to writing naturally – writing first and editing second – the habit extends to homework, papers, and reports. This is how ease of writing happens – practice.

I used to try to explain all this to my students, but they weren't interested. It interfered with the writing process to think so much about the writing process. So I stopped talking and let them discover it for themselves.

Of course, I'm sure they would have liked to listen to my wisdom. But they were just too busy writing.

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