Writing is no easy task, and often times the hardest part is just getting started! Quickwrites, is a writing method author and classroom teacher Linda Rief is known for. In fact, she wrote the book on it! She says it provides students with a low-risk writing exercise to get ideas out, and brainstorm how they might like to write about a topic they are interested in. Quickwrites also allows students to push past the doubt and uneasiness that can keep a young writer’s pencil hovering above a blank piece of paper. In Linda’s words, “You don’t know what you know until you put words down on paper.”
Today on the Heinemann Podcast, a special conversation between Linda Rief and Penny Kittle. Both are at the Boothbay Literacy Institute. Penny talks with Linda about her new “The Quickwrite Handbook: 100 Mentor Texts to Jumpstart Your Students’ Thinking and Writing."
Penny began her conversation with Linda recalling the first time they worked together…
Below is a full transcript of the conversation.
Penny: What a thrill to sit across from my mentor and my good friend, Linda Rief, this morning at the Boothbay Literacy Institute in Boothbay Harbor, Maine. Linda Rief first came to be a part of my life when one of my university students in Michigan handed me a copy of "Seeking Diversity."
I moved soon after to New Hampshire and called her school, and asked if I could come spend a day in her classroom. She handed me student notebooks and portfolios, and I sat at a table at the back of her class, and watched her teach five classes of 45 minutes each, classes bursting open with 8th grade students bustling in and then bustling out, and they were the first thing that struck me. Such normal students, who were somehow doing extraordinary things in writing.
I watched her confer by attending with her whole self as she crouched beside them. I watched and wrote and scooped up her handouts, and went back to my own 8th grade classroom to imitate her. A few months later, I attended a session at a conference where she read from a newly released book called "Speak" by Laurie Halse Anderson, which is now in its 20th anniversary edition, and we wrote.
Linda showed me how bits of quick writing, these carefully planned engagements, could unlock the voice and the ideas that lead to confidence and an interest in writing. I went back to my classroom and I have imitated her ever since, but I think there are few original ideas in teaching young readers and writers.
There have been a lot of people after these questions for so long that I don't think we find a lot of new things, but this is one and it's huge. It not only leads students to find writing and teaches them to pay attention to the moves of writers, but it establishes a routine where students collect what matters to them in a safe place, where they're allowed to stumble, to wobble, to fail.
It is why I am so excited about your new book, which is The Quickwrite Handbook: 100 Mentor Texts to Jumpstart Your Students' Thinking and Writing. It was published this month by Heinemann, and it's my pleasure to invite her to share her thinking about this practice of daily engagements with you today. Linda, what's in the book?
Linda: What's in the book? Well, first I have to say I remember that visit to my classroom many years ago, of sitting you down with the kids' portfolios and their notebooks, and then after about one 45 minute class, you disappeared. I kept thinking, "Where is she?" The kids pointed you out to me, that you were sitting on the floor with several of the kids, saying, "Tell me about this notebook" and, "Tell me about this portfolio."
I've always remebered that that's what Don Graves used to say to me, "Tell me more about this." I thought, "Oh, I need to know Penny a little bit more." I'm just delighted to be able to be sitting here talking to you. Good colleague and good friend. Thank you.
Penny: Absolutely. Thank you. So, tell me about what makes this one different than the other Quickwrite book?
Linda: Yes, absolutely. What I love about this one is that I've added a lot more excerpts from novels that I've been reading over the years, and also added a bit more of the kids' writing. The other thing that I love about this was that I was able to put in some of the students' writing, and how they went from the initial, original idea, to a more finished piece.
In some cases I was able also to include, "This is the next draft thinking that some of the kids went through and this is the next draft, and this is what ended up when they thought about." What are some of the craft moves I noticed even in some of the other Quickwrites that we've done, but how do I go from just this initial idea of first draft thinking to a more finished piece? I love that we were able to include that in this particular one.
And of course, there are new pieces of writing that I wasn't using when the first Quickwrite book came out, but I was able to add some of these pieces that I noticed the kids were more successful with some of these pieces than they were with some of the others that were in there. I was just happy to be able to add some new work to it.
Penny: Well, I think it's a gift to all of us. One of the features of the book that I love is on the left side of where the Quickwrite invitation is. It says, "Try this" and I think that that's an invitation for teachers to try it as well as their students. Would you say so?
Linda: Oh, definitely. You want to leave that open for kids, but "Try this, try this" but for all of the pieces what I'm saying is whatever comes to mind for you, from listening to this piece, hearing this piece, seeing this piece, go with it. If you can't think of something specific from the piece as a whole, then grab a line, borrow a line, and just write off the line as fast as you can.
I mean, one of the things that I like about doing Quickwrites with kids is that you're giving them two to three minutes, and most kids, even most kids who say, "I don't have anything to write," in two to three minutes, they can find something to hold onto in that piece, and they're willing to give the writing a shot, if it's a short amount of time.
If they know you're not going to say, "Let's write for 10-15 minutes," that's a long time for 14 year olds.
Penny: Well, and what I've watched in my classroom is that that two to three minute little window, where kids start writing, they surprise themselves with how well they write, and especially because they're writing next to these beautiful texts. The language is like they're marinated in it, and as Fletcher said, you're riding the wave of those beautiful words. That's significant.
Linda: Well, that's what I want to happen. I want the kids to surprise themselves with what gets put down in writing that they didn't expect, and if you write fast that happens. I've read so much of Don Murray, and I remember reading one particular thing over and over again, you write fast to outrun the sensor in your thinking, because a lot of times you're writing something, if you're writing slow, "I have to plan this out, I have to make it perfect."
But he was constantly saying you write fast to find the surprises, and I'll sometimes look after writing for two or three minutes really fast and go, "Where did that come from?" That's the experience I want the kids to have. You don't know what you know until you put the words down on paper, but if you're constantly saying to yourself, "Am I spelling everything correctly? Should this be in present tense? Am I making myself clear?"
You don't want to be asking yourself any questions like that. Just get the words down, and putting that mentor text besides kids, saying, "Here's something you can look at from beginning to end," I think gives them something to hold onto to say, "You know, that's a pretty significant piece of writing." They don't say this out loud, but I know they're thinking it to themselves.
"I can see what this writer did to go from beginning to end and I'm just going to grab hold of this one line and just write." But you're showing them without saying it, "Here's what a writer did and how successful they were." One of the other things that I noticed the kids do a lot of with their writing is I don't teach a poetry unit, but I put a lot of poetry up, and they just naturally or automatically, they just start following the format they saw.
They're writing in lines, they're skipping lines, they're going to a second stanza. They're noticing things naturally without you even saying much about it.
Penny: Right. And I think that in "A Fresh Look At Writing," Don Graves, wonderful book, he had these invitations for teachers, and I remember how much I loved the word invitation. That's what I feel about your "Try this'" because I'm looking at the one for a neuroscientist love letter which we're going to use later today, and this is one of your invitations. "Katya's poem is a love letter to the brain from a neuroscientist, someone who studies the brain. What organism or concept, particular to another discipline, one that fascinates you, that holds your curiosity, could you write a love letter to? Write it. Let your letter show all you know and show your curiosity about all you don't know."
I can immediately see trying it on with kids. "Dear basketball, dear tennis." It could be so many things that we're passionate about, that can fit within the feel of a love letter.
Linda: Even specifically with that one, where it says "Try this," I did not want to get too specific. I wanted it to be open for whatever this brings to mind for the kids who are reading it. But then I also realize notice this and maybe you might want to try something as specific as this, so in this particular book, it is giving a little bit more direction than I did in the first one, but I still want to leave it absolutely wide open for what those pieces of writing mean to them, or bring up for them.
Penny: Do you know, and this is something I've struggled with, and I wonder if you've ever had this thought, the poem is delivered, spoken word or you've read this thing to your class, and then if I fill the next minute with talk, it takes the beauty of that poem away. I try not to give too much direction because I want the poem's words to be the ones that are resonating as the pens hit the page, and if I grab a line, let's go, because I'm afraid if I make that invitation too big.
Linda: I've noticed I will give the kids directions before we read the piece out loud, so I can just stop right there and let them write. That's exactly what that is. You don't want your voice to interfere with the way the kids are marinating in those words of what that piece was.
Penny: Yes, and I have found one of your directions is if you are really stuck and can't think of something, just start copying lines from the poem. That is what works for me as well. Just grab a line and write it, and then if that doesn't lead you, grab another line. But it's the idea that your hand hits the page and it engages your brain, and that freedom, and if you tap your pencil on the page and don't begin, you're halted.
Linda: You're halted. You're stopped. Right. So just start and let it go.
Penny: Say more about handwritten instead of on the computer.
Linda: Yeah. I thought about that a lot and I think about because of what works for me as a writer. I always feel like my first draft thinking somehow connects better if I'm handwriting it, than if I'm on the computer, and particularly on the computer, you tend to delete things. You're already censoring because it's so easy to do it, so I think with the Quickwrites particularly, I want the kids to handwrite these in their notebooks.
Because there's some difference between handwriting and writing on the computer in the brain, and I haven't done enough research to thoroughly understand that, but I definitely see some differences that we're thinking in a different way when we're handwriting something. It feels like it has something to do with the creative process, so it's almost artistic to be handwriting something.
Penny: Like the formation of letters?
Linda: Absolutely, yeah. The loops and the scrolls, and there is something that's visually inviting about it, that pulls me into it, and I'm hoping it does the kids. Of course, then you've got the kids who you can't read their handwriting at all.
Penny: I know.
Linda: And for sure, they can use the computer if that's easier for them, but I also want them to know that there is something going on in your head that I can't fully describe, but it just feels different when you're handwriting it.
Penny: One of the things that I've read about that is that you're slowing yourself down and that that slowing down is making you think of more specific and clear words, which I think is very ... I mean, you were talking about writing quickly, but the handwriting-
Linda: It slows you down.
Penny: ...it slows that down. It's a very interesting back and forth. When I'm looking at this book and thinking about how you would hope teachers might use it, how would you respond to that? If I'm a teacher, do I need to do these in order?
Linda: Oh no, absolutely not. I put an order to it, because that's the order in most cases that I'm using in the classroom. For instance, at the very beginning of the book, I want the kids to be looking toward themselves. I frame the year in choices, but in the very beginning, the first section of the book is looking inward.
I want the kids looking inward at themselves, so the pieces I've chosen to put in that first quarter of the book, I'm making the kids or asking the kids to look into yourself for what matters to you, and then we're moving outward, looking beyond themselves, looking toward their lives in retrospect. By the time you get to the end of the book, it's looking back, and looking back at those things that you've really had time to reflect on.
It's organized that way for me, but no one has to use it that way. I mean, just choosing pieces throughout that you think would really speak to your kids.
Penny: Absolutely. I've read all of this, and I did not really pay attention to the four categories and the ways you'd organized it. I was constantly thinking, "How would I use this one or this one?" But when I look at your four categories, the beyond yourself to the world at large, and there's so many people that are really helping kids think clearly about, "What do you see in the world? What kind of an impact can you have?"
It'd be really nice, they could go straight there, if their unit's on something like that, or if it's on identity, which is a common unit in high school, in middle school, you could look at the scene inward. Who are you and what do you know? I think it's a smart construction. Any other things that you hope teachers will do as a result of using Quickwrites in their classroom?
Linda: I hope they realize that it's just one way into helping kids find writing. It's not the be all end all, but it has been incredibly successful for my kids, particularly kids who struggled. And I think this is where this first came from, for me, that when I saw kids sitting in the classroom and just staring out the window and tell me, "I'm brainstorming," sitting in front of a blank piece of paper, it doesn't help to just still sit in front of that blank piece of paper.
I think what it did, it gives those kids who struggle the most a way into finding what it is they're actually thinking. What I'm hoping teachers do is pull the pieces that matter the most to them, based on the kind of writing they would like to see their kids doing. I hope they also realize that in this particular book, they can look at and share with their own students, "This is what some other kids did to go from first draft to next draft to last draft," and how they went back again and again. I hope they have their kids keep notebooks so they can save all these Quickwrites in one place and go back to them.
I mean, I think the other thing that I like, that I was able to do in this book that I hadn't done in the first one, is pointing out craft moves. There's a section in most of the pieces that say teacher notes, that I think if teachers can look back at, "Look at what this particular writer did. Notice this is in the second person you, and what does that do to you, the reader, when you read it in the second person?"
Or point out to your kids that, "This is in the past tense, but how is this going to change if you put it in the present tense?" Just giving some little mini lessons so to speak, about what they can notice beyond the writing, to go back into help that writing get even better.
Penny: I think what you're naming there is the difference between kids reading a passage to get an idea about what to write, which is really not your intent, it's to pay attention to a way you could write about something, and then you're-
Penny: ...leaving the choice wide open, which is significant to me. But I also know that we dance as teachers between, "Is this schoolwork or is it the real work of writers?" In all of our decisions. I was struck in college, I think I was a junior, when a professor assigned notebook writing to me, and I had it as a weekly requirement for his poetry class, and how me having my own notebook, but it was going to be read by him, and that I was collect things from my world, really changed the habit that I had as a writer.
Linda: So in what way? Say more about that.
Penny: Well, I would sit in the memorial union and make observations of people there with real specific clear details, because I knew that I was going to be writing poetry, what I'd be writing about, but I was using the habit of paying attention to people and the way they move and behave.
Linda: Right. I think it's good sometimes to actually point out to kids what you notice in a particular piece of writing, and say, "You know, when you're writing, pay a bit of attention to that. Look at that a little bit more deeply" and it doesn't have to be this long 50 minute lesson-
Linda: ...or filling a worksheet about what you noticed about leads, it just happens to be, pay some attention to that. Observe what you see and take note of it. I mean, the big thing about notebooks for me is I just don't want the kids to lose that first draft thinking.
There has to be a place that they collect it, so in addition to just doing Quickwrites, I want them to be able to collect them in some place where you can look back on them and say, "Whoa, where did that come from? I'm going to say more about that or talk more about it" and as a teacher, I can, when I read their notebooks, I can say, "Tell me more about that. Tell me more about your grandfather standing on the wing of that plane. Where was he? What was he doing?"
You've got one line that captured the possibility of so many different directions or different stories.
Penny: That's your gift of moving an idea in a notebook to a bigger piece, that conferring to helping kids see what they don't see, but I feel like you're doing that for teachers in this book, with your teacher notes. Because I talk to a lot of teachers who say, "I don't really understand writing craft." Now you're giving them lessons in what's here, which is going to help them then begin to see what we want our kids to do is to be able to look at a text and notice the writing craft without any direction, which I think teachers will learn a lot about that while reading this, as well.
Linda: Yeah, I hope so. I also try to include in the book, I know there are particular genres of writing that we're all asked to share with our kids and try to ask kids to construct or craft some of these particular kinds of writing. With my kids, because we've been asked to do that also, I've tried to find those short pieces that would lead them in particular directions, but also give them the autonomy to say, "This is the way I want to share what my thinking is based on this particular kind of writing."
Even if it's persuasive writing, it doesn't have to be this one particular style of an essay. It could be, and we're going to talk about that this afternoon, in Katya's piece for instance. I mean that's, it's persuasive in the way that she makes us understand everything she understands about neuroscience, but it's also informational. So many genres just cross the lines.
Linda: And I think we need to not even allow it, we need to encourage it. That's the kind of writing that speaks to all of us as human beings, so we don't want it to be confined into a particular box that says, "Every piece of writing like this has to look like this." In the same way, Quickwrites surprise you with what you put on paper, I want the kids to surprise me-
Linda: ...with their writing, with those finished pieces. "I never expected that, but I've learned so much about who you are and your thinking in the world."
Penny: They know that you're ready and waiting for that. You're giving them an invitation that says, "I want to know you and I want to know your unique way of seeing the world" which is beautiful teaching. But I do know that sometimes very well intentioned writing teachers give kids so much direction about what it's supposed to be and how it's supposed to look, that it's really just about compliance then. "I'm going to go along and do what you asked" and the difference between compliance and engagement sometimes is in what we propose for kids to do.
You're inviting this engagement with the world and the stories that they've lived, and then you're saying, "I can make use of that."
Linda: I want teachers to know, though, I do have kids who say, "No, tell me what you want me to do."
Penny: We all do.
Linda: "Tell me what this should look like. Tell me what you want to write about." Because it's easier. It's a lot easier. I had one young man a couple of years ago, he was furious. He had his hands in fists, and it was almost like he was stomping his feet at me. "I know what you're doing, I know what you're doing" and I went, I just leaned into him. And he goes, "You're trying to make me think." I went, "Yeah."
But sometimes I think when we frame things too completely for kids, it stops the possibilities of where they might go, that offer us surprise, and just stronger feelings, and stronger connections to them. Writing and reading should be about our connections. It shouldn't be about, "This is what you're required to get from it" or, "This is what I get from it, therefore I'm going to expect all of you to get the same thing from it." I don't think it should be that way at all.
Penny: I would agree, and I want to say one last thing for you to comment on, is that when I said well intentioned, I think that there's ... Like, I love George Ella Lyon's "Where I'm From" poem, but I've seen templates where it's, "I'm from blank" and they take her poem, and I really believe it comes from a place where a teacher is trying to help all the students be successful, and we can't imagine that the blank page and the model is enough, but I think we both know it is enough.
Linda: Right, it is. I also, I think even if you're using something like that, not so much as a template, but even using that line, because unfortunately I think we've heard that one particular one so much that we almost don't want to hear it anymore, but what I try to teach kids is get rid of the line that you borrowed. Let's just go with your words. We don't need that line where I'm from. We know this is about where you're from, so even if that's the line that jump starts your thinking, we don't need it anymore, because now we're hearing about you, not about her.
Penny: Beautiful. Because that wobbly thinking is standing on the shoulders of the poem, but you can strip those scaffolds away and let that kid speak.
Linda: And let it go. It goes right to them, right. Let them speak.
Penny: So well said. This is why people are going to be glad they spent time with you today. I want to know, if they want to find out more about Linda Rief, I would suggest of course that they read "Read Write Teach." I think that is a brilliant book, but more than that, I think there's almost an entire book online and resources that are attached to "Read Write Teach."
Linda: Yeah. I don't think teachers realize that, that in that book, I think there are about 300 pages of things that I've used.
Penny: Like your whole curriculum is on there.
Linda: Yeah. I was trying to say that subtly, but there's quite a bit there beyond the book, where I try to frame the whole year, just to give you something to hold onto. But then make it yours. But yeah, I think that's a good resource, particularly for somebody just starting out. Thank you.
Penny: So is "The Reader-Writer's Notebook."
Linda: Thank you.
Penny: That is a tremendous resource, especially because you can purchase the teacher's guide, and it comes with the notebook. And a teacher can experiment with their own writing, right next to the invitations you give kids.
Linda: And I also don't think that teachers know that 8th graders designed that notebook, that 10 years ago they said, "Wait a minute. Can we do something with this notebook that shows what is most important to us?"
Linda: They came up with the response section and notes section and wanting to have a list of books they were currently reading. I just want the kids to be the ones who say, "This would help me get stronger as a reader and writer" so whatever it is we're doing, we're working from their ideas.
Penny: That's beautiful. The one thing some people might not know is that you were one of the founders of Voices From The Middle, and I think one of the reasons to become a member of NCTE is the access to all of the journals, as far, the archives. They could search under your name and come upon so much of your thinking, because you've taught 8th grade for all these years, in such a brilliant and invitational way.
Linda: Well, thank you. I just think also the one thing that I know as a learner is I'm trying to make it better every single year. It's why I listen to you, I come to hear you speak, I come to hear Kelly speak. I learn, I'm taking notes from Kyleen and Bob every year. Every conference I go to, how do I make this better for kids? The kids change every year, too. How can we be doing the same thing every single year? What did I learn from those kids this year that I need to remember when I'm working with the new kids this coming year?
Penny: Beautiful. I will say to end that, that on Twitter, Linda sometimes posts the new invitations and Quickwrites that you're finding and using currently, so that's another good resource like the Ted Kooser video we watched this morning. Be a great little addition to your Twitter feed. I want to thank you Linda for your time. It was just such a pleasure. I wish I could have taken notes the whole time you were talking, but I can. I can go listen to the podcast and then take notes. So thanks so much.
Linda: Thank you.
To learn more about The Quickwrite Handbook, visit Heinemann.com
Linda Rief teaches middle school in Durham, New Hampshire and is an instructor in the University of New Hampshire’s Summer Literacy Institute. A national and international presenter on issues of adolescent literacy, she is also a recipient of NCTE’s Edwin A. Hoey Award for Outstanding Middle School Educator in the English Language Arts.
Her newest book is The Quickwrite Handbook: 100 Mentor Texts to Jumpstart Your Students' Thinking and Writing. She is also the author or coeditor of many Heinemann titles, including Read Write Teach, Inside the Writer's-Reader's Notebook, The Writer's-Reader's Notebook, Adolescent Literacy, Vision and Voice, and Seeking Diversity.
Follow Linda on Twitter @LindaMRief.
Penny Kittle teaches freshman composition at Plymouth State University in New Hampshire. She was a teacher and literacy coach in public schools for 34 years, 21 of those spent at Kennett High School in North Conway.
She is the co-author of 180 Days with Kelly Gallagher, and is the author of Book Love, and Write Beside Them, which won the James Britton award. She also co-authored two books with her mentor, Don Graves, and co-edited (with Tom Newkirk) a collection of Graves’ work, Children Want to Write. She is the president of the Book Love Foundation and was given the Exemplary Leader Award from NCTE’s Conference on English Leadership. In the summer Penny teaches graduate students at the University of New Hampshire Literacy Institutes. Throughout the year, she travels across the U.S. and Canada (and once in awhile quite a bit farther) speaking to teachers about empowering students through independence in literacy. She believes in curiosity, engagement, and deep thinking in schools for both students and their teachers. Penny stands on the shoulders of her mentors, the Dons (Murray & Graves), and the Toms (Newkirk & Romano), in her belief that intentional teaching in a reading and writing workshop brings the greatest student investment and learning in a classroom.
You can follow her on twitter @pennykittle