Flash Draft Writing Essays

I am very late to the flash draft party.

It’s not a new concept. Ralph Fletcher mentions it in What a Writer Needs, and he attributes the concept to another teacher entirely. But I hadn’t heard about it until a Twitter chat last month when a group of elementary writing teachers raved about its power to jumpstart the writing process.

This isn’t something I hear a lot about in conversations centered on the secondary classroom, though. Many high school teachers may be flash-drafting; still, in my classroom, and in the classrooms of my colleagues, drafts have typically come to fruition by way of assignment (“Go home and write a draft of this paper. Bring it to class.”), by way of deadline (“I want to see at least a completed draft by Friday”), or by way of finished product (the organic flow of the workshop ultimately leading from some kind of draft to some kind of final product).

I have tried all three methods in the past, and, to some extent, all three have worked.

But in my most recent English 9 workshop, focused on the technique of evidence, I decided to take the leap and try a flash draft instead. After some initial idea generation, students spent one class period (for us, about 45 minutes) writing as much as they could and as quickly as they could. For a variety of reasons, mostly having to do with the propensity for distraction, I asked students to handwrite rather than type. If they felt like they got stuck on one idea or  needed to research something, they should simply put brackets in their paper to indicate that something is missing and keep moving forward. I assured them that our traditional mini-lessons would follow and that this would only be the junk draft — getting ideas from brain to paper. No pressure. No over-thinking. Just writing.

It’s hard to say that this alone is the thing that made the difference in our workshop. However, students spent far less time dilly-dallying, conferences were vastly more productive, and the students unanimously — unanimously — reported that writing a flash draft made their process more efficient and productive.

Here’s what some of them had to say:

Writing a flash draft at the beginning of this unit changed my process by allowing me to get my words out on paper. It didn’t matter how good the draft was, and it allowed me to see what worked well and what didn’t work well.  

After I had written my flash draft, it helped me to realize that I hadn’t had very good evidence, and I needed to switch things up a little bit. My genre and topic ended up being used in a different way, but if I hadn’t written a flash draft, I probably wouldn’t have realized it until later on.

Writing a flash draft helped me because it gave me a starting point that I wouldn’t have been able to produce by just sitting there thinking about where to start.

My writing completely changed from the flash draft to my final. I got rid of all the writing and kept the ideas.  

My flash draft and my final draft are VERY different. My flash draft was work that I didn’t like very much, so I changed my direction. My flash draft narrative began where my final narrative ends.

 This was the first time that I have tried a flash draft, and it was a complete success. I normally think too much about my first draft, but the flash draft let me just get my initial thoughts down quickly.  

I didn’t collect and read the drafts. Rather, when we returned to class, we started revising according to mini-lessons, conferencing, and meeting in writing groups for feedback. Since students were writing in myriad genres  and I hadn’t provided any mentor texts or prior guidance (and we would be focusing our workshop on a technique rather than a genre study), I didn’t really even use the flash drafts to plan instruction.

These flash drafts were just for the students.

 Giving students the freedom to get their bad ideas out, providing an immediate deadline, and making students do the writing in front of me made all the difference. We were ready to really workshop their writing during the very next class. While students still moved at their own paces, everyone had a foundation from which to grow.

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The first three lessons are designed to review the process of expository writing using what the students have learned in previous grades.  Students will use boxes and bullets to plan their 5 paragraph essays.  They will use their plans (Boxes and Bullets) to  flash draft their essays.

 As teachers, we want to push students to increase their volume of writing. The flash draft can be used for a baseline and pre-assessment of writing skills.  We want students to generate, plan and produce 5 paragraphs all in one day.  I let students who did not finish take theirs home to finish.  It is important for students to keep up and move on to the next essay on day two.   My purpose for having students write three flash drafts in one week was to build their understanding and facility of the process and build their stamina.  Stamina related to the actual physical demands of writing  up to 30-40 lines of text and the mental demands (focus and concentration) required to complete this task.  There is also the classroom environment dimension of everyone staying focused for longer, and longer periods of time- up to 40-50 minutes of focused writing.  Over the coming weeks I will be teaching my students to stay focused the best they can even when several teachers are quietly conferring with students one-to-one.

To review the expository writing process, I asked students to select a place in their home they knew a lot about so their energy was be focused on the hard work of determining their claim statement, main ideas and supporting details, reasons, or examples.  It is important for me to be aware of the levels of complexity in writing tasks.  For all students to be successful, I will need to provide scaffold support- ranging from students who need help with generating ideas to write about to those who will benefit from one-to-one conferencing as they develop their plan using boxes and bullets. 

The classroom community can be very helpful in creating a sense of joy, freedom, and confidence during writing times.  I will continue to foster a positive classroom climate by reviewing our norms and classroom rules. I will build on student strengths by acknowledging them through student shares at the end of the lesson.

I use my own writing topics and storytelling about when I was young to energize the classroom and to directly model my thinking, planning and writing of the draft.  A tip I can offer is to be flexible with your resistant writers.  More on this in the next lesson.  I will explain four examples of how I supported resistant writers and include their essays for you to read.

To prepare for this unit, I wrote my own mentor texts to use in my demonstrations for each of the different kinds of essays I asked the students to write.

My trajectory is based on going from the known to the unknown.  My goal is to get students to be able to write about historical topics based on an understanding of geography and time.

Geography and time ( past, present, and future) are two qualities that I find student have a difficult time understanding.  Both are abstract concepts that need to be explored by the students in various ways.

I started this unit in the Resources for Expository Writing Lesson.   

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