What’s on Your Mind? A Flexible SEL Freewrite

Freewrite Blo

Recommended for Grades 3–12

Fostering social-emotional learning in schools and classrooms can be challenging. But tackling SEL during COVID from your home when students may be spread far and wide is something else entirely. Teachers and students alike are facing emotionally charged circumstances fraught with uncertainty, and for many students, this creates a whole new subset of SEL-related difficulties.

Is there a way to help students that’s not labor intensive for you and that doesn’t require a student to be online, especially communicative, etc.? Yes—and it’s coupled with ELA, so students can practice a core subject and SEL at the same time—even if English language arts isn’t your expertise.

Here’s the idea: Have students do a structured freewrite. If possible, lead the first freewrite online or by phone; if not, distribute the directions below for students to do it on their own time.

These are the CASEL competencies addressed in this activity:

  • Self-awareness: Identifying emotions
  • Self-management: Stress management
  • Social awareness: Perspective taking, empathy
  • Responsible decision-making: Evaluating, reflecting

I’m a former teacher of English, reading, and writing, and across the board, for all the grades I taught, this was my students’ favorite activity—even, and sometimes especially, those students who claimed to hate writing. Here’s why: Grammar, spelling, punctuation, and all the other “rules” are off the table for freewriting—they don’t count, aren’t expected, and can (in fact) get in the way. For students who struggle with one, some, or all of these things, this is freeing. Another bonus? They don’t have to share what they write. (Stay with me on this...)

Why, you might ask, would you want students to write if they’re not practicing good habits and sharing the bulk of what they create? Good question. In this case, for a few reasons:

  • To get students to do a “brain dump” of sorts and tap into things that are on their minds that they might not be noticing, addressing, or sharing
  • To lower the barriers to writing that sometimes exist and get students to write for the sheer fun of it (which they may discover with this exercise)—or in some cases, for the sheer relief it provides
  • To do away with some of the differences created by equity gaps. Students with greater means may have greater vocabularies, for example—but that doesn’t matter with freewriting
  • To show students that writing serves many purposes, depending on context. Informal writing like this can help both your students and you:
    • Find out what they’re thinking
    • Identify common themes of thoughts and feelings
    • In some cases, identify extreme feelings that may indicate it would be helpful to loop in parents/guardians and/or other educators for more support

All this said, the exercise itself is pretty straightforward. I recommend doing it more than once—for starters, try it once a week. This will give students an ongoing opportunity to get things off their minds and help them begin to feel a bit more empowered during an often disempowering time. The more you do the activity, the more you and your students stand to benefit from it. One tip? I found it especially effective to do this at the beginning or end of a class or day. Students seemed to like it that way, too—so even if they’re doing it independently at home, you might recommend that they begin or end the school portion of their day with this activity.

Read through the directions below before sharing them, and give students an opportunity to ask questions before the first freewrite. Also, decide in advance how long you want students to write for (I recommend five minutes to begin)—and you’re ready to start!

  • If you do this as a group (whether by phone or online), tell the students when to start. I recommend getting them excited by saying, “Ready? Set? Go!” Then, time them. When they have 30 seconds left, tell them. When it’s time to stop, say “Stop!”
  • If students do this independently, consider asking a parent or guardian to read the instructions aloud to younger students, and students who struggle with reading, beforehand.

Directions: Write What’s On Your Mind

  1. Write for ___ minutes. You may write on paper or a computer, tablet, or phone.
    If students are doing this independently, include these instructions: Time yourself or have someone time you.
  2. Write as fast as you can, without stopping.
    Doing this together? Say: This is important! Don’t pause to think; don’t go back to change things. Just jump in feet first and keep going.
  3. If you get stuck, write the last word over and over until you get unstuck.
  4. Write about whatever’s on your mind.
  5. For this activity, grammar and spelling don’t count.
    Doing this together? Say:
    In fact, if these things slow you down, ignore them entirely. The normal rules are on hold!
  6. You won’t have to share what you write.
    Doing this together? Say: You won’t have to turn it in or read it aloud. Just write and be willing to share very general information—nothing specific.
  7. When you’re done, save your writing.
    Doing this together? Say: You can also email or text it to yourself. If you need a file name or subject line, include the date you wrote it and the word “freewrite.”

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Teachers, keep this in your back pocket: Some students may say or think, “I don’t know how to begin!” Consider providing a sentence or sentence-starter they can use to get them going, such as:

  • I’m not sure how I feel, but I’d say…
  • I’ve been thinking about…
  • One thing I’d like to talk about is…
  • I feel curious/angry/anxious right now because…

So...What Next?

You have lots of options. Try one, some, or all of these extension SEL activities, and have students share their responses in the way that suits you best: Verbally over the phone or in an online class; via email or text; in a shared online space; or on paper.

  • Ask students to silently reread what they wrote. Then, have an open discussion: How did you feel before, during, and after the freewrite? What did you notice? What kinds of thoughts and feelings came out? Remind students that they don’t have to share anything they don’t want to, but prompt them by saying: Did anyone notice feelings of happiness in what you wrote? What about anxiety or nervousness? How about tiredness or boredom? What else?
  • If you use a learning management system like Google Classroom, encourage students to go to a shared document and add one or two words or lines that identify key feelings that came up in their writing, including specific words that stand out as meaningful, powerful, or significant. Afterward, have students read the word list and say or write a short response.
  • Ask students to silently reread what they wrote and circle/identify any or all of these parts of speech:
    • Nouns
    • Verbs
    • Adjectives
    • Adverbs
      • Based on the parts of speech they identify, have students come up with one or two words to describe what they think might be the mood, feelings, theme, or focus of the piece. Alternately, they can share the specific parts of speech.
  • Have students select 4–8 interesting words from what they wrote and then create and share a poem, song, or rap featuring those words.

After Students Share Their Findings with You, Consider:

  • Common themes
  • Moods: What are they expressing or focusing on?
  • Difficult thoughts and feelings: What’s coming up?

Sometimes it will help just to acknowledge and validate what they’re feeling. Other times, you may want to give students additional guidance about how to deal with feelings. And occasionally, you may hear something that makes you aware that someone may need extra social-emotional support during this time, whether from you; one or more colleagues; the school counselor or social worker; and/or a family member or guardian.

Something important to remember: Even if you have students try the freewrite alone without doing any of the extension exercises, there’s a good chance you’ve helped them unload—and possibly identify—some of their thoughts and feelings just by having them write about them. Right now, that’s a pretty big deal. And you might be surprised—they might even ask you if they can freewrite again!

Take this opportunity to emphasize the importance and power of writing—remind students they don’t always have to worry about grammar and spelling, and writing doesn’t always have to be perfect or even anywhere close…but it can help you if you let it.

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Find out more about SEL with this free eBook. Then, see how HMH's Waggle can help develop social-emotional learning competencies in students.

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