Almost all students will experience writer's block at one time or another. Helping them work through this common experience with the use of physical activity may add success to the writing process for all students. There are several reasons why students encounter writer’s block, and it is important for middle school teachers to recognize the complex nature behind this writing process struggle that even for the most prolific writers experience. The dread behind writing that some students feel starts at varying moments. In general, the adolescent student combats the need to move with the need to be compliant during long periods of seated focused time devoted to writing over a course of multiple periods or days. Additionally, state writing assessments at sixth, seventh, and eighth grade levels often add stress and anxiety, which jumbles the thinking process and sometimes prevents down productivity.
Benefits of Physical Activity in Classroom
The use of physical activity in the classroom can benefit students on multiple levels. During writing instruction, getting students to move may benefit students who are struggling in the writing process, but also students who need to move for physical, emotional, academic, and biological reasons. As Gurian, Stevens, and King state in Strategies for Teaching Boys & Girls, the brains of adolescents, "work better if they move more," improving academic performance.
One of the factors behind writer’s block is the failure to generate plausible ideas during brainstorming or sentence construction. Students who develop the mindset of “I can’t think of anything” will endure several minutes, and potentially hours, of unproductive work. Sitting for prolonged periods of time only exacerbates the situation, creating unhealthy writing habits. Adding physical movement can create a break in this destructive pattern. Getting students to stand and move helps energize the body and mind, promoting cognitive function and increasing the likelihood that students can overcome moments of inactive work.
The inability to think of something to write may also stem from the inability to focus. Students who struggle with focus struggle even more during long periods of time devoted to intense writing composition. Providing opportunities for students to break up long periods of work time can help them regain focus. This reduces behavioral issues and helps student focus on the writing task at hand. If students are moving through the entire writing process, adding movement breaks during each steps helps students regain their composure and mentally prepare for the next step. An increase in focus creates opportunities for greater success leading to work completion and a mental shift toward autonomous writing habits.
The writing process is a cyclical process taking on many forms in the middle school classroom. The process develops as teachers assess the needs and abilities of students. Likewise, the process is refined and becomes more sophisticated as students move from grade-level to grade-level. However, there are some common components of the writing process.
These common components include: prewriting, drafting, peer feedback, revising, editing, and publishing. While some students can move through the process step-by-step, the process is cyclical and some steps may be revisited more frequently than others. Prewriting involves brainstorming topics, generating ideas, considering the audience, and setting writing goals for the process. Drafting entails creating an outline, composing the basic structure of the text, and researching supporting details. Peer feedback includes opportunities for students to share each other’s work, comment or clarify writing, and provide suggestions for improvement. During the revising step, writers consider suggestions of peers and teachers to refine the ideas and style of their text. Editing focuses on conventions and grammatical errors. The final step prepares the draft for publishing to be shared with the instructor, peers, or a greater audience.
Adding Movement to Writing Instruction
Prewriting Activity: Think-Time-Share
There are several ways students brainstorm ideas for writing prompts. In this activity, structured physical movement is added to the process. The instructor creates a series of questions related to the prompt. After the instructor asks a question, he directs students to perform an action, such as marching in place. Students perform the action for 30 seconds to build-in wait time. After the 30 seconds has passed, students share answers with writing partners or groups. Students generate a list for the responses before standing and moving while thinking of a response to the second question.
Drafting and Organization Activity:
After using a common article to research a topic, students work in small groups to summarize key facts in the article. Each student uses a piece of string to summarize the facts. While she is speaking, she wraps the string around her thumb and index finger. She must talk until the string is completely wound around the fingers, and she must stop when she has run out of string. The next person picks up where the previous person stops, or he begins summarizing the article again. The point of the activity is to recall key information that students can use in the body paragraphs of an essay. The activity can also be used by students to talk about how they plan to structure their information sequentially.
Peer Response Activity:
Traveling Commentary Analysis
One of the most difficult components of writing body paragraphs is writing a commentary or analysis statement regarding a key point or fact used to support the topic sentence of the paragraph or thesis statement of the essay. This process involves higher-level thinking skills, so getting students up and moving helps break down the steps involved while reducing levels of anxiety and stress. During the modeling phase, facts or key points can be placed around the room. Students work in groups to move from point to point adding commentary and analysis to each one. The activity combines movement and collaboration allowing students to read commentary and analysis statements from each group, so they can understand the process and see various styles of writing and thinking they can model in their own writing.
Revision Process Breakdown:
Writing Concept Hot Potato
Students can become overwhelmed during the revision process. Providing students with a clear focus and protocol helps make the revision process more meaningful and effective. The purpose of this activity is to focus students on a specific writing concept to analyze when revising. In this activity, two students are asked to leave the classroom. One is a participant and the other watches to make sure the participant can neither hear nor see what is happening in the classroom. In the classroom, a word is hidden. The entire class is aware of its location. The class decides on a movement to perform, such as clapping.
The two students in the hall enter the classroom. The class begins clapping slowing and quietly. As the participant ventures closer to the hidden word, the clapping becomes faster and louder. When the word is found, the class discusses the writing concept and what to look for during the revision process. Another word can be hidden to focus students on more than one concept, or students can begin revising and find another hidden word later to break up the monotony of seated work to refocus their energy on a new concept. A variation of this activity would be to focus on key grammar and convention errors during the editing process.
Revision Process Story:
Moving Picture in 5
The revision process can take many forms. An important part of the process involves reflection. In this activity, students work in small groups. Each student reflects on the main arguments in his essay. The student then thinks of five body positions he can create to illustrate these key points.
The instructor asks for the first participant from each group to stand in front of his group and freeze into his first body position. At the teacher’s signal, the student moves into the second body position and freezes, and so on. Group members determine what the key points might be based on the body positions and talk about the effectiveness of the arguments with the writer. The writer can then adjust his points accordingly.
In addition to the frozen body positions, the performer can also say one word per image to emphasize actions or make connections. This activity involves higher-level thinking as it grounds the basis of the writing a student is trying to communicate. The student needs to be aware of why she is making the claims she is, so communication is moving from paper to thinking to acting.
The writing process is intimidating for many middle school students as well as for many middle school teachers! Adding movement to the process may help students work through and resolve the various forms of writer’s block they may encounter. The activities suggested can be modified for any part of the writing process. The key is to break up long stretches of intense thinking while seated at desks.
John Helgeson, Ph.D., has taught middle school students for 17 years. He is currently the secondary English instructional specialist in the Northshore school district in Bothell, Washington.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, November 2016.