Low Stakes Writing

I’m a big believer in working on craft and practicing it regularly. My students know that they have to keep a written journal that they are supposed to put entries in 6 out of 7 days of the week. I of course give them prompts a few days of those weeks, but I am trying to encourage them to engage with the world around them in a written way, to take abstract ideas and emotions that they might struggle to put words to and find expression for them in their writing.


The low stakes writing piece by Peter Elbow particularly spoke to that and its ability to keep the students writing and practicing. He mentions that it helps their high stakes writing because they are writing so often. Writing takes practice. There are so many concepts that the students need to hone. I, of course, know that they won’t master the art in one semester. In fact, I would argue that there is no mastering writing, that it is a constantly evolving and changing form that develops with us. That’s something I try to express to my students, and I think the low stakes writing journal and prompt responses helps them realize that fact, even if it’s in a rudimentary way.


Elbow says that low stakes writing helps students become active learners. He argues that students are too often passive learners, just taking information in and not processing it or thinking about it. Low stakes writing, he argues, is a great way for students to process the information and be active thinkers. It also cuts out their reliance on a small minority of active thinkers to give the answers to them during class. In a situation like mine, where the students are timid or tired that early in the AM, the prompt that they must respond to in their journals as soon as they enter class really helps facilitate discussion and gets them thinking.  I hope it is teaching them active thinking.


Also, as Elbow mentioned, low stakes writing allows them to really think about the concepts without worrying about being graded on it. Granted, we have to “grade” it in some way, but it’s not the same high stakes level. There’s a bit more freedom there, and with that freedom the students might be more inclined to explore. The journals I have the students keep are their forever. I told them they can do what they want with their journals as long as they are constantly writing in them. They can put ticket stubs in with a report of a show or game they went to; they can paste photos that they find interesting and talk about those images. I give them a variety of prompts in the mornings- creative responses to quotes; retitling of paintings and reasoning behind the titling; break down the structure of a song and say how it reflects rhetorical strategies. They’ve been quite creative with their responses, and it’s been getting them to become more comfortable with expressing themselves. The more they realize that not everything is graded, that writing doesn’t just have to be about getting a letter grade, the more I think they will see it as another avenue for exploration.