One day after school at East Side High School in Newark, NJ, a few English teachers and I were talking in my office about what we missed most about being a student, specifically, what we missed most about the actual act of learning and creating. Interestingly, the common factor we missed most was writing—writing for the sake of craft and creativity and sport. As teachers, we interact with writing vicariously through our students multiple times a day, but rarely do we allow ourselves time to just write. We decided to remedy this, which spurred days of brainstorming punny names for our fledgling group until Write Club was born.
The Rules of Write Club
First rule: You do not talk about Write Club.
Second rule: You MUST talk about Write Club.
Third rule: If someone says “stop,” goes limp, or taps out, the write is over.
Fourth rule: One write at a time, unless there is more than one.
Fifth rule: The writes are bare-knuckle. Shirts and shoes required.
Sixth rule: Writes will go on as long as they have to, but it is a school night.
Seventh rule: If this is your first night at Write Club, you HAVE to write.
(Adapted from Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk.)
Five of us met after school at a revered local establishment called Hell’s Kitchen in the Ironbound section of Newark for the first session of Write Club. It was dank and dingy, and completely perfect. We gathered in a booth with our notebooks and some sustenance, and I read out the writing prompt:
The scream pierced the starry night. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up straight in salute; something was terribly, terribly wrong. Should I do something? In that moment, I decided to _______.
The task was simple, complete the prompt with one word or phrase, and then continue it. Just write. Any format. No judgment. I set the timer on my phone for 25 minutes. Some people started writing right away, and others sat pensively. After a few minutes, everyone was quiet, focused, and writing. With jukebox music in the background and sweaty drinks building courage, we were students again. We were creators; we were thinkers; we were artists. People put their pens and pencils down as they finished. A few people didn’t finish and let out exasperated sounds when the timer rang. Finished product or not, everyone was excited and eager to share their piece.
Write Club’s magic germinated as people started to read and share their writing. As colleagues, we don’t usually see each other in the vulnerable light of being a learner, and when people read their pieces aloud, we had moments of wide-eyed awe, snaps of approval, uncontrollable laughter, and even a few tears. We cheered for one another and celebrated without cynicism. People felt validated in their craft and inspired by colleagues; it felt refreshing to respect and admire those you work with, and Write Club allowed that experience. Through a mosaic of vulnerability, trust, competition, and joy surfaced the start of the strongest professional culture I have ever known. Write Club was special, and I knew it needed to be shared.
Write Club: The Evolution
I wondered whether Write Club could have the same impact of togetherness, joy, and pride if it were practiced in a pseudo-forced—rather than voluntary—school gathering? During a meeting with my professional learning community (PLC) the following week, I asked teachers to bring a writer’s notebook. I projected the very same prompt we used the previous week and introduced teachers to Write Club. I first read through the Rules of Write Club, tongue-in-cheek, and those who understood the allusion chuckled and nodded, while others looked a little nervous. Then I talked about the importance of chiseling our craft as readers and writers in order to best teach our students. We are writers; we are literary craftspeople and artists, and our own literacy skills must be sharp if we aim to sharpen the skills of our students.
I had three PLCs throughout the day, with six to eight teachers in each session. None of my 23 teachers pushed back. In those 40-minute PLCs, we spent 20 minutes writing and then 10–12 minutes sharing out loud—most teachers wanted to. Again, the magic of Write Club spread, as colleagues clapped and snapped for one another throughout this shared experience. People were joyful and respectful, and we laughed more than usual. By the last PLC meeting of the day, people knew what was on the menu. We’re writing today? Yes. Yes, we are. In our group of 23 teachers, not all personalities mesh, and there’s always one or two teachers impervious to positivity, and that is probably normal in any department. But during Write Club, nobody scoffed or interrupted or monopolized discussion. Teachers were eager to share and curious to hear others share, and our sense of team was strengthened.
We ended the PLC talking about how Write Club could look in our classrooms. Twenty of the 23 teachers infused Write Club into their teaching that week. Most gave their students the same prompt they completed in PLC. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive. Teachers reported that all students participated, and that—much like the teacher experience—students were eager to share their writing and curious to hear others share. Everyone agreed that Write Club had immediate benefits for students by providing opportunities to create, publish, and provide feedback to one another while fostering an inclusive class culture.
We spent the next month of PLCs experimenting with Write Club as teachers, and also discussing classroom implementation. We tried various types of writing prompts, some connected to novels we were teaching, and some totally separate. Most teachers incorporated Write Club as a weekly routine, using teacher- and student-created writing prompts. Write Club sessions usually lasted 45 minutes: 20–25 minutes of writing, 10 to 12 minutes of sharing, and five to 10 minutes for debriefing and student reflection.
Write Club: Prompts
To streamline the process, we categorized a list of our favorite prompts. These could be used by any school wanting to implement a Write Club model.
Switch-it-up prompts: These prompts continually yield the most engagement and joy (with students and teachers). Start with any prompt and write for four minutes. When the timer sounds, switch notebooks. Writers then have one minute to read what has already been written, and then four minutes to continue. Three switches are usually the maximum before engagement lags. The writing then returns to the owner to read and discover how their fledgling story developed.
- The phone rang. I knew who it was.
- The sirens blared through the night, rushing toward _________.
- I stared into the mirror at my reflection. Today was the day.
- I bit down, and that’s when it cracked.
- It hurt to smile, to blink, to breathe …
Prompts to build community: These prompts show that sharing opinions can build connections.
- What is your greatest fear?
- What is most important to you: past, present, or future?
- Which is more important: hope or happiness?
Another prompt encourages students to choose a mundane object— something they see or walk past every day, such as a bench, a sidewalk crack, specific playground equipment, or a specific tree, and write a narrative from that point of view. What is a day in the life of that object like? What has that object seen? (Our school is across from a park, so this works for us. Take a class outside with their notebooks.)
Prompts to infuse with classroom instruction: These prompts build skills while having fun.
- Open your book (independent reading book, whole-class novel, article, or textbook) to any page, and write down the first complete sentence. Use that as inspiration, or use it as the first sentence of your piece.
- When reading a poem, choose the stanza that is most important to you. Write it down, and use it as the start of a new poem. Continue that poem in your own words.
- In this article, chapter, page, etc., what do you think is the most important word? Use that word as inspiration to start your piece.
- After a particular scene or chapter, choose a character who has a hidden or vague point of view. Write a diary entry as that character about that specific novel scene.
Write Club: The Revolution
As predicted, students love Write Club just as much as teachers. Write Club affords choice and creativity while building collaborative chemistry through sharing and celebrating writing. Yasmin Rodrigues, an 11th grader at East Side High School, says, “Write Club is not only a very fun activity, but it helps develop the fundamental aspects of writing. Being able to write about whatever comes to mind makes the writer more comfortable with trusting one’s own abilities. When presenting the writing, it helps develop confidence not only in one’s writing but in public speaking as well. Write Club helps allow students to trust one another.”
Write Club creates the strongest sense of classroom culture and unity when the teacher is also a participant. Write Club offers opportunities for teachers to write alongside their students and share that writing, and for learning to be a joyful experience. “The Write Club activities such as free write, writing from a character’s perspective, and continuing a piece of creative writing from where another student left off have fostered a sense of unity, deeper thinking, and enjoyment in writing that has done wonders in regard to building students’ confidence in articulating ideas on paper and in discussion,” notes Anthony Younes, a third-year English teacher at East Side High School.
In my 19 years in education, I have seen stagnation in classrooms brought on by high-stakes tests and test prep. Write Club is one way to combat that loss of joy in learning. Write Club debunks writing as a stagnant, formulaic chore and morphs it into a joyful sport, in which collaboration and celebration are paramount. As with anything else, when a skill is practiced, it is refined, and when students enjoy the act of learning, they are more likely to repeat that act.
At East Side High School, Write Club offers students the opportunity to refine their writing skills without attaching a rubric, pushing for textual evidence, or forming an effective thesis statement. Formal writing certainly has its place in teaching and learning, and informal writing should have a place as well.
Meg Murray is the academic vice principal at East Side High School in Newark, NJ.