Dare to write - Read On Conference & Training

Aqui vos deixamos o artigo da comunicação e workshop.

We are the Re-Word-It Project. What does this mean? The name means we want to Re-Think the way we promote learning in reading and writing. I began this journey in creative writing in 1996. After several years working in this area, four years ago, a women’s group was formed to go further.

In Re-Word-It, our mission it to transform the way we learn, providing new approaches for reading and writing, and giving the chance to think about learning procedures, bringing consciousness to the way each person learns best. It is not about how we teach; it’s about how human beings learn; it’s about learning in multiple ways, planning, observing how progress grows, and replanning. We want to give metacognitive skills to our students; we want to promote autonomy both in reading and in writing.

Reading and writing are connected, we all know that. From our experience, having pleasure through writing makes students more curious about books: how did the author write this? We enter the magical world of writing – we can read more than just the plot.

So, first, let us declare a public enemy: the free text. When we say to our pupils that they can write about whatever they wish, in fifteen (whatever) minutes, with total liberty, what happens? With that freedom they can’t think of anything, they don’t write. Or, as bad as this one, pleading them to write about the vacations, Christmas, Spring, and all those repetitive themes.

There is a scientific explanation for this reaction, this mind in a blank state. The fear and anxiety of writing triggers what Daniel Goleman calls the “emotional hijacking”. It describes the situations in which the amygdala — the brain's emotional processing center — takes over the normal reasoning process. In that state of mind, we can’t write.

As Hétor Ruiz Martín explains, the working memory is sensible to stress and anxiety. It overflows with thoughts outside the task we are after. If we want to learn something new or answer a question in an examination, the fear and anxiety makes the task almost impossible.

Imagine for a second that I asked you to write about whatever you like in three minutes. How would you feel? Mind in blank? Scared? Looking around to see if you’re the only one in trouble? I did this once, during a teachers’ workshop, and the effect was so devastating that I have never repeated this. Of the twenty teachers in the room, only two were writing with a bored expression, the others were completely lost. I stopped the experience after a few seconds – they had learnt what happens.

Remember this: no matter what you feel – stress, or anxiety – there is no space to have ideas, nor to create a text. We need to be in a creative mood, not in a scared one – we need to be engaged.

So, what can we do? We can do this differently, by distracting our brain from those worries. How? Simply by playing, having fun with words and meanings, rewriting sentences, and playing with the letters. When we begin to play, laughter appears, when trying to achieve the goals of a game, our brain relaxes and then we can have new ideas, using all our resources.

So, eleven years ago, I began a blog named “Histórias em 77 palavras”, or, shall we say, “77word stories”. The idea was to invite people of any age to write using challenges. I was doing this in class, and the revolution had begun.

These challenges can be a letter being forbidden, or a sequence of words that must be in the text, an image, an author’s quote or a verse from a poem, there are many different challenges in the blog. Feeling secure, we play. As O. Fred Donaldson said: «Children learn as they play. Most importantly, in play children learn how to learn».

What happens then? Let me give you an example. What about writing a new version of Cinderella, not using the letter R? So, we must change the girl’s name (to Ashy, Dusty?) and decide exactly what are we going to tell, having to choose only a few parts, because we can’t tell the whole story – after all, 77 words is quite a small text.

So, what happens? We begin to play. Moving inside our heads, we try to find different words to say the same thing, most of the times playing with the tale itself, bringing humor to the story. And every time we do this:

· We use different vocabulary

· We risk using some words we hadn’t dared before

· We experiment different syntax

· We rewrite the story in a fresh new way.

So, we really are working our writing. This was an example or icebreaker’s challenges. But other challenges go beyond this. Let me show you another type of challenge: words that must be part of the text. these words that will appear in any order:

Stone + bird + shoe + hole + solve + road + hat + patience + hide + nonsense

You will feel secure, you have a plan for your text, and you begin thinking how to put these words in a context that makes sense. This time, you are expanding the relationship between different words, giving meaning to the text, creating the story with pleasure.

In each challenge we will find something to guide us through the ideas with no fear. And, being relaxed and playing, we go beyond our limits. It is very interesting to see that the so-called struggling students are the ones who benefit more from this process. Suddenly, they write great texts.

On the other hand, when we write in the 1st person, we can live through that character, having the possibility to feel and write like that person. This is so important nowadays. Someone who is a victim of bullying? Or that lost a grandfather? How does it feel like?

Let me tell you how we wrote the short story «A Balada do Silêncio» for the Read On Anthology of this year. It will sum up what I have spoken so far. I had with me a 10th grade class from what we call a Secundray School in Almada. They were 14/15 years old, and I had the collaboration of the teachers Alexandra Alves, Lurdes Cruz and Sónia Magalhães.

We had three sessions to write the story. In the first day, I asked them to work the indirect description of feelings: they would peak a few characteristics of a person, imagine some reactions, and show them in action, instead of using adjectives and information. Then, we spoke about what they would like to write about, and the choice was someone lonely and depressed being drugged and abused in a party.

What they wrote was quite impressive! I asked them to send me, by email (we were doing it online) everything they had written. And, putting all these scenes together, it was possible to write a short story.

In the second day, we worked with this story to create texts in the 1st person. We wanted the narrative of someone observing the girl. They should tell a piece of the story in a subjective view. Having chosen the other characters, we began to write. The result was a lot of small texts that could appear interrupting the story. The mother appeared as an important character.

In the third day, I had the story, and the characters’ subjective view of what was happening, in a dance of words and scenes. Running against time, I made a PowerPoint with all this and asked them to give voice do the main character – the girl. She could remember her childhood, speak about the relation with her mother and father, the other girl who loved her, and so on. While reading what we already had, they could write brief sentences, also in the 1st person. This worked marvelously.

The result is a wonderful story. I only had to promote the writing in a secure way, respecting their ideas, then help the editing part and guide them to the end. I only wrote little parts, just like everyone else. We are all very proud of this story.

So, back to the blog. These are only a few examples, the blog has more than 250 challenges. But there is still something to deal with: the 77 words’ limit. What happens? Usually, we write more words than that, around 90 words. Now, it’s time to edit the text. Which words can we erase? Is it about erasing or rewriting?

Sometimes we use too many possessive adjectives (my, your, his, etc.) or we use ‘that’ too many times. In some texts we go over the top with information – our readers almost drown in it! And what about having our readers learn to read between the lines? And what about the rhythm of our text? Can we play with this also?

This editing part is where our writing will really improve. Therefore, there is no emotional hijacking, just pleasure. Sometimes the texts speak directly to us, showing something that needs our attention, and who wrote gets emotional when reading out loud.

Let’s talk about the editing moment. Working in pairs when editing is one of the good ways to learn. While giving an opinion to a partner, we deepen our knowledge. Nothing happens if we say “it’s fine” without a “because” – we need to explain why we like it, or why we suggest a different approach, or trying to engage the other so he can go further with his text.

And then, there is the sharing moment. This leaves us with two other important facts: reading aloud for the group and giving feedback to students. Let’s begin with reading aloud. When we ask the students to read for the group, it’s obvious the many different approaches, using the same challenge. And we learn so much when we hear different solutions for the same challenge. This opens new paths in writing, learning how to do it in another way, absorbing new ideas.

And what about feedback? As teachers, we must give feedback, and there is no place for “great text” without “because”. We need to point out the best sentences, so they will remember that strong part of their writing. We must be constructive but not over corrective. Even when there is a mistake, we can comment and give more than one solution, but we mustn’t give a new idea as a substitute, as if it was the best one. The equilibrium between comment and suggestions must leave the students with a choice. After all, they are the authors of their stories. Respecting the students’ voices in writing is the best way to do it.

And still a little detail: don’t mix up spelling with creative writing. If we keep on asking our students to write the words they already know, how can they evolve? Let us separate these two moments, one for writing and taking risks, another, way after, when we work in how some words are spelt. It is like considering a math problem wrong when the thinking and solving are correct, but the sum is wrong.

What do we cherish, after all? Knowing how to put the ideas in the paper or spelling words we haven’t used before? From our experience, when we do this afterwards, they learn with enthusiasm and will remember the words it in the future.

In 2020, right in the middle of the pandemic worries, we launched a crowdfunding to make a pack of cards with original challenges. We wanted to give the 77words game a physical clothing. It was a huge success, mainly because Read On supported this campaign and made us jump to the next idea: translating the game to English. Dare to write! The 77word challenge. It wouldn’t have been possible without your help! Thank you.

We had a wonderful translator, Dave Tucker, who embraced the idea, the gaming philosophy, and was able to adapt some word and letters’ challenges to English language. He did a wonderful work.

Looking back to all these years or work, what are we getting with these 77word challenges? Our participants are from 6 to 101 years old. In schools, some classes are eager to jump to the next challenge, or they are using the cards in class. Those who write many challenges and send them to us show us how they begin improving their writing. And teachers tell us that the students love to write like this, they feel engaged and thrilled –the first step in action.

But let us consider the idea of the 77word stories. The secret lies in the process, in this sequence: play, write, cut, rewrite. This engages metacognitive development because we think about writing. We don’t feel satisfied with our first draft. We want more and learning to write needs this process. The best way is to have some distance from the text, rewriting it some days after. We need to look to the text with different and sharp eyes.

And this leaves us with an important question: when we evaluate texts, are we reading drafts or edited texts? This would be a great conquest, being able to read the texts after the metacognitive work, thinking about writing, about rhythm, about metaphors, all that writing is about. This only appears when we edit and rewrite. It is then that we get to the core of writing.

This process in a little text will improve the writing. It’s, let us say it this way, a pocket solution. If we can do it with 77 words, we can do it in any other number of words.

Just remember the game, the process: a challenge that is fun, engaging, writing more than you should, editing, cutting the excess, and rewriting the sentences to their best. Metacognition in our writing. Learning while doing.

As Edward M. Hallowell says: “Play is the most creative activity of the human brain. It allows you to dream up fresh ideas and question old ones. In play, the brain totally lights up.” Is there a better way to learn?


Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1990) Flow: Harper Collins e-books

Goleman, Daniel (1997) Emocional Intelligence: Barnes & Noble

Martín, Héctor Ruiz, (2020) ¿Cómo aprendemos?: Editorial Graó

Orlick, Terry (1993) Free to feel great: Creative Bound Inc.

Santos, Margarida Fonseca, (2015) AltaMente: Edicare

Wilson, D. & Conyers, M. (2013). Five big ideas for effective teaching. s.l.:Teacher College Press.

Wilson, D. & Conyers, M. (2016). Teaching students to drive their brains. s.l.:Teachers College Press.

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