The Minute Paper

by Harmony Button

The following is the first of a series of Writing Across the Curriculum weekly email digests that have been going out to Waterford teachers since October, 2014.  These posts focus on the theory, thinking, application and implications of certain teaching practices. 


“How do I know what I think before I see what I say? E.M. Forster.  

The Thinking: 

Many students who hesitate to contribute verbally in the classroom can be engaged through short mid-discussion “minute papers.”  Asking students to write for an assigned time (instead of a requested length) encourages them to quickly cut to what they find interesting or important. Writing in discrete time chunks also takes the pressure off of the quality of the writing (write fast! write sloppy! misspell everything!), and offers students a chance to make discoveries in their own thought processes, rather than just reporting what they already know. 

The Application: 

Teachers sometimes begin classes with brief writing prompts as a means of collecting and settling students, but they rarely return to individual writing in the midst of a heated discussion.  Try pausing a lecture or discussion just at the moment when you see the MOST hands in the air, and ask students to write for exactly one minute on (whatever problem you’re engaging at the time). This allows students to express their ideas, and then when you come back to a big group discussion, students are more likely to actively pay attention to what their peers are saying, rather than sitting under the burden of their own bursting desire to share their idea… or drifting off into la-la land because they have disconnected from the discussion.  DO NOT collect or evaluate the “quality” of these minute papers, but note students who boycott the activity there is usually a reason why students feel writing paralysis, and it often has more to do with their other learning habits and strategies than it does with their writing skills. Work with these students to get to the root of their difficulty putting words on paper (were they not paying attention? Are they frustrated? Do they feel like they don’t know what they’re ‘supposed’ to say?), and emphasize the “low stakes” nature of this prompt.  Celebrate discoveries that students make during this process, and offer insight into what the next logical question or area of exploration might be. 

The Habit: 

If students encounter this habit of the “minute paper” frequently, in various classrooms, they will start to see writing as a learning tactic, rather than an awkward way of performing for the teacher.  They will be more courageous and bold in the risks they take in their thinking, as well as their writing. They are more likely to be active listeners. They will be less likely to feel as if they can hide or be invisible in a classroom. Even if they don’t share their writing with you, they are more likely to feel as if their teacher cares about what they think.  

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