Back in my writing classes in the USA, this assignment was by far the most popular among my students. The idea was introduced to me by my department head and from the work of Bill Martin in his article “A Writing Assignment/A Way of Life” (2003); in his article, he introduces an assignment that he calls the “Occasional Paper” and shows how he uses it in his class to great effect. The premise is simple: students must prepare and share a piece of writing with the class. The topic is entirely up to them—be it something from their personal life (Martin’s student shares about a game they played) or a topic they find interesting (no research necessary)—as is the timing of when they read it aloud to the class. It is not corrected in any way by the teacher; it’s solely a completion grade. The “Occasional Paper” was a small part of my writing course, but it was instrumental in creating an open classroom atmosphere. I was repeatedly blown away by the pieces my students wrote and shared—their personal voices were readily apparent in their writing, in a way they rarely captured in other assignments. Each Occasional Paper revealed an aspect of my students’ lives that I, and their classmates, hadn’t known before.
To give a bit of context, the course was an introductory writing course for students at Northern Arizona University. It was a mandatory course that all students were expected to take and pass with a decent grade. Most students were freshmen, but I had the occasional sophomore, junior, senior, and even super senior. International students were expected to take the course as well, provided they had a high enough TOEFL score to take mainstream courses (and, if not, they took a sheltered version of the course run by the Program for Intensive English). Classes were not streamed—in one class, student ability levels could range from a non-native English speaker who’d never written more than a few sentences in English together, to students who were budding writers drafting novels in their free time. Over the 18-week semester, the students were responsible for writing six essays with two revisions each, as well as one “Occasional Paper.”
I always introduced the “Occasional Paper” to students on the very first day of the course, with these guidelines:
1) Any topic is okay.*
*provided it is school-appropriate and you are comfortable sharing it with the entire class
2) It cannot be an assignment used for any other course.
3) It must be between 350 ~ 500 words.
4) It must be written on a piece of paper (typed or handwritten).
5) It must be read aloud in class by XX date.
 I tweaked my guidelines a bit from those suggested by Bill Martin. These are what worked best with my students, but they can easily be changed for different contexts.
 This is so that there’s enough text that it’ll take students between 3 to 5 minutes to read aloud. With lower-level ELL students, this word count can be reduced.
 This is to make sure the students did take time to actually write something down.
 I usually chose a point midway through the semester, at about the 8-week mark.
I followed the assignment introduction by reading my own “Occasional Paper” as a model for students (my piece on my experience being bullied on a school bus was always a hit with my students). I found the modeling to be important: the piece I shared usually set the tone for my students. If I shared something a bit personal, my students were more likely to follow suit with their own papers.
Students were encouraged to talk to me before class and let me know if they had an “Occasional Paper” to share that day. I always tried to leave room in my lesson plans for 1-2 papers from students, or about 5-10 minutes of time. If I was lucky, I’d have an eager student ready to share an “Occasional Paper” within the first week of class (most memorable was a Super Senior who shared hers the second day of class, an excellent piece with lots of advice she wished she had known as a first-year student). But if I hadn’t gotten a volunteer after the first week of class, I’d start nudging some of the more gregarious students to prepare something. The absolute freedom in topic could be paralyzing for my students, as, for many of them, this was the first time they’d had the chance to write about anything they wanted. I’d eavesdrop on chatting students, and suggest “Wow, that’d make a great ‘Occasional Paper!’” to help give them some ideas. Once the first couple of students had gone, I found I’d get a nice flow of 3-5 volunteers each week.
I absolutely love this assignment, and it made a huge difference in the relationships my students had with each other. Many students would share something personal about their lives and would receive positive feedback and comments from their peers (and sometimes some great discussions, as time allowed). Even though I did not correct any grammar in the “Occasional Papers,” I did collect the papers from the students once they were finished reading. I always made sure to leave some positive comments thanking the students for sharing about themselves before returning their “Occasional Papers.” Years later, I still fondly remember many of the stories my students shared. Some of the greatest hits included: two students in the same class sharing two different stories about their cars catching on fire; a Saudi student sharing a hilarious piece on following a woman around in a supermarket that he thought was his mother; a politically active student chronicling his experience at a Donald Trump rally during the 2016 election campaign, and more.
The “Occasional Paper” became such a popular assignment that I would frequently have students ask if they could share a second or third one. I caved to their demands and made an extra credit “Occasional Paper” assignment for the second half of the semester. Students always looked forward to when their peers would share an “Occasional Paper”—there would usually be chatter before class as the students would ask each other if anyone had written something for the day.
In my course evaluations, students wrote that this assignment was the first time they enjoyed writing because they didn’t have to worry about errors or formatting; they could just write whatever they wanted. If you’re looking for a creative yet productive way for students to share something about themselves, you can’t go wrong with bringing the “Occasional Paper” into your classroom.
Julia Daley is a lecturer at Hiroshima Bunkyo University, where she teaches English conversation and writing. She earned her MA in TESL at Northern Arizona University and is certified to teach secondary English in Arizona. She appreciates everyone’s patience as she’s been learning how to build a website.