On the Power of Choice (Plus a Writing Center Update!)

As you may have noticed from some previous posts, Rebekah’s “What’s the Worst That Could Happen?” has been fueling a number of experiments in my classes this year. Another risk I decided to take was to replace a long-running historical narrative project with a new study of informational texts. The results of this experiment have reminded me once again of the power of choice: as Tricia wrote recently, students succeed when they can write about what matters to them.

The historical narrative project was designed as an opportunity for students to dip their toes into the waters of research and documentation of sources while practicing narrative writing skills from our personal narrative unit; students would learn about a historical figure or moment of interest and write a fictional narrative informed by facts, documenting their research in an annotated bibliography. While the assignment helped students learn about our school’s research tools and offered them opportunities to investigate topics of interest, the format favored writers who liked historical fiction; those who did not often struggled to settle on a topic and sat slumped at their computers during workshop. As our personal narrative unit came to a close this year, I started thinking about other ways I could engage students in writing about research.

I began by asking my freshmen to complete a survey of their informational text interests. From there, I compiled a collection of mentor texts related to the topics that interested them most. While I had started planning the unit imagining that all students might create a listicle or infographic, I realized as I collected mentor texts that one style of writing did not fit all topics; for this new project to work, students would need to select not only their topic but also their style. Thus, the Informational Text Project was born (though it might need a better name next year).

Step One: Assignment Introduction and Investigation

  • I introduced the assignment, noting that our focus would be on writing something that informs and explains, has a strong beginning and ending, smoothly incorporates quotes and evidence, and credits our sources.
  • I invited students to start learning more about a topic or question that interested them (we used Kelly Gallagher’s “Topic Blast” strategy to brainstorm), and I showed them how to use our library’s resources to investigate.
  • Students took notes in notebooks or on Google Docs as they learned

Step Two: Mini-lessons with Mentor Texts

  • I used Smithsonian Magazine’sBrief History of the Haunted House,” Mentalfloss.com’s “9 Phrases the Cubs Gave Baseball” (both very timely during our October-November study) and a variety of infographics as models for mini-lessons about citation in web-based writing, beginnings and endings, and marking the moves of article, listicle, and infographic makers.
  • I used another Google form  to keep a record of students’ personal exploration of mentor texts.

Step Three: Write and Create!

  • Once students had marked the moves of their mentors and collected information to share in their own informational text, it was their turn to write. Those making articles or listicles usually used Google Docs, and I introduced Canva as a tool for infographics (some students also used Piktochart). (Make sure you check out Rebekah and Allison’s posts about infographics for more great ideas!) 
  • Students submitted their work through Google Classroom (or, when necessary, shared a link to their Canva projects if they had used graphics that would have cost money to download as PDFs).

The Results

Our goal for this project was to write something that informed and explained, and wow, did I learn a lot from my students’ work! Students’ projects covered a wide range of topics–from the history of luxury car companies to the origin of the Belgian waffle to the solar bodies most likely to host life to “12 Ways to Cheat in Baseball”


or the role of animals in U.S. spy operations 

B. creates a fascinating infographic about animal spies.


While some students may have struggled with citing sources or following the model of their mentor texts, every writer seemed enthusiastic about his or her project, and the revision portion of our final exam will be an opportunity to make their work stronger and better. I’m excited to try this experiment again, and its success encourages me to look for ways to shake up our research work next semester.

A few lessons learned…

  • With every writing task my students complete this year, I’m realizing that I need to make more time for conferencing. As I assessed projects, I noticed that some of the mistakes students made could have been avoided if we had had more conversations about the project. I’m going to integrate more conference time into next year’s schedule.
  • My freshmen struggled a bit to find their own mentors, so I hope to collect more mentor texts and made an even bigger list of links for great mentor text sites before this project returns.
  • It is so important to call students’ attention to the ways that web-based writers cite their sources. When students saw how often writers used in-text citations, they used them more often–and well!– in their writing.
  • With all of the discussion about “fake news” lately, I think this unit presents an excellent opportunity for lessons about testing and verifying web-based writing’s reliability.

Finally, an update from the Triton Writing Center: Logistics

Training of thirteen writing tutors is complete, and now tutors are making their way into classrooms to work with students as they write. At the end of each tutoring session, the tutor completes this form, and the writer completes an exit ticket modeled after the one below shared by Corrinne, a Folger Education friend:


We are keeping the writing center open when we can, which, for right now, is an open office hour each Wednesday during our lunch periods and individual appointments in various study halls. At a tech-savvy colleague’s suggestion, we are experimenting with using Sign-up.com to schedule individual appointments. Normally a service for scheduling volunteers, Sign-up.com allows us to list tutors’ availability and send reminders to writers once they’ve signed up for appointments. I set up the calendar, and tutors can check the calendar daily to see when writers have signed up to work with them. We haven’t shared the sign-up link with writers yet but plan to at the beginning of next semester.

Do you have a favorite informational mentor text source? Any suggestions for or questions about our writing center? Please reach out in the comments below or on Twitter @MsJochman.


  1. Thank you for sharing about your new unit. I firmly believe in allowing students as much choice as possible. The links for the survey and form say you need permission. Could you please check and change so we can view – I am very interested to see them.

    1. Thanks for your comments and letting me know about the forms! I’ve adjusted permissions so that you should be able to access them. Please let me know if you can’t.

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