Choice in Workshop: FAQ and Student Perspectives

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Two weeks ago, I wrote about one of the very most foundational elements of any writing workshop: student choice. I gave you some ways to wade in; I gave you some ways to try something new with choice if you’re already a veteran. And then I asked you for lingering questions and concerns, a record of the little voices in your head that say, “Oh, but you can’t really do that because …”

Today, I’m going to answer the questions that I received! But first, if you still need convincing, I want you to hear from some of my students.

Why Writing Choice is Important to Students

Last week, I told them that not all writing teachers give their students choice over their topic, their genre, or the way they want to approach a topic. I asked them to make a quick Flipgrid video explaining why choice is so important. Here are a few:

Choice: Frequently Asked Questions

(Please note, due to lengthy responses, some questions have been condensed so that they are more applicable to a wide array of teachers in different contexts.) 

I recently allowed students to make some choices, and it didn’t go so well. Many of them still wanted me to make the choices for them or to tell them if they had made good choices.  Is there such a thing as too much choice?

Choice, like any routine in our classroom, has to be taught and practiced and built up-to. So the choices I give students in September might look a bit different than the choices I give them in May.  Even at the start of school, the choices I offer students who have had years of workshop under their belt already will be different than those I offer to student who have never before made an authentic writerly choice in school.

Every year, I am surprised by how uncomfortable choice can be for students who haven’t had it before. When we walk into class, proud of ourselves for doing this daring thing,  we are often met with student paralysis. They want to know they are “doing it right”. They want to know that at the end of the piece of writing, they will get a good grade. They want to know they are making the right choice so that they will only have to do this thing once.

So, when starting out giving kids choice, let them practice with making really small choices first:

  • “Choose whether to do this by yourself or with a partner.”
  • “Choose where to write this down: in your writer’s notebook or in a Google Doc.”
  • “Choose if you want to jump straight into drafting today or if you want to spend some time planning first.”

Let kids work their way up to bigger more important choices about their writing.

Then, emphasize that making choices is messy and will invariably lead to occasionally making a mistake. And this is GOOD because this is what helps us grow as a writer. Remind kids constantly that the stakes are low — try something. Experiment. If it’s a disaster, we’ll talk about it and try again. What’s the worst that could happen?

What if I let my students choose their topics or choose their genres and they make bad choices? For instance, what if a student with very little scientific knowledge chooses to write an information piece about climate change? What do I do then? 

I just finished Carl Anderson’s new, brilliant, gorgeous A Teacher’s Guide to Writing Conferences. In it, he discusses a couple different writing conference scenarios. One is when the student is already doing writing work that you want to get behind. Yay! Great! Another is when the student is doing writing work you don’t want to get behind…what then?

Carl suggests you ask the student what else he or she is working on in their writing in the hopes that you can get behind one of those ideas. So, perhaps you could ask your aspiring science writer what other ideas he or she has for a piece of writing?

When a student is really determined, though, I am often just honest. I might say, “I think it’s great that you are passionate about climate change and want to dig into that topic in a piece of writing. I’m nervous, though, that this kind of writing might require a lot more scientific knowledge than you have at your finger tips right now. To do this well, I think you’re going to have to do a lot of reading about climate change before you can begin to write about it. How do you feel about that?”

And then I let the student make his or her own choice.

This happened a few years ago in an anecdote I tell often in professional development workshops. Students were writing pieces of analysis and one 9th grader, Charlie, wanted to write a piece of analysis about concussions in the NFL. Deep down, I know that Charlie didn’t have the medical knowledge to analyze this issue with the authority it would need. I expressed my concerns. He persevered. And about one week into the drafting, Charlie, defeated, asked for a writing conference. “This just isn’t working,” he said. “This is just, like, a report on concussions in the NFL.”

We were able to salvage some of the essentials (concussions, NFL), but used a mentor text to take it in a different direction (how concussions in the NFL impact fans) that Charlie was able to tackle with authority.

Just like with our own children, our natural impulse is to shield them from failure. But that’s not how we learn. Sometimes we just have to let them make bad writing choices so that they can see the outcome and make better writing choices in the future.

My students have trouble coming up with brainstorming or identifying a choice in what they want to write about. How can teachers help? 

The longer I teach writing, the more convinced I am that we need to dedicate a lot more time to idea development than we currently do. In many ways, it’s the hardest part of the writing process, and our first ideas are usually not our best ideas.

Allison and I write about finding passion a lot in Beyond Literary AnalysisIn fact, we have a whole chapter with ideas for helping students dig through their past, dig through their stuff, and dig through their hearts to find the writing ideas that excite them. (We gave a sneak peek of that chapter — with three strategies in it —  at NCTE last year. You can find the slides here.)  In that book, we also have a chapter dedicated to helping students find the really, really good, unique ideas that will take a piece far.

There are lots of strategies for helping students uncover their best ideas — Nancie Atwell’s writing territories, Georgia Heard’s heart maps. Even notebook time is designed to help students steadily build a collection of idea-seeds to return to another day. But the key with any of these strategies or the ones in our book is time. Space. Breathing room. A whole class period or even two to give students concrete strategies for finding topics and then letting them make discoveries.

But my curriculum / department / grade level/ school / district / course has these requirements for student writing and/or an end of course test? How can I bring in choice and check all these boxes at the same time?

Yep. Mine, too. For 13 years, I taught senior IB literature students who had an end of course test with oodles of writing that was entirely literary analysis. I’ve taught high schoolers with state testing looming on the horizon who “needed” to learn how to write to a prompt. I know teachers who have writing assignments prescribed for them down to the month and week the pieces will be written.

It’s all hard.

It’s hard to navigate the line between what we are required to do, what we can get away with, and what we know is actually best for students. So, my short answer to this big question is to give choice wherever possible and as often as possible.

When I taught IB seniors, they needed to write lots of different kinds of literary analysis to get good at it. But I mixed analysis of Shakespeare with analysis of Game of Thrones and the poetry of Sarah Kay. One of the smartest essays I’ve ever read was a close reading of an episode of Phinneas and Ferb.

I let students choose texts on which to practice their analysis 50% of the time, and with the other 50% of the time we practiced the kind of writing they’d need for the test.  We wrote personal essays for college. We wrote food memoirs and had a feast. We had a well-balanced writing life.

Because all good writing makes good writers.

To do what is best for my writers — choice, engagement, authenticity, volume — I often push the boundaries and blur the lines. I give up some cute activities so that I can build in way MORE writing, meeting both the demands of my school and the demands of my teacher-conscience. I find daily opportunities for choice in notebook writing so that we are building writing muscles and choice-making muscles even when we aren’t writing a big polished piece.

I make compromises. I sometimes irritate my colleagues. I often baffle my administrators. I do whatever I have to do to give my writers the good stuff of writing.

How do I manage my class if everyone is working on something slightly different? What mini-lessons do I teach? How do I confer with writers working on so many different pieces of writing?

Organizing a unit of study around a genre or a writing technique will give everyone some common ground even when they are choosing their own topics. For instance, whether my students are writing an open letter about smoking in public spaces or Richmond’s Civil War monuments, I can teach mini-lessons that apply to every writer. I would teach them about finding an appropriate audience, making their claim clear and concise, different types of evidence they will need to support their claim, letter format, etc.  And then, when I confer with my writers, those are the things I will be looking for and chatting about.

If I were teaching a technique study on showing-not-telling (or, as Nancie Atwell calls it, “making the movie” in the reader’s mind), I would teach everyone strategy-based lessons like using sensory details, playing with time by zooming in and zooming out, writing dialogue.

In the spring when I take a portfolio approach with my students, I will do the same thing but in small groups. I’ll gather my poets and teach them a strategy for making meaningful line breaks. I’ll gather my analysis and teach them a strategy for articulating their claim. I’ll rally my narrative writers and work on pacing a story.  Meanwhile, the others will write.

When it comes to free free choice, it is harder to be all things to all writers. And so, those free choice, write-whatever-in-the-world-you-want units tend to be shorter and looser. But no matter what my students are working on, I can teach them craft. I can teach them about beautiful sentences. I can teach them about grammar that will actually enhance the meaning of their words. I can teach them about parallelism and anaphora and polysyndeton. Good writing is good writing;  no matter what our students are writing, there are lessons that will benefit them all.

Thank you for sending your questions, readers! And keep them coming! Is there something you’re wondering about that I haven’t addressed here? Leave the question in the comment below, find us on Facebook, or ask away on Twitter @RebekahOdell1. 

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