Two Ways to Bring Students’ Voices into the Writing Classroom

“Don’t forget to cast your ballot!”

“Vote!”

We just passed the most important time of this year: election day. According to the New York Times, this year’s election and candidates led to heavy, and record-breaking, voter turnout, and there were many measures in place to ensure ballots were counted in time. We’ve had crazy high numbers as far as early voting this year (despite the various attempts to halt or defer it). In an effort to encourage voting, many people on social media say we can only affect change if we voice the change and take action.  

I love how we can exercise our voice in our democracy, and many of us take advantage of that right every chance we get; however, we don’t always extend that right to our students. If we are allowed the right to voice our opinion, why don’t we allow the students to choose topics, choose their own learning goals, choose how to demonstrate their learning and mastery of a concept? 

When I was in the classroom, I spent the last two years completing some action research on how to successfully incorporate voice and choice to engage and motivate my students. I learned quite a bit on this topic, and when I received the opportunity to be an instructional coach, I knew this is one of the strategies I wanted to encourage my teachers to try in their classroom. Even though my action research was completed with an affluent district, I know that students in high poverty areas, such as the school I’m coaching in, needed this option in their classroom as well. As I approached this subject with my teachers, many of them were on board to try incorporating student voice in their classroom. 

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

The 7th grade English teachers decided, since it is close to Halloween, they wanted to let their students flex their narrative writing muscles by writing scary stories. (Plus, the students had been asking to write scary stories.) I really encouraged them to let the students steer this story the way they wanted and to let them show how creative they can be when given the chance. 

Before letting the students run free with their ideas, the teachers reinforced important skills with the students, such as character, plot, setting, conflict, point of view, and theme. They did this through a series of short, engaging mini-lessons. For example, to review plot, they watched some short films, including Pixar but also some short documentaries. To review setting, and give the students some ideas, they studied various pictures and did some freewrites related to those photos. 

Scary Story Share in Mrs. Brown’s Class. Photo courtesy of Erica Brown

When they moved on to teach and review the writing elements, they used some mentor texts to give the students ideas on how to write and structure their story. For example, to help them start their story, they looked at a variety of scary short stories’ first lines and how the author created the suspense from the start. To help them describe their setting, the students reviewed the setting of a story and drew what they imagined what it looked like in their head, according to the text. When the students wrote their own story, they paired up, reviewed each other’s setting and drew what they could visualize in their head. (This exercise caused a lot of revising and self-reflection on the students’ part if their partner drew the wrong setting!)

Now that the students had all the foundational knowledge needed to write their scary stories, they were given creative license to make them their own; to incorporate their ideas and voice into their writing. They came up with some great story ideas, such as an evil fortune teller machine, a killer in the woods, an evil doll, the classic haunted mansion, some ghost stories and many more. The teacher then took it step further with their scary story share, and let the students tell the class their story they had written. It was a great time for all! 

When I asked the students in Erica Brown’s seventh grade class how they felt about this assignment and getting to choose what to write about, I received a lot of positive remarks. 

  • “I really liked the story share! It was great to hear the ideas of my classmates and their versions of different types of stories.”
  • “I liked the freedom of picking my topic.”
  • “I enjoyed the story share and that people picked stories and made it their own.” 

Sometimes we forget how students long to tell and write stories. Narrative writing is so important and such a great life skill for students and we need to not underestimate its engaging power. 

Student Voice in Research Writing

The 8th grade teachers, not to be out done by the 7th grade teachers, also wanted to use this idea of student voice in writing during their research unit. I introduced them to Genius Hour, and they were so excited to dig in and get started. (If you need a jumping off point for Genius Hour, I recommend Joy Kirr’s LiveBinder linked here.) 

After wading through all the materials and deciding how they wanted to structure teaching research skills and writing, they dove in with their very eager students. (If you are unfamiliar with Genius Hour, the very heart of this concept is student voice, and it is driven by student interest.) At first, the students couldn’t believe what the teachers were telling them. 

Genius Hour research presentations in Mr. Richard’s class. Photo by Shawna Easton

“I really get to research what I want? Nah.”    

Yep! They were instantly hooked. Because the students were more interested and excited than in years past, it made it easier to teach the skills because the students couldn’t wait to get started on their research and writing. Some of the topics included how rainbows are formed, how parasites affect the human body, and how the Coronavirus impacts society. 

When students were ready to present, I was able to see some of their presentations, and I was impressed! I learned a lot of information and was engaged the whole time they were informing me about their topic and answering their research question. I asked some of the students what their thoughts were on having some choice and voice in this project, and here is what some students said:

  • “This was fun! I liked that I was able to pick a topic that was happening now, and it is an important topic (Coronavirus).”
  • “It was hard at first (to choose a topic). I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but after I learned how to narrow a topic, it got easier and I liked that I was able to pick what I wanted to do.” 

Something I learned with my classes is that when students get a say, they are more invested in their work, in their class, in their school. They feel like their perspective really matters, and they are important. Don’t we feel that way when we vote? When we feel like our opinion matters, that we have a say, we are more invested in how our democracy runs. We want our students to feel just as empowered in our classrooms.

How do you encourage student voice in your classroom? You can connect with me on Twitter @shawnaeaston03 or on Facebook at facebook.com/movingwriters.

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