Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Topics of Their Own Choosing...

I teach all across the country about Writer's Workshop and it's one of the topics I am most passionate about. From my first day of teaching in the classroom, I have held three beliefs about the teaching of writing.

Students need to write frequently.
We write in a Writer's Workshop every day! Not every Wednesday... not every time I can fit it in, but EVERY day! Ralph Fletcher says we need to write frequently so that students will be ready to "meet" the workshop. No more, "Surprise! We are writing today!"

Students need extended periods of time for writing.
Elementary students are in an infant stage of writing. Just like a child learning to walk and that is not easy work. It takes thought, it takes time! Have you ever watched a child try to copy a word from the word wall? It can take all morning! Their small motor skills are not at the same speed at their writing minds. We have to give students time to work up to a rhythm. Ralph Fletcher calls this the "flow zone". It takes time to get into a "flow zone".

Students need to write on topics of their own choosing. 
It is this third belief that gets the most resistance from teachers. Students choose their own topics for writing. Yes, I said it and it is as simple as that. You let kids choose. Do they want to write about when they fell off their bike and had a bloody knee? Do they want to write about going to the grocery store with their mom? Do they want to write about their uncle who just left for Afghanistan? Or maybe there is a student who has a story to tell about the snake they found in their flower bed.  Kids will WANT to write when they have choice about what to write.

Many teachers have just never given students a chance to write on topics of their own choosing and then they get all worried that students won't know what to write about! I have two thoughts about those fears.

1. If you don't think students will know what to write about, then TEACH it! We need to TEACH into the work that writers will be doing if they are expected to choose their own topics.  We need to have conversations and lessons that help students realize that stories come from their lives. We need to write our own stories from our life in front of them. We need to have a classroom community of writers where students talk about topics, share their writing with one another and are always on the lookout for the next writing topic. We are always available as the writing teacher to make suggestions for students who are truly stuck and can't think of an idea. However, it is our last resort rather than our first step.

2. Saying that students won't know what to write about if they are not given a prompt... I think that is an example of not giving students enough credit.  How do we know they can't if we don't give them a chance?  What are we scared of? Do we enjoy reading every student's writing about their favorite person? Do we jump for joy as a profession when we see 22+ papers about things they like to do in the fall?  I sure don't. That writing is bland and boring and it's because students don't have any interest in topics their teacher has chosen for them.  Real writers choose their topics- look what I just did on this blog post today!

I can't put enough emphasis or heart into these black and white words on this post- all I can say- is give it a try! What have you got to lose? Give your students a voice by letting them write about what is real, and important, and happening in their life. I promise you that you'll learn things about your students you never knew before and things that you will never learn if you keep getting 22+ papers about a place they'd like to go.

If you are still crossing your arms and scowling over this idea (some of you still are- and that's OK), it may be because you are thinking that your students are tested and given a prompt so as a teacher you have to give them prompts so they will be ready. Katie Wood Ray calls that, "teaching testing, not teaching writing!"  We do have standards that require students to write in specific genres- the Common Core State Standards refer to these as types of writing. Great. We will teach those types of writing. We will have all of our students write persuasive text- we will have min-lessons about what is important to know about persuasive writing- we will give kids extended time, every day to write, however 22+ students will not all be writing a persuasive letter to the principal for longer recess. One student might choose that for a topic and another is writing to persuade his parents to get him a set of golf clubs, or to take him to Disney World, or to get a new dog. Students write on topics of their own choosing under the umbrella of a type of writing that is under study.

I'm just Melissa Leach... these are just my humble thoughts of which I am very convicted.  I haven't written a book (though I want to) so let me leave you with some thoughts from my writing mentors.

By definition, writing is about having something to say, and it is the writer's right to decide what this will be, to decide what she wants to say. At the very heart of writing well is personal topic selection. Topic selection in writing is also rigorous curriculum; it's what writers out in the world really have to do. If our students seem to struggle when it comes to selecting meaningful topics for writing, we might think about offering them more curriculum (we teach them) about how writers go about this.

Katie Wood Ray 
The Writing Workshop: Working through the Hard Parts 
(And They're All Hard Parts) 

Choice leads to voice. Student choice is the crucial fuel that drives a healthy workshop.  Don't be surprised when kids decide to write about topics that don't fascinate you. Because their topics are self-generated, the writing workshop truly has a "kid" feel to it. It is flavored by the passions, voices, idiosyncrasies, media influences, and peculiar humor of kids. That's par for the course. When you come right down to it, it can't be your writing workshop. If you want it to be alive, truly alive, your kids have to feel that, in the most fundamental sense, the writing workshop belongs to them and it begins with choice of topics. 

Ralph Fletcher and JoAnn Portalupi
Writing Workshop: The Essential Guide



  1. Melissa!

    Thank you for posting this. I totally believe in your 3 beliefs in writing- frequency, time, and choice. I am so glad to have your insights at hand!

    I love the gentle reminder to TEACH students how to come up with ideas! After all, that's what a writer's notebook is for in the first place!

    My classroom is living proof that when students get to choose what they are writing about: THEY WRITE! My first graders live full and rich lives for writing topics- and a majority come from low socioeconomic backgrounds.

    And you are right about learning more about your students. I have learned SO much these past 24 days of writing- favorite restaurants, paper airplane obstacle courses, ninja turtles, and playing baseball with dad. I love it!

    "Choice leads to voice" Well said Mr. Fletcher.

    I am totally on board with this. I plan on sharing your link with fellow teachers :)

    PS You should TOTALLY write a book!

  2. How 'bout this:
    Let your students choose their own topic when they write *because it works*! It just does.

    But, thank YOU, Leach, for these infinitely more persuasive reasons!


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