Why is it so important to give students choice in writing? How do I handle that? These questions are those asked by many teachers, and asking them is the first step in implementing effective writing instruction. The easiest answer to the Why is BECAUSE IT WORKS, but I'll say more than that:)
However, before I move into our questions, I would like to address the idea of using prompts. Since they do not allow for choice in writing, they are not a best practice for use in Writer's Workshop, but that doesn't mean they should not be used. Prompts are still something to utilize for reading response, where students are thinking about their reading, and practicing the strategy of answering a question. They could also be used in a writing center. My thoughts on this practice, though, is to be sure to think of how interesting the prompts are to students, and how often they are choosing them in the center, as well as whether or not they are successful with their responses.
Student choice is one of the top priorities of experts when speaking of writing instruction. When students have choice of topic, strategies, and pace, they are allowed to explore more of their interests, ideas and abilities. When students are limited to topic, they are forced to work on something on which they may be lacking interest, which inhibits motivation. Just think of a particular writing prompt you may have given your students for journaling or a writing center (about their favorite sport lets say) where the ones who play sports had much to write, and students who don't enjoy them had nothing to say. This, then, is not a good topic for every student.
When students are limited to a certain pace of writing, where everyone is working on the same part or step in the process at once, they may either be pushed too far ahead, or held back from what they are able to accomplish on their own. Imagine having to try a new kind of ending for your piece when you are stuck on the details, or, having to wait to write the next paragraph when you have an exciting new detail just waiting to be written! Pace not only has to do with how quickly students move on to the next part of their piece, but also with how often they are writing drafts of pieces. In K-2, students should be writing several books/pages per day, moving in and out of different pieces. This also speaks to the volume of writing students are producing, but that is for another post;) When the pace at which a student works is decided upon by them, it allows them to concentrate on what they need, when they are ready for it.
Now, the complicated part- the How! When teachers are most comfortable with the class working "together" on one topic, and keeping each student on pace in their work, it feels like a huge change to switch to student-centered, choice-driven writing instruction. How are you able to manage so many different topics, and so many different stages of writing, or pieces of writing for that matter? Fear not, for I am here to tell you, that it is not as difficult as it may seem!
I think the most helpful idea to consider is one you will hear over and over again when learning about adopting the Writer's Workshop model......"Teach the writer, not the writing". This is one of Lucy Calkins' most well-known quotes about writing instruction, and in my humble opinion, weaves its way into every aspect of instruction. This idea allows you to let go of the need for "perfect" writing pieces, the thought of seeing everything that every child has written, and the worry that students haven't learned everything there is to learn about the type of writing you are teaching. That is all ok. Your job as a teacher of writing, just as it is as a teacher of reading, is to help each student grow as much as possible. We meet each student where they are, and move them up the ladder of success.
So, if you are now focused on teaching the writer, and thinking of the goals each child has for areas of improvement, then you know that each piece is simply the vehicle through which the student's writing ability grows. The piece of writing is no longer the "end all, be all". Now, you are able to allow for students to move on, or slow down, their process, knowing that it is the student you are helping, not the piece. And, if you are allowing for students to write without being confined to a class "timeline" you are able to see the child's understanding of structure and organization in each piece. You don't need to see the work they do every day, worrying that it's not "correct". After they have learned new strategies and worked on their goals, they will choose the best piece of writing they have, to show off all they have learned.
If you are now focused on the writer, and allowing their choices to guide their topics, you are able to see where they need help in generating or elaborating on ideas, and will have much more success in cultivating growth in their skills, than if every student is stuck using the same topic. Their ability to not only choose the topic itself, but to also decide when their topic, or piece, isn't working, are so powerful in allowing for more quality and volume of writing.
If you are now focused on the writer, you will begin to see what your students know, what the are not yet able to do, and, what they are. You will feel as though you are actually teaching them what they need to be successful, and, so much more importantly, will see them enjoy the art of writing. The choice you make to allow for student choice, will make all the difference in the amazing growth you will see if your students.
Now that you have taken the first step in asking the questions, make the next step and allow yourself to.... teach the writer! I promise, it will be a game changer!
The choice is yours:)