Providing Greater CHOICE for Student Writers
As a writer I never wake up and think, ‘Today I’ll write a persuasive essay!’ I know instinctively what kind of writing I am creating by engaging in the very act of composing words. If I’m writing an article for a magazine, the words ‘expository writing’ never enter my mind at the time of writing. Writers don’t think of their writing in such terms. Would you go to your local library and ask the librarian to guide you to the ‘procedural texts?’
Providing students with choice, promoting ownership, and helping students draw on their own experience, interests, inquiry, engages students as writers. It is important to recognize that not all students have to write with exactly the same purpose or for the same audience.
It seems we only talk about writing this way in ‘school world’ Curriculum documents and assessment guides abound with words like persuasive, procedural, and narrative. They are used to define writing instruction and such terms are rarely challenged. But, don't we want writing to be as individual as the creators of those words? Don't we want the product to be as unique as the person producing it?
For this reason young writers should be encouraged to write about topics they genuinely care about in ways that are of their choosing. Ralph Fletcher uses the term ‘significant subject’ to refer to such choices. The writer decides that they have something important and interesting to say about the subject or idea. In this scenario the teacher guides and supports the developing writers to make informed choices regarding the form and shape the writing takes.
Too often students write about issues and ideas they either know little about or care little about. They need guidance and support to find ideas that reside closer to the heart. Katie Wood poses the question that needs asking at this point, ‘What have I read in the world that is like what I am trying to write?
Many books are hybrid in nature. They employ a number of modes. When writing my book ‘Igniting Writing-When a Teacher Writes’ (2011) I employed a number of modes. Part of it is in a narrative mode where I use stories to illustrate certain situations. I also tell stories from my life. I actually use these stories to explain my writing life. I certainly devote a large portion of the book to writing in an expository mode as I explain and convey information considered important to the reader. Further to this I also engage in writing that is procedural, aims to persuade, or is descriptive. I write in these different modes to help me achieve my writing goals.
The problem that arises in schools is that we have narrowed the teaching of writing down. We have placed each genre into a compartment to simplify the concept of mode. We should encourage students to include whatever mode is important for them to include in the pieces of writing they do. Narrative, can be used in writing most anything and is a very effective tool for building a reader’s interest in all kinds of writing. When we show our students pieces of writing we believe qualify as exemplary we should ask:
‘What is the writer doing here to convey a message?
‘Have you read other pieces that look and sound like this?’
Have you read a different kind of text on the same subject or theme?
‘What are you noticing that the writer is doing that you wish you could do?’
‘Why would an author do something like that?’
I recently found these pertinent comments from a fellow blogger on the subject of choice and genre:
‘I want children who do not shy away from writing, children who hear it is time for writing workshop and get excited, a time of day where they can be themselves, share a message, tell their story – in whatever way they wish. I think about how we teach reading. Children read books that are appropriate for them; books that are ‘just right’ and that they are interested in. We don’t dictate genres in reading, should we in writing? I hear a lot about what we want the students to write, what we think they should write, what genres they ‘need’ to write. I don’t hear us asking, let alone listening to the kids – finding out what type of writing they want to do. We claim there is choice…but are we really providing choice?’
Let's Not Forget:
When students write about issues, needs, problems, or subjects they find important and relevant to them as writers, we improve the odds for their engagement, as well as the likelihood that they will strive to write well. Under the teacher’s guidance, students often conduct inquiry into matters of interest to them, generating ideas and questions and analyzing problems and issues. From such inquiry, students develop writing to communicate their ideas for different purposes and audiences and in different forms.