Teachers and Writing Topics

A teacher laments how students struggle to think of topics for their writing. ‘They never seem to come up with much, they can't think for themselves, so that’s why I have to give them sentence starters.’ The words jar in my ears. 

I have had this kind of exchange numerous times over the years...

Teachers coming from this paradigm frequently ask. ‘Could you demonstrate how writers get their ideas?’ I find myself wondering if the teacher has ever considered this same question?

I get the distinct feeling I am expected to fix these young writers in some way. I feel strongly that the answers lie elsewhere. Had any inquiry taken place? Had those young writers been asked to explore this same idea? Had they been asked- what makes a good idea for writing? Where do writers find ideas? How do they prevent ideas from drifting away?

Demonstrating and modelling how we connect to the world around us is a vital lesson for our students. We need to demonstrate how we see the potential in things for writing each and every day. We need to demonstrate how we harvest ideas and how we excavate memories. Listing, brainstorming, discussing, questioning, wondering, sketching, mapping, musing, and taking note all form part of that critical pre-writing part of the process we need to share. This is where thinking gets its spark. Ownership of ideas begins to flourish. We stop telling kids and begins to nourish their thinking around potential writing ideas. Energy returns to the writing classroom.

 If we teach with expectation that lacks support for thinking and linking, ideas will find it difficult to flourish. Instead of a brainstorm, we’ll be lucky to get ‘isolated drizzle!’ If writing is a magic act we need to take our students back stage and show the tricks that are hidden up the magician's sleeve.

Nothing influences a child’s attitude to writing more than the choice of topic. If the child has chosen it and if the teacher shows genuine interest in it, then there’s often no limit to the effort the child will make. Young writers who are given this power become confident in choosing topics for themselves. 

I compare this with the approach of my own fifth grade teacher who owned the topics we wrote about. She merely threw them at us each Thursday afternoon. There was little confidence building in that approach. It did, no doubt influence the attitude of many of those students in the opposite direction to writing. When the teacher owns the topic then rehearsal and essential thinking prior to writing cannot take place.  Cognition will not take place where the young writer perceives the notion of topics resides solely with the teacher.


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