The Quest For Independence Among Student Writers

The Quest Continues

When I find myself working in a classroom where student writers are openly encouraged to think for themselves and to make their own writing decisions, it's hard not to smile. The writing of such students is invariably wide ranging and exciting. Their engagement is clearly heightened. The classroom seems to hum with possibility. There is demonstrable energy in the learning space.

As I move about I see student writers choosing not only their topics, but also the preferred genre for their writing. They appear more fully engaged in matching their words to the needs of their readers. They exhibit an authentic sense of purpose and genuine ownership of the writing tasks they have chosen. When you talk with them, they articulate the reasons guiding their actions. These writers are supported in informed decisions. This is most evident.

Each writer appears to know what they want to work on and how to approach their own particular writing challenge or project. Workshop time has been invested in identifying the purpose of their writing. Every young writer has been afforded an opportunity to talk about their writing intentions with a partner. They have been encouraged to narrow the gap between their intentions and actions

In such classrooms self-direction is being actively nurtured. The teaching of craft sits comfortably alongside independent action. The teacher works with groups and individuals with assurance. These young writers are being actively supported to believe- writers make decisions. The work of the teacher is mindful, explicit and effective. 

Young writers do not achieve this state of being because teachers merely get out of their way. They achieve self-direction because teachers actively support and nurture student growth towards independence. There is a defined objective to the teaching being undertaken. 

For Independent writing to be true in name, students need to be trusted to choose topic and genre and provided with support to grow into self-directed writers. It is not –independent writing when students ask questions such as- “Is it okay to write about…?’ or, ‘How much should I write about…

It would truly make my heart sing if classrooms actively nurturing self-directed writers were commonplace, but at this point of time, unfortunately, that is not the case.

When teachers choose to control topic and genre, they deny students choice. They silence voice and they shut down the essential element of rehearsal. In these scenarios teachers control just about every aspect of the writing process. Students wait for directives. This is teaching directed towards what to write, rather than how to write.

This need to control may have it origins in the teacher's own writing history. Their actions may be based on what they know, or don't know about writing. They may well be teaching writing they way they were taught. Their teaching over emphasises the surface features of a text. They may apply a model of 'correction' to the writing. Their focus is almost entirely on the writing, not the writer. Such approaches don't encourage brave actions on the part of student writers.

It is natural for teachers to want student writers to make progress. Unfortunately, it occasionally leads them to wrest control of writing away from students. The teacher exerts control over 'writing' in the manner of a dog latching onto a bone. In this scene we frequently witness a failure to thrive on the part of the writer. 

Control can also grow out of anxiety or an unwillingness to trust the learner. Such approaches were common place during my own student days. I have met far too many educators wedded to such approaches during my long teaching career. Sadly, such approaches unwittingly prove counter-productive. They embed dependency. They also inhibit initiative, reflection and intellectual growth. They certainly don't promote ownership and responsibility.

Brave writers

Every time I work with young writers I talk about the need for each of us to become brave writers. -Writers who are fearless. Writers unafraid of words and ideas. Writers prepared to experiment and explore thoughts and ideas. We celebrate problems solved and discoveries made in the course of our writing. Writing is essentially a problem solving activity. Therefore the role of the teacher is to assist the inexperienced writer to solve matters surrounding spelling, punctuation, sentence structure and writing craft by walking them through their own writing life. They must reveal their own thinking and actions.

I always figure if I'm brave, it gives a less experienced writer the confidence to move closer to the edge with their own writing. 

Being brave as a student writer means using the word 'fettuccine' rather than 'pasta' because that accurately describes what you are eating. It means a writer uses 'plummet' rather than 'fall' to describe what happened to the kite they were holding. It means Victoria, a Grade 1 writer writing the word 'aquarium' even though she was unsure how to spell it, yet brave enough to commit her attempt to paper. We must celebrate such brave deeds with gusto! Such celebrations  have a way of encouraging brave deeds from sometimes unexpected corners of the classroom. 

I have no doubt brave young writers need brave teachers to support them. -Teachers who joyfully share their own reading and writing lives. I am pleased to report I see a growing army of brave teachers when working in schools. Teachers who are embracing the challenge, and joining their students on this important learning journey. Their actions are having an impact. They know it is easier to be a teacher of writing, if you are a writer who teaches.

Inexperienced writers need brave and bold teachers possessed with a fearless mind-set. Risk takers all. Teachers and writers!

 The quest therefore continues…


  1. Your timing is perfect, Allan! I was just writing about this very topic yesterday in my book draft. I was thinking a lot about the issue of control and how as a teacher, it is difficult to give up our control in writing when we maintain it in every other subject. I loved your post and am going to share it in my Teach Write Writing Round-Up this weekend. Thank you!

    1. My pleasure Jennifer. It has been on my mind of late too. Glad you found a connection in my thoughts and words. Thanks for dropping by. We must continually remind ourselves that the more we empower others, the more we are empowered too.


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