Unbolted: Advocating for student choice in writing

Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind. --Virginia Woolf

As Language Arts teachers, one of our main goals is to help our students become better writers. We give students the same writing assignment because it seems more manageable and makes the content easier to cover. But what if we saw what students can do when given choices? What if we saw an increase in engagement, a sense of professionalism, and a sense of ownership that accompanies writing the paper? And what if we could make a real difference in reading comprehension and in enhancing students' use of explanation and evidence all at the same time? It all begins with a simple phrase. . ."I wonder".

My journey with student choice in writing began with giving students freedom to ask anything they were wondering about. Sounds scary, right? It turned out to be the biggest turn in my teaching I have ever experienced. Take a look below at the "wondering" generated by just 2 class periods:

A sample of student writing from an "I Wonder" speech:

Student Wonder: What is the best way to train a rescue dog?

For more examples of "I Wonder" speech paragraphs, click here: https://sites.google.com/boyle.kyschools.us/student-choice-in-writing/home

To see steps for the "I Wonder" speech, click here: https://sites.google.com/boyle.kyschools.us/student-choice-in-writing/i-wonder-speech-steps

So what were the obstacles?

Providing student choice in writing is akin to watching a child play in a mud puddle. It is freeing, and it is exciting, but boy is it also messy!

One of the biggest problems I encountered during the "I Wonder" speech was when students were clearly not performing close reading when researching to answer their questions. This was a problem that had to be cleared up before the next venture into student choice, especially since I was now expanding student choice to all of my classes. This next assignment was an argumentative piece. To promote collaboration, my co-teacher and I, Mrs. Schuhmann, designed it so students would work in groups to choose from a list of topics, come up with a number of driving questions, and then choose one question as a group. So, it was back to the drawing board to scaffold a step to ensure students were building the foundation they needed to clearly explain what they wanted the reader to understand. When I talked with my special education teacher, Mrs. Mayes, we decided to create a blog where students answered questions to guide them through close reading of a text for their driving question. Creating blogs was an area of expertise for Mrs. Mayes . She even knew how to group students within the blog site so they could see other students' blogs on similar topics and comment on them. Mrs. Seals, another special education teacher in my classroom, made a list of websites with accessible articles to help those students who we thought might struggle with finding their own articles.

Information students were required to include in their blogs.
Student blog: Why students should have shop class at school.
Example of student collaboration in blog site.

After the blogging activity, I noticed students often wrote more in-depth body paragraphs and were using evidence that fully supported their topic sentences. It is important to note those students who all received the same writing prompt at the beginning of the school year (a speech on how to deal with a bully) showed growth by providing better support and more explanation when they were given the opportunity to choose their own writing focus.

An example of a student paragraph BEFORE and then AFTER we created and used the blogging activity:

BEFORE

Some people don’t like others do freedom of speech it because it bothers them.They think they shouldn’t be in this problem so they want it to stop by not letting others do freedom of speech.Michael Brenner,professor of international affairs,said in his article that some people concern about the communication.”speech aimed at an audience with some degree of intention to influence how they think and potentially might act”that was also what he said in his article.In this paragraph we talked about why peopel don’t like others from doing freedom of speech.

AFTER

Have you ever thought that people that kill dogs can lead to worse like murdering humans. Jeffrey Dahmer A serial killer who also killed dogs, cats, and other animals was known for killing. He started when he was a kid and that lead up to murdering people. The FBI has known for a few decades that animal abusers have a strong link to violence to other humans. They’ve known other people beside jeffrey dahmer like patrick sherrill,who had history of dog fighting who later killed 14 coworkers.Then there's Carroll Edward Cole who murdered 35 people, strangled a puppy when he was young. All this people started with abusing or killing a animal when they were younger. This is why people who hurt animals should be put in jail longer so they don’t do worse stuff liking murdering humans.

For more examples of student work before/after blogging, click here:https://sites.google.com/boyle.kyschools.us/student-choice-in-writing/student-writing-beforeafter-blogging

For pie charts related to blogging, click here:https://sites.google.com/boyle.kyschools.us/student-choice-in-writing/blogging-pie-charts

To see steps for the argumentative piece, click here: https://sites.google.com/boyle.kyschools.us/student-choice-in-writing/argumentative-writing-piece-steps

Lessons Learned

It all begins with a driving question. I never had success when I tried to have students write on a "topic". There has to be more focus provided. Check out this website: http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/sept10/vol68/num01/Choice-Is-a-Matter-of-Degree.aspx

This link is to an article that discusses the importance of a driving question, which became a central focal point in my classroom.

This second link provides a process for guiding students to formulate their own strong driving question.

http://www.ibmidatlantic.org/Experiencing-the-QFT.pdf

Lessons Learned

Students will sometimes grow frustrated with their driving question. I tried to push students to persevere if I thought it was a question they could be successful with, but if it's just not working, don't be afraid to exercise flexibility. Sometimes this will require a heart-to-heart with individual students where you help them find something they will truly love to write about.

Lessons Learned:

Providing student choice in writing is a collaborative effort. I worked with my co-teacher, my special education teachers, our learning specialist, our district writing specialist, and members of my CTEPS team. Together, we made this endeavor a success.

Together, we worked to place the pieces of the puzzle that is providing student choice in the classroom.

Perhaps the strongest evidence of meeting a need lies within the students' own words:

Student comments from my first two classes where I tried the "I Wonder" Speech.
Student comments from my co-teaching classes, when I first gave them student choice in choosing their driving question.

For more student interviews, click here:https://sites.google.com/boyle.kyschools.us/student-choice-in-writing/student-interviews

Next Steps? After seeing the power of student choice in writing, my next venture will involve working to provide more student choice in reading. Right now the path is not completely clear, but I'll pluck the weeds and clear the dust along the way.

Credits:

Created with images by Skitterphoto - "lightening struck bolt" • TeroVesalainen - "thought idea innovation" • edgygrrrl - "Mud puddle" • 99pixel - "puddle boots child" • webandi - "post it note office" • 422737 - "tube tunnel vision uncertainty" • stahrdust3 - "11/365" • ChrisL_AK - "Collaboration" • Matt Perich - "Puzzling" • Couleur - "stairs stone steps clumping stone rise forest"

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