Dear Sarah,

What strategies do you use to encourage student ownership and choice in writing assignments?

Sincerely,

Encouraging Student Writers

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Dear Encouraging Student Writers,

Do you know the first thing I love about this question? It means you already know ownership in learning comes from choice. It means you’ve already discovered there must be something more in your students than what you’re seeing on the page or in their work. Believe me. I can empathize.

I have these memories, like splashes of cold water on my face, where I realized a dissonance between the people in my classroom and the students I was encountering in the lines of their papers and assignments. In person, I would laugh at their humor, be compelled by their passion and revel in their wit. Then I would read the papers they submitted. Dull. Lifeless. Robotic. They followed the formula I gave them and I got exactly what I asked for: sentences like placeholders, leaving the writing empty, the kids bored and the teacher exhausted from 150 executed copies of her own great outline.

Yet, for awhile, I didn’t know what to do differently. This was how I had been taught to write. This is what I saw on graphic organizers and in resource and strategy binders. I was able to ignore the cold water because there were bright spots: those students who accidentally or rebelliously wrote outside of the formula and into something beautiful. I could recognize those moments, describe them, celebrate them. But I didn’t know how to teach anyone else to do it too. Finally, the incongruence between potential and reality was too painful and I got serious about student ownership. Here are some of my first steps in this ongoing journey to encouraging voice and choice in student writing.

I decided to become a writer. It’s not that I set out to make a career of writing, but I realized I kept falling short when I tried to talk to students about writing because I wasn’t practicing it myself. I wasn’t in touch with the frustration of getting stuck after the first sentence or the feeling of helplessness when no ideas were surfacing. For certain, I could grade the results of those setbacks, but just as certainly I couldn’t teach anyone out of the stalemate either. I had to suffer my way to wisdom in order to become a writing teacher. Even then, there was still humility to be learned.

I did my own assignments. Enter humble pie, wherein the eating I learned the difference between teaching writing and teaching writers. I quickly found myself bored by my own prompts. Sometimes they didn’t make sense and often my own outlines (that I’d crafted with a teacher’s mindset instead of a writer’s) were insufficient and suffocating. There were times I lost my voice to fulfilling requirements and it was really, really hard to care when the best ideas in my head didn’t seem to fit the checkboxes I had created.

So I started to make some new rules for myself.

  • Don’t give an assignment you wouldn’t run home to do yourself.
  • Don’t assume you know more than the writers have yet to discover.
  • Don’t give an assignment where 150 versions of the same paragraphs are imminent.  
  • Don’t let a rubric grade a paper. As a writer, instead, respond to it.

This meant changes.

I cleared space and made concessions with myself. I couldn’t cover as much content because it takes time to let others think for themselves. I couldn’t privilege efficiency over efficacy and I had to be prepared for a lot of messy drafts whose purpose was to find the starting place instead of an answer. The goal couldn’t be quick compliance; rather, it had to be a slow discovery. There was a lot to let go of beyond the content I could cover. I had to let go of the belief that word counts or numbers of paragraphs were sure signs of effective writing.

I gave taught permission. It’s interesting. Even now, when I give students permission to exercise choice and authority over their writing and thinking and learning, they are often afraid of it. They ask questions about points and grades. They are fearful of generating work without prescribed criteria or rubrics. In short, it’s more than giving students permission to choose writing topics, the books they read or the process they’re going to use to complete an academic challenge: I have to teach them how to learn without the apparatus and with options and uncertainty. It’s an angsty space, that’s for sure. One best confronted with a few concrete strategies I try to live by.

  • Avoid assignments that have “right” responses (or even a few “right” responses).
  • Always give real rationales and learning purposes. If I catch myself saying, “we’re doing this because it will be on the test” or “you’ll need this next year” I know the reason won’t be real and I’m undermining the ownership I’m trying to offer. Instead, we talk about how introductions are like doorways and memorable conclusions don’t restate or summarize, rather they reveal what we’ve learned from the rest of the writing. Instead of talking about an arbitrary number of note cards for research, we develop ways to keep track of how we immerse ourselves in meaningful research.
  • Audience is everything and if it’s me, then we just may be playing school instead of learning to write.

As long as I’m teaching I know I’ll be on this journey of figuring out how to be an effective teacher of writers. As I’m sure you’re already feeling: it requires a lot of uncertainty, few predictable lessons and a great deal of paying close attention to the people in the classroom. But if a writer’s voice is to be earned, then the road to student ownership is paved with choice. My student-writers have taught me that the quieter I am, the more clear their voices become.

And I think this is what your students will teach you too.

Teach openly,

Together with Teacher2Teacher

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