I had a student who researched farts.
I had a student who researched farts, and I encouraged it.
My students engage in a writer’s workshop unit that takes them through the entire research process from beginning to end. We talk about creating research questions based on our curiosity. We talk about taking our research from sources we deem credible. What we don’t talk about, however, are the topics that are available to choose from.
In any given class period, my student researching farts could be writing next to a student researching unicorns, who is writing next to a student researching pizza, who is writing next to a student researching biomedical engineering. Students, filled with curiosity unique to their own diverse interests, are engaging themselves in the writing process.
Every year, this diversity of topics astounds me and continues to strengthen my dedication to preserving student choice in my writer’s workshop.
Choice creates authentic curiosity
As writers, we know that unless we are genuinely interested in a topic, it can be very difficult to muster up and maintain the motivation to remain engaged in the writing process from beginning to end.
With the transition to Common Core State Standards many of are making in our classrooms, however, it can be tempting as a teacher to guide my students down a singular narrowed path to ensure the product produced clearly and cleanly meets the necessary standards. Providing students with topics to research or sources to use, for example, could guarantee similar depth of analysis or use of organizational structures. I’ll admit it: I’ve thought about it.
However without authentic curiosity—something I cannot recreate even with the most meticulously planned lesson or project—students will never feel ownership over their writing process. And without that ownership, my students won’t easily see how they can transfer these same skills to other content areas and aspects of their lives as true writers.
Now, the reality is that some topics just won’t work. The teacher in me always wants to immediately discourage the student who wants to research whether or not ghosts are real. However, a week or two in the process when that student tells me she changed her topic because she realized she could find no reliable sources with clear answers makes biting my tongue seem more than worthwhile. That student learned a valuable lesson in researching—a lesson that would never have been as strong if I had forced her to abandon her curiosity right away.
Choice let’s our voices be heard
As a writer, I know the value of having an opportunity to share my voice with my writing. While most elementary students usually have no problem sharing their voice loudly on the playground or in the hallway, I want my students to experience the power their voice can have when they have carefully crafted it on paper. I want them to feel what it is like to make a difference when their voices—their interests, experiences, and beliefs—are truly heard through their writing.
One student was followed into the hallway by a crowd of classmates, asking for more information about the dangers of MSG in processed food. Another student, after reading her argument on the need for cell phones for kids, looked up to see ten hands of students requesting copies to give to their parents as well. And I have seen a group of students band together to write letters to our principal regarding changes they wanted to see in our school rules.
With choice, author’s chair transforms from just another a dreaded presentation into an opportunity for students to learn about one another in a safe and exciting environment, an opportunity to connect with others in ways they might not otherwise know, an opportunity to make a difference in their communities and beyond.
Choice creates mess
Writer’s workshop can be messy. In fact, when my workshop isn’t filled with at least a little bit of mess, I become concerned. At any given time, I am faced with a class full of students, each with their own ideas, strengths, and challenges to overcome. They all need different things to strengthen their writing, yet they all deserve to be constantly growing as writers. While my student researching farts was trying to determine a thesis that would bring his research of farts, burps, and yawns together, another student was brainstorming interview questions to email a television host, and yet another was learning how to take notes from a YouTube video on his favorite musician. This undoubtedly leads to productive chaos: students working towards learning targets at their own paces and in their own ways. It took me a while to see this mess as a sign that learning was taking place, just differentiated to meet the individual needs of my student writers.
Pressure to streamline writing projects to meet the Standards quickly and neatly will likely always exist. However, I am confident that preserving choice in my writer’s workshop will undoubtedly foster creativity in my students that will inspire them to take ownership over the writing process, share their voices, and learn and grow as writers…There just may be a little mess and some farts along the way.