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I have long been a proponent of seeking ways to allow for student choice and voice when it comes to writing. It was the topic of one of the first posts on this blog and something that I’ve returned to over the years (like here and here).

I think this interest in choice and voice has a lot to do with my own experiences as a student and how the effort that I put into writing tended to oscillate like a kite on a gusty day. Give me a topic where I had some room to write about things of interest in my own voice and my effort and writing would generally soar like it was caught in an updraft. More than once on these occasions I would ask my teachers if the page maximum was firm or more of a suggestion.

But give me a topic that I found stifling or disinteresting and my energy would deflate, plunging my effort downwards towards the earth. Often in these situations I found myself spending more time figuring out how much I had to do for this paper than on the paper itself.

I have seen similar situations in my classroom more times than I can count, and I tend to look at this issue using the Expectancy/Value Theory of Motivation (see below), which states that motivation generally comes from a combination of the value we assign to something multiplied by our belief concerning how likely we are to succeed.

Taken from The Motivate Lab at the University of Virginia

For many students, restrictive essay prompts and structures can feel pointless, and according to this theory, when something feels pointless, all of the careful instruction and scaffolding in the world likely won’t lead to dramatic student interest or investment (as anything multiplied by 0 is still 0).

Tom Newkirk’s new book Writing Unbound (one of my six books of the summer), is in many ways an exploration of this. He spends the first third of the book exploring the value students do or do not assign to many types of “school writing,” accompanied by an argument that a way to increase the value students assign to writing in school is to offer more choice or what he calls “open space.” After interviewing a series of student writers, Newkirk concludes that:

“A central theme in almost all the interviews was a craving for open space–unrestricted by formula, rubric, grading, comparison to other students, or the limitation of stubborn factuality.”

Tom Newkirk in Writing Unbound, pg. 44

When I think on the assignments that filled my kite while I was in school, the amount of open space to explore topics and my own voice played a huge role. This makes a lot of sense because we all want open space to pursue the things we value, and adolescents in particular are predisposed to seek things that connect to their rapidly growing sense of self.

Where the trouble with this suggestion for more open space comes in is that as teachers we also have content to cover, skills to teach, and often rubrics and standards we must hit too. This tension between the power of open space and the needs of curriculum lies at the center of a great many writing instruction debates, ranging from disagreements over rubrics to whether to teach the five paragraph essay, and it is far and away the biggest issue I hear about from teachers when I bring up the idea of choice and voice in the classroom.

Up until the pandemic, my approach to managing that tension was, for larger papers, giving students choice within a genre. When we did a research paper or a literary analysis essay, the students could research or argue whatever they wanted and in whatever voice they felt appropriate. This allowed students the space to pursue high interest topics in authentic ways while the walls of a genre gave me a defined space to teach the skills and concepts in my curriculum, and for years this approach undoubtedly led to far better papers than I ever got when my papers were built solely around writing prompts that I, as the teacher, found interesting.

During the first weeks of the pandemic though, in an effort to keep kids engaged when we weren’t even synchronously meeting, I allowed students to design their own curriculum and the results were one of the biggest pedagogical surprises I’ve experienced in many years. The turn-in rate was more than I’d seen all semester, and many students did their best work of the year, even as the world was falling to pieces around them.

Over the following summer I kept thinking about how some students blossomed when given so much open space and I wondering how I could do something similar while still maintaining my curriculum. And then, right before the start of school, I found my answer in Gholdy Muhammad’s book Cultivating Genius, which she begins with a quote from nearly 200 years ago by the thinker, business leader, and social activist James Forten:

“I conceive our Literary Institutions to have the power of doing. It seems to me, then, that the main object is to accomplish an intellectual and moral reformation. And I know of but few better ways to effect this than by reading, by examine, by close comparisons and thorough investigations, by exercising the great faculty of thinking; for, if a man can be brought to think, he soon discovers that his highest enjoyment consists in the improvement of the mind; it is this that will give him rich ideas, and teach him, also, that his limbs were never made to wear the chains of servitude; he will see too that equal rights were intended to all.”

James Forten in 1837, as quoted in Cultivating Genius

In this quote, Forten was speaking to the need for Black literary societies at the time, but in doing so he also asks a question that is both simple and also revolutionary, a question too rarely asked because it might seem self-explanatory: What is the purpose of learning to read and write?

And Forten’s response is that it should do something, or more specifically, change a person for the better.

In that moment, Forten put into words what the early pandemic experience had taught me about how to add more open space for choice and voice while still keeping my curriculum. Instead of organizing my writing curriculum around genres, I could organize it around what reading and writing can help us to do.

Now, I recognize that this might sound a bit abstract, so here is what it looked like in action last year:

We Started With Forten’s Question

At the start of the year, I shared James Forten’s question about the purpose of reading and writing, and each class brainstormed a list for why we study literacy. The answers varied somewhat by class, but what was really cool was that all of my classes ended up with a list very similar to the list that Muhammad advocates for in Cultivating Genius (which I shared with students after our discussion):

  1. Literacy can be used to understand and develop one’s identity.
  2. Literacy can be used to build reading, writing, and thinking skills.
  3. Literacy can be used to grow in one’s intellect and understanding of the world.
  4. Literacy can be used to grow in one’s criticality, which is the ability to understand injustice and use literacy in the pursuit of building a better world.

The Curriculum Was Organized by Tools, Not Genre

I then organized the curriculum around things that we can do with literacy skills. For example, as we read narratives and worked on our New York Times Narrative Contests (the first quarter curriculum), we focused the lessons, not solely on narrative, but on tools that writers can use to make us care. Among the early lessons were many lessons I’ve long done in connection with narrative, like imagery, dialogue, and the purposeful omission of information to create tension. But to these tools, I also added lessons more commonly associated with other genres. For example, we discussed…

  • How Kiese Laymon uses flash fiction dream sequences to augment the non-fiction in his narrative where he compares his grandmother to the rap duo Outkast.
  • How the New York Times piece “Snowfall” interweaves deep historical and scientific research and Robert Frost levels of metaphors and similes with the narrative it tells.

As the year continued, each unit followed this form and investigated something else we could do with our literacy skills: How we can change hearts and minds, how we can use language to connect, and how we can come across as credible and others will want to listen to. As we did this, we also kept looping back to skills from previous units, with the regularly-stated goal that our instruction was meant to build an ever-expanding library of skills and tools that can help us in life, as opposed to stand-alone, genre-specific tools and skills that can help us on this specific paper.

The Larger Papers Student Constructed From the Ground Up

Then, to tie it all together, the larger midterm and semester papers began with a reminder of Forten’s quote and their answers, followed by an invitation to design their own papers or pieces that accomplished one or more of the goals we set. Being a midterm/final, they also had to weave in at least two readings from class, but everything else–the topic, structure, and genre (or preferably genres)–was entirely up to them. Here is what my midterm looked like:

This approach might feel too open (it certainly did for me at first), but, as is often the way when we commit to trusting our students, the papers I got far surpassed what I have ever seen before. A few that come to mind as I sit here include:

  • A podcast where a student used both his choice reading book (No-No Boy) and book circle book (The Kite Runner) to process the spike in AAPI discrimination and hate crimes last year.
  • A piece of fan fiction where the student purposefully blended the specific writing moves and themes from pieces we read in class with the writing moves and themes from his favorite manga (and annotated those moves and reflected on how they were different and better than his normal writing).
  • A philosophical self-examination where a student processed the pieces (both choice and whole-class) that did and didn’t interest her throughout the semester as a way to think about what she should read next and how she could stay motivated in class even when the texts aren’t her favorite.
  • A personal history where a student told her history with language and African American Vernacular English (AAVE) both in and out of school and used it and Their Eyes Were Watching God to make an argument about how schools and society should approach AAVE and dialects differently.

Of course, this being a new approach, there were plenty of bumps along the way, and I learned some important lessons like the following:

  • This task is just too open for many students to do cold. The key to avoiding a lot of blank looks and pages when this is introduced is to have lots of small and medium-sized writing assignments over the course of the quarter that can act as seeds from which these papers can germinate. Further, providing a list of potential options like I do in the assignment can help students who need a bit more structure.
  • Having mentor texts that showcase a wide assortment of approaches, and especially mentor texts that look like the suggestions for potential topics, is equally important.
  • I also highly recommend using a proposal process similar to what Troy Hicks and Andy Schoenborn describe in Creating Confident Writers (discussed in this article here) where the students lay out in detail what their vision is before starting. This will help to both find out who is struggling with the openness and avoid any papers that might not met the criteria before too much is written.

In the end thought, Rebekah O’Dell, author of the new book A Teacher’s Guide to Mentor Texts, which advocates many similar ideas and offers many useful tools and mentor texts for this type of instruction, captured it well when she tweeted this last spring:

What she describes here–the excitement, the brilliance, and the thoughtful blending of skills, which is indicative of much deeper understanding–is exactly what I found with this approach last year. While giving this much open space for choice and voice might seem on the surface like a sure-fire way to create gaps, I found the opposite to be true. When students understand what the content of our classes will help them to do and then have lots of opportunities to use that content to do varied, organic tasks, I found far more students learned far more lessons at a far deeper level!

I’ll be back next week with more on this approach and the deeper idea of transfer behind it, but in the meantime thanks for reading!

Yours in teaching,

Matt

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