<img height="1" width="1" alt="" style="display:none" src="https://www.facebook.com/tr?id=940171109376247&amp;ev=PageView&amp;noscript=1">

Dedicated to Teachers


Offering Choice in the Writing Classroom

Red Center (14)

This week Kelly Boswell and Blake Williams discuss the impact of offering choice in the elementary writing classroom.

We are a culture that loves choice, and that goes for all ages. So offering choice in an elementary writing classroom is extremely powerful. Today, we will hear firsthand how making this small shift results in tremendous engagement. Join us for a discussion between Kelly Boswell, author of Every Kid a Writer, and Blake Williams, a second grade teacher in South Carolina.

 

 

Below is a transcript of this episode.

Kelly:

I think the other thing I would add about choice is, and in the book I do this often where I'm asking readers to reflect on their own lives as human beings and as writers. And we are a society that honors choice. I was recently in a Starbucks getting a coffee and listening to people ordering ahead of me, and we really like our choices and we want our coffee the way we want our coffee, and yet, sometimes, when students come to school, all the choices are stripped away and then we wonder why they're disengaged, why they have a tummy ache, or why they want to leave the classroom.

Edie:

Hi, this is Edie. Welcome back to the Heinemann podcast. We are a culture that loves choice and that goes for all ages. So offering choice in an elementary writing classroom is extremely powerful. Today, we will hear firsthand how making the small shift results in tremendous engagement. Join us for a discussion between Kelly Boswell, author of Every Kid a Writer, and Blake Williams, a second grade teacher in South Carolina.

Hi Kelly. Hi Blake. Thanks so much for joining us today.

Kelly:

Thanks for having us.

Blake:

Thank you. Thank you.

Edie:

My first question is for both of you and maybe Kelly, you could start us off. What are you seeing when kids are disengaged as writers? What does that look like in the classroom?

Kelly:

I think it depends on the classroom, but as I'm reflecting on my own classroom, there were several things I saw. A mad dash for the hall pass or the bathroom pass to simply get out of the room. Kids finding something in their desk interesting to look through or just slumping in their chair, disengaged. It often can sound like students saying, how long does this have to be or how long are we going to be writing? But a lot of it you're seeing with the body language and just a disengagement, a lack of enthusiasm and energy when they're approaching writing.

Edie:

Blake, same for you, similar. Is that what you're seeing?

Blake:

It is almost identical. A lot of the times, my students all of a sudden have the worst tummy aches they've ever had in their lives. The question I get a lot is, do we really have to do this? And they find anything to pay attention to other than the pencil and the paper and the lines on it.

Edie:

Kelly, you talk about in your book, one specific strategy you share involves offering choice, so I'd love to move from that, what disengagement looks like, to, this really specific strategy where I know both of you have seen offering choice, turn that around.

Kelly:

Yeah. I think when we see disengagement, I know for myself, I'm speaking for myself, it was often a temptation to blame the kids as if, what's wrong with them? Why aren't they enjoying this? I've worked so hard to plan this lesson. I've worked so hard to do this writing instruction, but it takes courage to step back and reflect on your own practice and your own instruction. I think one of the things I noticed as I did that work is my own students, when there was disengagement, it usually stemmed from not having choice or ownership in their own writing or learning. In other words, I had told them what to write about, what to write with, where to sit, what kind of paper, how long it needed to be, what it needed to look like, and then I was curious and chagrin to see that they weren't engaged.

So one of the things I noticed is that simple shift of giving kids more choice and ownership in their writing has huge payoffs, and that can be as simple as the choice of topic. So instead of saying, let's write a persuasive letter to the principal asking for an extra recess, instead, inviting students to think about their own lived experience, their own life and think, who is someone in my life that I want to write to and what do I want to convince them to do? That simple shift has big payoffs when it comes to engagement. Because students' lived experiences voice is honored, they're able to approach writing with much more energy and enthusiasm.

Edie:

And so I'd love to hear Blake, about this in your classroom, what have you noticed when it comes to students' writing and again, maybe a shift in that body language and engagement in the class when you do give choice and honor that student voice?

Blake:

A very, very smart person told me about four months ago that you always need to meet students where they are. Okay? And that means a lot to me just simply because of the way I was taught and the way that I was, I would say taught to teach I guess, is what I always thought you should do is here is your... Just much like Kelly said, here's your persuasive essay. Why does the principal need to give us another day of recess or another 15 minutes recess? Whatever it is.

Because in reality there may be three or four kids in a class of 15 to 16 that really want to write about that. So instead of me fighting a kid to try to get them to write about the five steps to make a sandwich, I could ask him or her to tell me how to do something that you want me to know about. The one thing I've noticed is it automatically builds comfort with the student because we're not asking them to do something they have never done. If it's something that they know and they care about, they always... It is 110% proven to me as a teacher that it is always, always higher quality work because they truthfully care about it.

Kelly:

I want to piggyback on that as well, Blake, because Don Graves, who's the father of so much of this work, said that a prompt often assumes a common experience that is not often shared. And so your idea of idea five steps to make a sandwich, there may be kids who are like, "I've never made a sandwich in my life." And when we have to come up with those prompts, and I did this as a classroom teacher as well, it's hard to know what's a prompt that's going to make a difference for these kids. But there isn't one prompt that will make a difference. That's why when you honor choice and voice, you honor their lived experience and their work is always going to be better because it's not assuming a common experience that is often not shared.

Blake:

Exactly. And what you just said is really, really important to me because we just assume. And say if it's Mother's Day, why is your mother important to you? Well, the unfortunate truth is there are young kindergarten, first, second, third, all the way to 12th grade, they do not have a mother figure. So if you ask them to write about it, it's an automatic, boom. That's something you don't want. Just me personally, I've made that mistake myself, and I was absolutely mortified.

Kelly:

I think a lot of teachers hear about choice and they think it's a free for all. Like, okay, today it's writing and you can make a graphic novel or you can make a poster or you can make an essay. I talk about this in the book that this is choice within structure, so we're still aligned to state and national standards. If I'm teaching students how to do a persuasive piece or an argumentative piece, the genre is not a choice, but the topic can be a choice. So even just giving them that choice of topic, you're going to see the energy and enthusiasm increase. I think another easy choice to implement is choice of writing paper. Just having different kinds of writing paper for kids to use, and then as kids get older and are more comfortable keyboarding, giving them the option of handwriting or writing on a computer, it doesn't have to always look the same way with the same paper for each kid.

Blake:

Even today, I am proud of myself today. When my kids were in my small groups and we were writing, they always see me writing with pens. I know they're in second grade, but it got them so excited to write with the pens that Mr. Williams writes with. And like you said, a choice can mean anything. I had a student in my class, last year actually, when I gave them a choice to write and I let him write about his favorite TV show. And thinking back now, after talking to Kelly over the last few months and learning from her, it automatically validates their interests because there is someone out there somewhere that told that kid that watching that TV show was not something that they needed to do, that is not something that matters to them. They need to go outside, they need to play sports, which as a coach, I fully advocate for sports.

Edie:

What do you coach?

Blake:

I coach football. I coach high school football.

Edie:

Oh, okay.

Blake:

Yes. And by me saying, "Buddy, you can write about whatever." I'm not exactly privy to. I can't remember what the TV show was, but I remember seeing that little boy's face completely light up because I am all the way certain that I'm the first person that ever asked him to tell me about the show that he goes at home and watches on Cartoon Network every day at 5:30 PM.

Kelly:

Yeah. I think the other thing I would add about choice is, and in the book I do this often, where I'm asking readers to reflect on their own lives as human beings and as writers, and we are a society that honors choice. I was recently in a Starbucks getting a coffee and listening to people ordering ahead of me, and we really like our choices and we want our coffee the way we want our coffee. And yet sometimes, when students come to school, all the choices are stripped away and then we wonder why they're disengaged. Why they have a tummy ache or why they want to leave the classroom.

When they feel that their voice is honored, when they feel that their interest and their lived experiences matter, it really creates that safe community as well, which isn't just a nice fluffy thing to think about, but what we know about the nervous system and neuroception, how we are getting cues of safety from our environment when our lived experiences, our TV shows that we watch, our opinions that we have are honored in a classroom, we know that the nervous system feels safe because they're feeling that sense of connection. And we know that when students' nervous systems are safe and when they're feeling that sense of connection, their prefrontal cortex is online and that's where they can problem solve, communicate, and learn.

So it's not just a fluffy, nice, warm, fuzzy idea to let kids choose their topics or choose where they want to sit or choose their writing utensil. By honoring them as humans, we're sending them a signal that they're safe and connected, which is then going to produce higher quality work because their prefrontal cortex is online. They're feeling safe and connected and seen, and I think we do a great disservice if we undervalue that in children.

Edie:

So Kelly, this all obviously sounds great, but how does this work when looking at state standards for writing?

Kelly:

I'm so glad you asked because that's a question I get a lot when I work with teachers and leaders around the country advocating for student choice and voice. Some of the pushback I get sounds something like, "This is great, but I've got these standards that I have to teach." One of the things that I love to have people do is actually look at their standards and look for all of the embedded choice. So most state standards and national standards have choice built into them. For instance, I'm thinking of South Carolina's first grade standards in informational writing. They need to name a topic, supply facts about the topic and provide a sense of closure. It doesn't say anything like they need to write about volcanoes. They need to have three paragraphs. It doesn't say there needs to be a topic sentence, three supporting details. It says name a topic, supply information about the topic, and provide a sense of closure.

So the standards themselves have choice in them, embedded in them for students, but then also implicitly for teachers to be able to decide, how do I want to teach this and what do I want to have my kids create that still align to standards? I think Blake has touched on this by seeing this in the classroom. The quality of writing improves immensely when kids have some choice of topic and they value the audience and the purpose of writing. In other words, if the work is meaningful and purposeful, it will always be higher quality. So what I've done in the book, and I'm hoping it's helpful to teachers, is we have student work in the book and then I just pull out from that student work all the standards that are shown in that work so that teachers can see this isn't just a nice idea. This creates quality standards-based writing as well.

Blake:

When you actually read through the standards and you've mentioned the standards, that's what I was thinking, is and nowhere did that say that they need to write about volcanoes or lizards. The standard gave the teacher the choice.

Kelly:

One thing that we talk about, and I did this in Blake's classroom when I was in Blake's classroom, and I do this with all ages of learners that I work with, is they put one hand on their head and the other hand on their heart, and I tell them, "When you write, write about what you know about and what you care about. When you write about what you know about and what you care about, you'll have a lot to say." And then the other support that we can offer students is using mentor text. So before a kid picks a topic, I have a stack of texts written by kids or published authors where I can show them other topics that other students have written about. For instance, if second-graders in Blake's classroom are going to be doing informational writing about a topic they know about and care about, before I invite them to choose their own topic, I have a stack of published work or kid work from years prior.

And I simply say, "This is Jonathan. He knew a lot about robots. So he wrote about robots. This is Samantha. She knew a lot about lizards, so she wrote about lizards. This is Samuel. He knew a lot about Beyonce, so he wrote about Beyonce." So I get to show them all the different kinds of topics that real writers have written about, and then I invite kids to watch me choose my own topic. What is something that I know about and care about that I could teach someone about today? And then we invite students to do that work of reflecting on their own life, what do you know about and what you care about? So that use of the mentor text coupled with the modeling of thinking about my own life, what do I know about, what do I care about, gives kids the scaffolds they need to pick their topics that they want to write about as well.

Blake:

And another thing, you mentioned showing other students work, without a doubt, that is the one thing that I do in my classroom that automatically gives the other students who believe they couldn't do it, it gives them the most confidence in the world because there's a lot of kids who have a lot of pride. If you say, "Well, look, this is a really good work done by another second-grader, so I believe you can do it." And they snatch that pencil and they go, right away because they know it's possible. But if I'm constantly showing them, texts written by a 45-year-old man from Texas, there is a disconnect.

Kelly:

And when you use those mentor text to have a mix of published authors and kid of all ages, you're blessing and honoring all work.

Blake:

Everyone, because we're all authors.

Kelly:

I want to just hit on that again, the importance of the modeling. You may show the mentor text, but if you don't let kids see you think about your own life and choose your own topic, it becomes much more difficult for them to do that. So we want to make that invisible process visible for kids by having them watch us choose our own topics as well. And that's something I advocate for doing on the fly, off the cuff, right in front of kids so they can see that struggle and that actual authentic thinking process.

Edie:

Oh yeah. You mean don't have it planned out what you're going to say ahead of time.

Blake:

And what I've noticed, because in the past, I did it the wrong way, which I had it planned, and I said, look what I wrote, all they see is three-fourths of a page. They don't see the fact that I really had to sit there and write every single thing because they think I'm just, snap my fingers and my thoughts go on the patient.

Edie:

I'm actually taking a writing class right now, and it is hard. It's like, I don't know, this coming up with an idea or it's a skill unto itself. So modeling it feels so important because it does come with practice, but it can be a little bit intimidating at first. So I think that modeling is huge.

Kelly:

I think it's intimidating for every writer, but if we never let kids see the authentic struggle that every writer encounters, then they think it's just them. And we want to model our own thinking process, but we want to model our own struggle as well because if we make it look so easy every time we sit down to write, then kids will automatically think, my teacher has a writing gene that I don't have. So if we can make that authentic to make that invisible process visible, it's not about the teacher looking smart, it's about the teacher looking like a writer and having to make those decisions, cross things out, rethink, struggle. That modeling piece, even when it comes to choice is a really powerful component.

My mantra is, I never ask kids to do something they haven't seen me do first. So if they're going to have a choice of topic, they need to watch me choose a topic. If they're going to craft an introduction, they need to watch me muddle through crafting an introduction for my piece. It demystifies the whole writing process. Because I used to think writing was easy for everyone else except me, but now the more I've written, I don't remember who said it, but writing is discipline and struggle. So if we never show the discipline and we never show the struggle, then I think we're not really giving kids a clear picture of what writing really is.

Blake:

And if I could piggy back off that, if they don't actually see how it really is supposed to work, it's going to do a disservice. The kids, they're more likely to give up if they're not doing well with it. So if they see it comes so easy to Mr. Williams, but it's so hard for me. But if I don't really show them that it is hard for me and I do have to sit down and write, it is something I actually have to do. It may give those kids that little bump to actually pick up the pencil and do the work.

Edie:

So what do you both have to say to the teacher who is considering this? The concept of student choice in their classroom, but is a bit hesitant or maybe intimidated by the idea of this? What do you have to say to them?

Blake:

This is going to sound very upfront, but why not? Why not? If you give them a topic, you're getting so far away from the student-centered learning part, because I think if it's student-centered and it lets the kids choose and you let them talk about the topic... I've been there. Last year, I was there. I wanted them to write about one specific thing, write about this, write about this, write about this. And then this year when I switched, to give them more choices in the classroom of how they write, what they write, the topic of writing.

Edie:

Were you nervous at all when you switched? Did you have any personal apprehension at all?

Blake:

It's something that never really crossed my mind. Because in school I was always given an assignment and I wrote it and I was a kid who, this is what your research topic is over, and that's the kid I was.

Edie:

Oh, okay. So it had never crossed your mind too often.

Blake:

It wasn't something that I actually thought about explicitly and actually thought about putting into practice in my classroom, and then I realized why not?

Kelly:

I think that was powerful to think about what do you have to lose? If you've got kids who are disengaged and not wanting to put anything on the page that's obviously not working. And if it was working, keep doing it, but we all know it doesn't. It doesn't work, so why not try something?

The other piece of advice I would give to teachers who want to try this is start small. Maybe you don't want to start by giving them choice of topic and choice of writing utensil and choice of paper and choice of where to sit. Maybe you just want to start with writing paper. I'm just going to give them different choices of kinds of writing paper. So start small and see what that does to the energy and engagement and quality of student work. And if you see that improving, maybe add another choice, but start small so that you're comfortable as a teacher as well. Don't feel like you need to dive into the deep end of the pool. Try a little bit and see what happens. I've never met a teacher who's tried this and gone back, ever, to everything being prompted, and here's the writing assignment. I've never met a teacher that's given kids' choice and then gone back to the way they've done it before. So give it a try.

Edie:

Yes. I've enjoyed this conversation so much. Thank you both for your time.

Kelly:

Thank you for having me.

Blake:

Absolutely. Thank you for the opportunity.

Edie:

Yeah. Yeah. Thank you, Blake. Thank you, Kelly. I feel like I've been enriched as a human and a writer myself.

Kelly:

Yay. Good.

Blake:

Wonderful.

Edie:

You can order Kelly's book, Every Kid a Writer: Strategies That Get Everyone Writing at heinemann.com. Learn more and read a full transcript at blog.heinemann.com.

 

kellyboswell-1

Kelly Boswell has many years of experience as a classroom teacher, staff developer, literacy coach, and district literacy specialist.   

Her latest book is Every Kid A Writer. She is the coauthor of Crafting Nonfiction and Reading Solutions and the author of Write This Way and Write This Way From the Start. She is also the author of several nonfiction children’s books.  

Kelly works with schools and districts around the country to support educational leaders, coaches and teachers. Her emphasis is on developing literacy practices that help students become joyful and passionate readers and writers.  

 

blake williams

Blake Williams is a 2nd Grade teacher and football coach. He teaches at Belvedere Elementary School in North Augusta, South Carolina and coaches football at North Augusta High school. Blake has previously taught both 3rd and 5th grade.  Blake graduated from the University of South Carolina Aiken with a Bachelor of Arts in English. His favorite hobbies involve reading, coaching football, and chasing his tenacious Boston Terrier, Pepper, around. 

Topics: Podcast, Heinemann Podcast, Every Kid a Writer, Kelly Boswell

Date Published: 11/30/23

Related Posts

Read Aloud Podcast: Enhancing Literacy and Learning Outside the Classroom with StoryWalks

Have you ever thought about what literacy might look like outside of the classroom?
Jun 10, 2024 4:00:00 AM

Read Aloud Podcast: Anchoring Lessons with Essential Questions

How can we rely on our human capacity to love, to engage in teaching for social justice even in the prese...
Jun 3, 2024 4:00:00 AM

Read Aloud Podcast: Extending Understanding

How can we help students move beyond basic comprehension to deeper understanding and critical thinking ab...
May 27, 2024 4:00:00 AM