Last weekend my husband and I began shopping for a mattress. We bounced on mattresses, laid down on mattresses, pushed buttons so our head or our feet would go up and down on mattresses. We tried out mattress after mattress, going from store to store until all the mattresses began to blur together, and the choices between firm and soft, pillowtop or not pillowtop, cool or not cool was just vast and overwhelming.
I walked to the car after we left the last store, pushed the hair out of my face, and asked my husband, “So, what choice do we want to make?” What started as a fun, exciting adventure quickly evolved into a frustrating, exhausting experience where we both walked back to the car angry and barely speaking to each other. What caused this huge change in emotions from giddy to exasperated? Too much choice.
Now, I am a proponent of choice in the classroom. Students need and deserve choice in our classrooms. Elfreida Heibert (1994) has written that choice is what makes writing authentic on a daily basis. Students need to choose! However, sometimes if we are working in a program, and we don’t have much wiggle room to implement supplementary writing curriculum, we might find that when students are writing in our classroom it is common to swing between too little choice and too much choice. Some writing programs are highly scripted and the writing students produce read like cookie cutter copies of tightly wound writing lessons on pre-set topics. This is an example of too little choice. Other approaches show us how to give students a dizzying array of choices, yet sometimes students get stuck and can’t start writing because they don’t know how to choose what to write about. This could be an example of too much choice.
The solution? Give students choice, and focus on just right choice. We need to maximize their desire to write by inviting students to write about topics that interest them, but once in a while they might need some help narrowing down the topics developed during brainstorming.
Just Right Choice
So, what does just right choice look like?
Just right choice is when students are writing on topics that interest them, they know how to find information on their topics, and they are able to draft out their writing without us hovering over them ensuring that they write “just so.” Just right choice is when students have the freedom to write at their speed of learning. This type of choice involves modeling for students and then releasing so they can do it for themselves, with us coaching. When we coach we are helping them along the continuum of the gradual release of responsibility from teacher to student (Allington, 2005). In essence, we are supporting their work with writing tasks.
Writing tasks are what students do every day, and tasks are not writing drudgery, but rather writing joy. Students might be writing about their favorite character, or sharing how the character’s actions developed the plot of a story. Really great tasks can immerse you in your work and your attention will be captivated by the work you are doing. Time may fly by. Students too can enter this point of writing joy with just right writing. Let’s take a look at three ways to highly engage students.
Three Steps to Engaging Students with Purposeful Writing Tasks
Step One: The first step to engaging students in purposeful writing tasks is to invite them to write about topics that they are working with. When you launch a unit on report writing, for instance, invite students to write reports on topics that they want to write about. They can work with peers to develop their topics, investigate information on their topic on the internet, and take notes on their topic. They can dig in and really get excited. For instance, maybe one student in your class read all the books about dinosaurs, help him to decide if he’s going to write about one favorite carnivore or about a theory of how dinosaurs went extinct.
Step Two: The second step to engaging students in purposeful writing tasks is to facilitate learning by following an instructional ‘playbook’ that sets students up for success. An instructional playbook includes the teaching moves you make when teaching a minilesson then releasing to the students to do the work on their own. One instructional playbook that I follow is: Name It, What you Might Say Next, Do Together, and Release. This is the playbook I use in The Big Book of Literacy Tasks to help teachers ensure students are doing the doing, and teachers are facilitating the learning.
When we Name It, we tell students what we are going to be working on during the writing block, essentially reviewing our objectives. The Name It action is quick, and the hope is that we stimulate student thinking about orient students to what the writing task will be.
Next is What You Might Say Next, we go a bit deeper in explaining what we are going to do that day for the writing. We might give a reason for working on the task, so that students know the why behind the what. This action is also short; we don’t want to go on too long because we really need to get to the next step — modeling.
Do Together is the most important teaching action we can take during a minilesson. This action is filled with us modeling for students how to try out a strategy, think through a text, or work out a particularly sticky part in our writing. First, we model, then we ask students to try it out for themselves so we can address any concerns students have or clear up any confusion. After this, we release.
Releasing to students to do the work is also a critical step. Sometimes we hold on too long and continue modeling and doing together…then we run out of time and don’t give students the opportunity to work on their own or with peers. When students work on their own, we have a perfect time for to engage in conferences, to check in with students to see where they might need help, and to encourage and clarify.
Step Three: After releasing sooner to students to work on tasks for themselves and facilitate their ability to work, we can take time to reflect. We might reflect as a class. You can ask questions like, “How did we do today?” “What did we accomplish?” “What might we work on next?” You can also encourage students to reflect on their own or with peers. They might think about how well they worked during the writing time or how they feel about what they produced. If they have thoughts about what they want to work on next or how to add on to their pieces, they can jot those notes down on stickies and put them in their writing notebooks. They can also reflect with each other, reading to a peer what they wrote and discussing what they plan to do next.
Just right writing tasks engage students in writing because they have made the choices about what to write and how to approach their writing. Just right writing tasks offer choice and support with coaching and guidance from you. And just right writing tasks require plenty of time for independent writing and reflection with peers. This is where the growth happens! Enjoy finding the just right writing with your students — and watch them engage with writing tasks with energy and excitement.