My daughter, who is in fourth grade, voluntarily proclaims that writing is her favorite subject in school (next to PE, recess, and lunch, of course). What literacy crazed parent/educator would not want to hear that! I love her passion for writing, the creativity she brings to her work, the natural voice she is able to draw from her pen, and of course, her sense of humor she naturally includes.
Last night she completed her spelling story for the week. A task where she needs to take her spelling words and use them in a writing piece of her choosing. Now I know that our writing purists may scoff at such a writing task, but she took to it like an NFL player preparing for the Superbowl. Even though the vocabulary was forced upon her, it did not deter her from finding her writing voice, creating an interesting character, and working out a sophisticated plot. I have to say I was impressed. The assigned vocabulary actually helped her create an imaginative story, which she viewed as a healthy challenge. How can I get all of these words to make sense in a story? It motivated her.
However, not all of her writing tasks are as motivating to complete. When she is assigned a specific topic (even if she gets to pick a topic from a list of topics), the dreaded prompted writing, she freezes. She drags out her writing and it is painful for all to endure. She is able to vocalize that she does not like to write for prompts – that she likes writing much better when she gets to choose the topic, even if she does not get to choose all of the words in the writing assignment. And her writing shows it: she writes better when she can choose her topic. We know that about reading and writing – choice matters, choice motivates, and choice gives kids voice in their learning. Yet, we are caught in a conundrum of honoring our students’ choices and preparing them for high stakes testing with no choice.
Even though I know that my daughter’s favorite type of writing is when she has choice, I fully recognize that she needs to be pushed beyond where she is currently writing, and I trust her teacher to be able to assess where she is and help her take the next step through mini-lessons, conferring, peer sharing, etc. We need high expectations for our student writers, but narrowing writing so that students respond to assigned prompts to the point where they vocalize that they don’t like writing, makes me shudder. Thankfully, she has much choice in her writing due to our writing workshop approach, but when the prompted writing is assigned, it’s just another assignment to complete, rather than an opportunity to grow as an authentic writer.
This blog has been in the queue for a week and then I had the opportunity to attend a full day workshop with Lucy Calkins and the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. Participating in this conference only reinforced my writing ramblings about how students need choice, and need high expectations paired with some pretty direct instruction about how to write. Students are writers and we need to treat them as such. Lucy Calkins pairs her knowledge with realistic experiences so you know she gets teaching and has incredibly high expectations for teachers and students. She left us all with the knowledge that we can teach students how to write and write well.