Fighting the Formula: Empowering Students To Make Their Own Writing Decisions

We have recently begun our study of persuasive writing. We are taking time to learn what we need to know about how writers can use persuasive writing to demand change in the world, before we use these skills to take action at the end of our inquiry circle studies.

To begin our work together, we worked on selecting audiences, the forms of writing that would best reach these audiences and the claims that we would make to these audiences that would explain the changes that we hope to make in the world.  Like last year, we began our work by looking at many different types of persuasive writing that exist outside of the school walls.   Too often, our students’ definition and image of what persuasive writing is begins and ends with a persuasive essay. In fact, outside of a school setting, the world is filled with much more interesting, purposeful, and passionate types of persuasive writing.  So to help us begin to expand our definitions, we look at advertisements, protest flyers, speeches, op-eds, letters to the editors and blog posts.  As my students begin to see the power of persuasive writing, they are better able to select the kinds of topics that are really worth writing about.

Yes, I still have students who write to their parents to ask for a puppy, but I also have students who plan to submit letters to the editor of our local newspaper in order to ask our local schools to stop separating P.E. classes by gender.  I also have students who want to write letters to congressman asking for reform in gun laws.  I also have students who plan to write to the heads of television networks asking for more diversity in their television line-ups.

I attribute this range in topics to our mentor texts.  As teachers, we have so much control over how our students view a particular type of writing. If we only share with them persuasive writing that is written for school, then they will only think that persuasive writing is done for school and for teachers.  If we only share with them persuasive writing about getting a new pet or about getting your own room, then they will only think that persuasive writing is used to ask for things for yourself.  If we only share with them essays, then their definition will only include essays.  If we only put before them the mentor texts that match the very narrow definition of persuasive writing that is expected on a standardized test, then they will only write as if they are writing for a standardized test.

And I cannot imagine that is really what we want for our students.

So I make sure, right from the start, to bring in mentor texts that expand my students’ definition of persuasive writing, not limit it.  And from there, I trust my students to make the writing choices that will help to make their writing feel meaningful and purposeful. I tell my students that I will NEVER tell them what to write about in writing workshop, no matter how much they might beg me to do so. Because the second that I take the choice away from them, I have set the tone, from the very beginning of a piece of writing, that this piece of writing is for me and not for them.

So once my students know what they want to ask for, they think of who has the power to make the change or changes in the world they are looking for. Then they think about how best to reach that person or group of people. Perhaps it is an op-ed, perhaps it is a blog post, perhaps it is a recorded speech that we upload to YouTube and then Tweet out the link to. Perhaps it is a letter to the editor that we submit to the local newspaper or perhaps it is a letter that we send to a company or a television network or a congress person.  This choice cannot be made by me because this choice must reflect the purpose of their writing. The students must, again, be in control of this choice or else they will not be making an authentic choice based on the purpose of their writing. Instead they will be making a choice based on what specific type of writing has been assigned for us to practice in fifth grade.

This does not mean that I just throw out our assigned curriculum. I will still teach my students what they need to know about op-eds (which happen to be the type of persuasive writing assigned to 5th grade in my district). However, I will teach about op-eds so that my students know about one possible choice that they can make when writing to ask for change in this world.  Everything else that is really important: making claims, supporting claims with evidence, finding multiple ways to support multiple claims, these things can be taught and applied to any type of persuasive writing. It must be up to my students to choose which type will work best for them.

And once they have all of this figured out, then we talk about how every writer has to have reasons for asking for what they are asking for. We go back to our mentor texts and pull out some claims that were made and some reasons that were given by our writers to show why those claims should be believed. I share with my students my own claim and the reasons that I have thought of so far as to why my claim is valid. I share with them how I think about what change I am asking for and how I am going to prove that this change is worth making. And I share with them how I create a quick list of reasons and how then revise my list until I am left with only the strongest ones and the ones that will not repeat the same ideas over and over again. And then I ask them to do the same kind of list making and revising in their writers’ notebooks.

While my students are busy working on their lists, I tell them that I am going to hand out their graphic organizer. And this year, in both of my classes, there was an audible groan.  It was actually quite loud. There was a collective hatred for the graphic organizer. I could feel it start to fill up the room. Until, one student saw what I was handing them and then word began to spread. “Hey! This is just a blank piece of paper.” And it was. I handed every child a blank, white piece of paper. There were no pre-drawn boxes, no circles, no lines to fill in. There was nothing on the piece of paper that I was handing out and yet I continued to tell them, “This is your graphic organizer.” And I felt them all relax.

Because I do not believe that my students really loathe the idea of planning out their writing. I do not believe that my students even really mind taking time to think about what they are going to include before they begin the actual writing. I think that many of them feel some relief once they know that they have their plan already made. I think that what they have come to hate are the boxes that we make them shove their writing into. Because, once again, this takes so much power away from our writers. When we tell them that their writing has to look one certain way. When we tell them that if their ideas don’t fit into the pictures that we have drawn, then they are not going to get to write about them. When we tell them our way of writing is the only way of writing. Then of course they are going to resent that.

And it just simply isn’t how writers outside of schools write. As we rely more heavily on mentor texts from the world outside of school, then we see that there are many ways to write. There is no one formula that writers in this world follow. Are there essential elements? Yes. Are there common structures? Yes. Is there always some system of organization? Yes. But writers make those choices based on what they have to say and we have to let our students make those same choices.  We have to fight the formula, by instead focusing on how writers in the world choose to structure their writing and then allowing our students to make the choices that best fit their own writing.

This is how we empower our students as writers. We allow them to make the choices that make the most sense for them and for their writing.

I shared with my students the way that works best for me to organize my writing. I told them that I start with my claim in a circle in the center of my paper. And then I make a simple web with lines and circles going out from the center. And I draw enough circles to contain the reasons that I have listed in my notebook to support my claim. And then I ask my students to create an initial plan for their own writing. I tell them that as we learn new ways to support our reasons, we will come back and add to our plans in a way that makes sense for us.

And then they get right to work creating their own plans. Making their own choices.

So they have their main claim, they have their audience, they have their type of writing and they have some reasons why they believe in their claim. And they even have the beginnings of a plan. And then it becomes SO tempting to hold them back from actually writing. I want them to know everything they need to know about good persuasive writing before they begin. I want them to know what they need to know about how best to begin their writing, how to support their claims in interesting ways, how to use statistics and stories and quotes and examples to prove that what they are saying is true.  I want to stop them before they write in a way that I don’t want them to write.

But if I do that. If I give in to that. Then I have lost some of the greatest enthusiasm that we will have throughout the course of our entire writing unit. Because once these worlds of possibilities begin to open up for them, they just want to jump in and start writing. So while I want to hold them back, I instead let them go.

We look at a few ways that writers begin their persuasive writing. We notice that even though they have been taught that they must state their claim in the first paragraph, the writing that we look at shows us that the claim CAN be the first sentence, it CAN be in the first paragraph, or it CAN come a bit further in to the piece of writing. I help them to identify strategies that our mentor text writers use instead of the words that they use to begin. When my students know strategies to begin instead of specific words to use to begin, then they are better able to chose a strategy that works for their topic and then truly make it their own. We create an anchor chart of the wide variety of ways that writers begin their writing.

Then I ask my students who feels ready to begin writing their own pieces of persuasive writing. Most students at this point raise their hands. And I trust them. I let them go. Those who are not yet ready, I pull together with me in a small group to find out what extra support they need. And soon, they, too, are ready to begin writing.

And I know. I know that some of this initial writing will be bad. Really bad. I know that some students will go off and write for ten minutes and say that they are done. I know that some students will quickly fall back into the formulaic writing that they have learned in the past.

And that has to be okay.

I can look at that and I can tell myself, “Look at how much better their writing is going to get!” And when students run up to me and tell me they are done, I work hard not to crush the excitement I see on their faces. I work hard not to jump in and point out all of the places that I see right away where they can expand their ideas.

Instead, I look at what they have written and I share in their excitement. I say to them, “That is so great! What are you going to work on next?” And, again, I have to trust them. Because there WILL be time to go back and revise these initial pieces of writing and make them so much better. There WILL be more time to learn new strategies. There WILL be time when I can confer with them and find places where we can support what they have said in a different and more powerful way. But we haven’t learned those things yet.

And that is okay.

There will be time for all of that. I trust that they will use what we learn together when they need to. They, the writers, must make the choices of when to use the strategies that we have learned. I will, of course, be there throughout the entire process to help guide them in ways to use what we are learning, but they will have to be the ones who make the decisions if any of these lessons are really going to stick, really going to matter.

And by the end of our study of persuasive writing, I know that each of them will have grown as writers. I know that by the end of our study, each writer will look back on his or her first piece of writing from this unit and they will compare it to their last piece of writing from this unit and they will see for themselves just how far they have come.

And they will know that the choices that we made, the ones that got them to where they end up, those choices were all theirs. They will own those choices. They will believe that they can make those choices again, even if I am not right there next to them. And THAT is empowering writers.



4 thoughts on “Fighting the Formula: Empowering Students To Make Their Own Writing Decisions

  1. I let my students choose what they write, but I didn’t even think about the audience and format. I love the concept of letting them choose their purpose, audience, and format. Excellent.

  2. Last year, we did persuasive/argumentative writing, in the form of a five paragraph essay, to death at my school. I am introducing op-eds, letters to the editor, blog posts, etc. However, the hardest part is finding good mentor texts, as you have indicated. Do you have any specific mentor texts you you could share?

  3. Pingback: Supporting Claims With Evidence: Teaching Beyond the How | Crawling Out of the Classroom

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