One of the greatest changes that I have made in my own fifth grade classroom came when I stopped looking at writing as a skill that I needed to teach my students and instead refocused on writing as a tool to empower my students. For example, instead of simply teaching students how to write good stories from their own lives, I began to look for ways that I could empower students to use writing as a way to show the world who they are by the stories that they choose to tell to the world. The shift not only raised the level of engagement, but it also helped my students to see real purpose in their writing and to better master the writing skills being taught because they were more eager to incorporate these skills into the meaningful and purposeful work that they were doing through their own writing.
And so, when we began our opinion writing unit a few weeks ago, I knew that I needed to begin by helping my students to see opinion writing as a tool that empowered them to fight for the changes that they wanted to see in the world. Too often, students talk about opinion writing in a way that feels completely detached from their own lives. They speak of the prompts that they have been assigned, the positions that they have been forced to take and defend, the articles that they were told to read that became the basis of a piece of writing centering an opinion that did not originate from any lived experience, but rather from a teacher’s need to collect evidence, in a standardized fashion, of the writing skills that a child possessed. In an attempt to “level the playing field” and “give every child the same background knowledge” about a topic, we have removed all evidence of the passion that can exist behind a piece of opinion writing. And thus, our students are left with only the belief that writing is something you do because it is an assignment and not because you care deeply enough that you are compelled to write in order to demand a change.
And that is what I wanted to help my students to rediscover. The passion behind their writing. The act of writing because you have something that you are compelled to say. The process of writing in order to have your voice heard about an issue that you feel deeply about. And here is the thing. Who am I to decide what issues students will feel passionately about? And how will that help them in the world beyond our classroom?
So as we began to dig into our work as writer of opinions, I decided to begin in a place that is worthy of our time: the change that we want to see in our world. Because these kids are FILLED with ideas and wishes about what they would like to change. These kids are filled with passionate opinions. And yet, why is it that when faced with the task of writing their own opinions, they are quick to say, “I have nothing to write about.” I think that it is mostly our fault. We have made them feel as if their opinions are not worthy of writing about. We have made them feel as if the only opinions that will make great writing topics are the ones that are assigned by a teacher or the ones that are based on an article that they have been given to read. These beings that are filled to the brim with passionate opinions have been made to feel as if those opinions are the kinds of opinions that they should write about.
So I wanted to begin by helping them to rediscover all of the changes that they want to see in their own world and in our greater world and then use those desires for change to motivate them to write.
As with most other forms of writing, the best way I knew how to help students to see the purpose of writing was to bring in mentor texts that showed the many purposes for writing beyond the walls of a classroom. So our unit began with time for exploration. I put together file folders filled with examples of writing that was motivated by a desire to see a change occur in the world. THIS DOCUMENT CONTAINS THE DIFFERENT PIECES OF WRITING THAT EACH GROUP WAS GIVEN. For several days, students worked together in groups to analyze these pieces of writing. HERE IS THE DOCUMENT THEY USED TO THINK ABOUT THE PIECES OF WRITING.
And then after a few days of seeing how writing can be used to ask for change, we then started to think about the changes that WE would like to see in our worlds. And I asked them to think about their worlds in three different ways. I asked them to think about their lives at home, their lives at school and also the world beyond their own lives at home and at school. Because here is the thing. Yes. I want all students to learn to write in order to demand change in big ways. To demand the kind of change that makes our world a better place. But just because that is what I want, it does not mean that it is what they are all ready for. Ultimately, I want my students to know that their voices deserve to be heard and that one way that they can be heard is through writing. However, some of my students will need to learn that first by writing about topics that are close to home. And then they can work their way up to writing about more global topics.
So I give them that choice.
I know that by the end of our unit, all students will have experience writing about complex social issues, because this writing unit will eventually merge with the inquiry circle work that we are doing. (You can read about last year’s inquiry circle work starting in THIS BLOG POST). So, for now, I want to give each child a chance to experience what it feels like to really write about something that is truly meaningful to them. Even if that means that a handful of students are writing to their parents to ask for a new puppy. If that feels meaningful, then I want them to experience that. And truth be told, last year SEVERAL new puppies were added to several families because of their children’s opinion writing. No joke. Talk about seeing the power of your writing.
So, when it is time to start brainstorming, THIS IS THE FORM that I model using and then ask my students to use. And I give my students lots of time to just talk about the changes that they would like to see at home, at school and in the world beyond home and school. And, my goodness, can you hear their passions come to life. Rarely do the writing discussions in my classroom feel as energized as when I allowed my students space to talk about the things that they would like to see changed in the world.
And once that passion was released, then we simply had to channel it into good writing. And that is what we would work on next. I will be back soon to write about our next steps of this work.