Choice 1: Do you want your milk in the red glass or the blue glass?
Choice 2: Do you want to read the book about trains or the book about owls before bed?
In Choice 1, the color of glass doesn’t matter. Either way, the child is still going to drink the milk. Other choices are more like Choice 2. You’ll get something and you’ll miss out on something.
In writing workshops, we want to give red glass/blue glass choices. These are choices that allow the writing work to be finished, but the way it gets done can vary. The milk is drunk, whether from a red glass or a blue glass. Let’s consider some red glass/blue glass choices in the following areas.
A Writing Process
Although writers have a writing process, there isn’t a single process that works for all writers. In fact, I have many different writing processes, depending on the genre I’m writing in or the topic I’m writing about. The process I use for writing blog posts is different from the one I use for writing chapters. I use another process entirely for writing letters and a different process for writing poetry.
All writers ought to have choice over their own writing processes. For example, all writers collect ideas, but we don’t all collect them in the same way or with the same tools. Some writers use notebooks, and others use apps on their phones. Some writers use blogs and others use napkins. What choices will you offer your students to gather their ideas?
There are choices for all parts of the writing process. Writers plan by sketching, outlining, storyboarding, webbing, listing . . . The choices are innumerable. Drafts can be written on a variety of paper, with a variety of pens, or they can be written electronically. Revision is personal as well. Some writers revise as they draft; others wait until the draft is finished. Some writers revise using their notebooks, and others write along the edges of the draft. Some use highlighters; some use sticky notes; some need to talk; some need to wait. Editing is also filled with choices. How will students determine the conventional spelling of a word? Who will help with ending punctuation or capitalization? The choices for publishing and sending writing into the world are ever changing.
As technology infuses our lives, the writing process is influenced as well. It’s important to give students the choice to explore how to use technology as writers. Empower them to use their cameras to gather ideas or a journal app to revise leads or a dictionary website to find conventional spelling.
Hold fast to the red glass/blue glass choice. Students will gather ideas, but how they gather ideas varies. They will plan and draft and revise and edit, but how they go about these phases varies. They will send writing into the world, but it can go in many forms.
Decisions Writers Make
For each writing project, writers must determine audience, topic, genre, and purpose. We don’t always have a choice for each of these decisions. Sometimes they are assigned. For example, when I write an article for Choice Literacy, the genre is assigned. It will be an informative article. The audience is also standard: literacy educators. Yet my topic and purpose are my choices. When we consider choice in writing projects for our students, it is important to ensure we don’t assign all of the areas: audience, topic, genre, and purpose.
It’s a good idea for students to have an audience in mind as they embark on a writing project. It might take a bit of persistence to convince students there can be another audience besides the teacher! When students are writing for audiences beyond the teacher’s desk, there is strong writing energy in the room.
Sometimes it’s difficult for students to decide on a topic. There’s a good chance you’ve heard someone say, “I don’t know what to write about.” The answer isn’t to assign a topic. The solution is to help students find meaningful topics.
When students have collected ideas, they can look through their collections and find patterns or territories. These are good starting places to encourage students to decide on a topic. Surprisingly, young writers usually have an abundance of writing ideas. The secret is to give them a little space and time. When they realize no one is coming to their rescue with an idea, they usually have an idea of their own.
Sometimes we have strong ties to topics. For example, maybe every third grader writes about a circus animal because they visit the circus. It’s okay to have ties to topics, but we also know it’s important to have choice when working to become a stronger writer. Instead of assigning animals, perhaps assign a general topic like circus and then give students a choice in narrowing the topic for their writing.
If it is impossible to give students choice in topic, then consider using the assignment as a writing prompt to help give students practice for a standardized writing assessment.
Most writing workshops emphasize four types of writing: opinion, informational, narrative, and poetry. This allows for choice in genre. For example, narrative writing includes memoir, personal narrative, realistic fiction, and historical fiction. If your class is in a narrative writing unit, can students have choice of the narrative genre? Consider the genre choices you can offer within each of the main types of writing on your curriculum calendar. The chart below will help jump-start your thinking.
Letter to the Editor
Public Service Announcement
Writers write for a variety of purposes. Encourage students to determine their own purpose for writing. For example, a historical fiction story can be written to entertain or to help the audience understand a universal truth or to learn what it was like to live in a particular time period. The purpose is often linked to topic, audience, and genre, but it is still a choice writers have. Another way to expand the purpose is to share contests and calls for writing. Some students enjoy submitting their writing, and it opens another purpose for writing.
Young writers flourish when they are given choices, yet too much choice can lead to confusion and frustration. By offering red glass/blue glass choices, we give students the chance to explore as writers while continuing to support them as writers.