Early in the school year, I came across this message posted on social media by Donalyn Miller:
Unpopular opinion of the day: If your students don’t have any autonomy or authentic choice in their reading and writing, your class isn’t a reading/writing workshop.
I really wanted to click the Like button as a righteous proponent of the workshop approach in my middle school language arts classroom. However, something about the raw honesty of her words made me hesitate. I felt exposed. I thought maybe I should just scroll past and forget I had even seen the post. But the words lingered.
Do my students have autonomy or authentic choice in their reading and writing?
I wanted the answer to be YES!
Does choosing what book to read and selecting a topic really qualify as autonomy or authentic choice?
My beliefs are grounded in the workshop approach to teaching middle school language arts, and yet here I am, 20 years into my career, getting it wrong—or perhaps it would be more accurate to say, not getting it right enough. Over the past few years I have let go of more and more practices that align with my core beliefs in favor of aligning my practices with the administrator-imposed goal to be data-driven (which too often translates to standardized-test-score-driven).
Thanks to Donalyn Miller, I started making changes in my sixth-grade language arts class, and it has made all the difference.
Authentic Choice in Reading Workshops
In addition to self-selection of books, I handed over complete control of reading notebook entries to students. I started by sharing a slideshow of notebook entry possibilities, including student examples I have collected over the past few years. On each slide, I name the entry, give a student example, and list the instructions for students to create their own.
Some notebook entry possibilities are character webs, T-charts, bulleted lists, big-idea book entries, and invent-your-own entry. As the year unfolds and students become more comfortable with capturing their thinking as they read, I plan to add to the possibilities by sharing things like storyboards and sketchnotes.
I saw the effect of giving students more authentic choice during a reading conference with Theodore. He had been carrying a copy of I Survived Hurricane Katrina, 2005 by Lauren Tarshis around with him, but the bookmark had not moved for days. I suspected he had not written anything down about the book, either.
When Theodore opened his notebook to show me his latest reading notebook entry, he opened to a two-page spread containing a blank character web and a blank T-chart labeled “Character’s Actions” on the left and “What I Think” on the right. It was a start.
I asked Theodore to tell me what was going on in the book. He explained that the protagonist, Barry, had entered a comic book contest. When I pressed for elaboration, the only other detail I could get was that his friend Jay had also entered the contest. When I asked about a possible main conflict, Theodore simply repeated the detail about the contest. It was not much, but, again, it was a start.
I asked which notebook entry he wanted to try with his current book. He chose the T-chart. I suggested he add the detail he had shared about the comic book contest. As he wrote, I sat back and waited. As soon as he finished writing the lone detail, I expected him to look up at me to see what was next. However, he never looked up. His pencil moved right on to add another detail to the chart. Theodore slowly wrote, “Barry and Jay are scared of Abe.”
Simply because I gave him the time and space, Theodore had moved from naming a single external detail about a character to identifying an internal detail about a character’s feelings. Having the ability to choose his book and how to respond to it gave Theodore the perfect balance of structure and freedom to help him grow.
Authentic Choice in Writing Workshop
After reading Donalyn Miller’s post, I thought about how I used to provide students with choice in writing workshop. Since our district adopted a writing program containing prescribed units, teacher and student choice had become more and more limited.
As choice became more limited, so did my ability to manage conferring with writers. I thought about how I used to manage conferences by giving students time to write whatever they wanted. We called these self-selected pieces of writing “in-the-meantime projects,” inspired by Katie Wood Ray. Students would work on ungraded pieces to build a quantity of writing while waiting for feedback from me to increase the quality of their writing. I could give students choice and create the time and space in the classroom to manage individual and small-group conferences effectively.
As soon as I launched in-the-meantime writing projects, my sixth graders took off. One unmotivated student was suddenly willing to work to earn time to work on a novel he is writing. Another student, Jae, created a project so cool I could not stop myself from urging him to teach the class how to do it.
Jae created an animation based on the game Geometry Dash using Google Slides. He simply created slide after slide with slight changes from one to the next, such as moving the character’s eyes. His main character, “Player,” was a square who moved across the screen from left to right and looped back around, coming in from the left as he encountered new settings. Jae created word bubbles and changed the words from slide to slide to move his story forward. It was an animated version of game-inspired fan fiction. All it took to make the slides come to life was publishing them to the web with automatic slide advances.
Because I had given him the time and space to make his own decisions about what and how to write, Jae had created a project that taught me not only a new technique for story building, but also that he has a lot of knowledge about illustration and the way a story moves across a page (or in this case, screen). Jae even taught his classmates the technique he had used to create a moving story.
It is amazing what a workshop a classroom can become when students have time and space for autonomy and authentic choice over reading and writing.