In symbiosis, two organisms interact, often benefiting both. In the movie Finding Nemo, we watch the clownfish and sea anemone live together in harmony. The clownfish eats harmful invertebrates for the sea anemone, and the sea anemone’s stinging cells protect the clownfish from predators.
In writing workshops, there is a symbiotic relationship between choice and structure. Both are essential to empowering writers. When they work together, choice and structure create an atmosphere in which writers thrive. Like the clownfish and sea anemone, choice and structure complement each other. Choice invites intrinsic motivation; structure guides the process. Structure provides security; choice allows us to be guided by our passions.
It can be tricky to develop a workshop sustaining both choice and structure. Here are some ways we create harmony.
It’s easy to get caught up in all of the have-to-dos. Sometimes as we are trying to ensure that students have a robust curricular experience, we forget to make space to listen to the things they are attempting to do as writers. As we listen to students, we are able to discern the choices they are making and then help them find a structure that will make their work more efficient.
Heather was surprised when a second grader described what she wanted to do with her narrative. Lilya said, “I want to start writing about today, and then I want to write about when I’m five.” Although Heather wasn’t expecting to explore how to do a flashback with a seven-year-old writer, she was able to provide structure to support Lilya’s choice.
By operating from the basic principle that students want to be readers and writers, we know their choices reflect what they believe about reading and writing. We can nudge them often by providing a structure to support their choices into becoming more effective readers and writers.
When a first grader puts a period at the end of every line, it is evident that they aren’t using punctuation conventionally. It’s easy to jump in and say, “Periods go at the end of sentences, not at the end of lines.” However, if we take a moment to say, “I noticed you know periods are important to writing. How did you decide where to put them?,” we are able to extend goodwill: we send the message that we believe they are making choices as a writer and that it is our role to offer a structure to support the work they are already doing.
The same is true for the seventh-grader Ruth observed researching and writing down pages and pages of notes from her Internet sources. Instead of saying, “Stop copying!” Ruth said, “Wow, you are collecting a ton of notes.” Laurana nodded and gave a small smile. So Ruth asked, “What did you decide to write down?”
“Everything,” Laurana said, and copied a few more lines.
At this point, Ruth was able to provide Laurana with a structure to collect notes. She helped her set up Diigo, a web-based highlighter, sticky note, and bookmarking site. With this structure, Laurana could be more effective.
Do things that scare you. In workshops it is important to teeter on the line between success and failure. When we’re sure of success, it’s possible that we aren’t trusting students enough. To allow for choice and structure to work together, we should relinquish enough control that we feel a little unsettled. If we don’t, then we are probably controlling too many of the decisions writers should be making for themselves.
Recently in a kindergarten writing workshop, Ruth offered a minilesson about rating systems with stars. If she was totally honest, she had to admit she was waiting for disaster. She wasn’t sure if the children would be able to abstractly compare their topics and rank them. At the end of the minilesson, several students wanted to know how to draw stars. Off they went, excited about writing reviews and using stars to show how much they either liked or disliked their topics.
Soon five stars weren’t enough—students were filling their review papers with as many stars as possible. “I just love fresh pineapple,” one student said as he counted his stars. “It gets a 46-star review!”
It was tempting to stop all star-making on the spot. Instead, Ruth gave students the chance to land among the stars. Sometimes it is easy to get caught up in the structure, keeping our eyes so fixed on how we expect things to go that we miss the beauty of how things are going. Kids were able to share their passion for topics; they were choosing topics they felt strongly about. Forty-six stars is a small price to pay for a five-year-old to write with passion and excitement.
Because Ruth let students explore 46-star reviews one day, students developed a stronger understanding of how to rate a topic within the five-star system the next. We’ve noticed the risk almost always pales in comparison to the payoff.
It’s not enough to tell students what to do. We must also provide models for how to do it. When we model, we are able to help students get inside the process and see how choice and structure work together inside a living, breathing writer.
Sometimes symbiotic relationships are harmful to one of the organisms. Consider ticks or tapeworms. These parasites take much more than they give. The relationship is not balanced or healthy. The same is true with our choice/structure continuum. If there is too much choice, writers may flounder and cease to grow. Often a community never develops because everyone is working independently. If given too much structure, writers can become stifled and refuse to write. Often their individuality is lost.
In Heather’s second year as a teacher, students were always choosing their own topics, genres, and audiences. Keelan was writing Star Wars fan fiction, and Shandra kept a log of her science observations. But Keelan didn’t try observational writing, Shandra never dove into narratives, and Heather didn’t model how to write in either of the genres. In the spring when the students had to write narrative and expository pieces to show growth, they panicked. Heather assumed they’d transfer what they’d learned about good writing to new genres, but they didn’t—there hadn’t been enough structure.
Conversely, two years later Heather’s district adopted a writing curriculum that emphasized organization above all other traits of writing. With the required “fidelity” to the program and lacking choice, she’d never seen such lifeless writing. She immediately began modeling her own writing to help her students break out of the formula.
Ruth fought between choice and structure when it came to grammar instruction. Her first year of teaching was all about structure. There were specific grammar activities on certain days of the week. Marching through the book, drill and practice ensued with rigidity and conformity. Unfortunately, at the end of the school year there was no noticeable improvement in students’ writing.
The following year, Ruth gave very little focused grammar instruction. Minilessons presented options for students. Grammar books were tagged with points of interest. Suggestions for mechanics were offered during conferences. Again there was little noticeable improvement in students’ writing.
The subsequent years of Ruth’s professional life have been about balancing grammar instruction to provide both choice and structure. She has found modeling to be the most significant way to provide structure for how to write conventionally, as well as an invitation for students to figure out how to apply the learning to their own writing. Through modeling Ruth has struck a balance of structure and choice in grammar instruction.
So how do we find the balance? Heather coached in a classroom where the students were required to write how-to explanations. They were invited to choose a relevant topic and appropriate format. The teacher listened and modeled. As a result Bo made a poster about how to make Top Ramen, and Driss created a flipbook with instructions on how to build a model plane. Both students were able to use their pictures and text to show their writing community how to do something new.
Take some time to notice what in your writing workshop is invitational and what is required. We invite you to use this template to record your notes. Only you and your students can define the symbiotic relationship of choice and structure in your classroom.