Giving them a choice isn’t always the answer

Ask the following question, “How do you get students interested in writing?” and you most likely will get the following answer, “It’s all about choice.”

Unfortunately, this is wrong.

Okay, it’s not wrong.  I just put that there because I had to due to the didactic nature of the educonversation.  Honestly, that answer is one that is about half right.  If you have students writing about what they want to write about, you definitely get interest and that investment might result in better writing (thus my beef, by the way, with SOL writing exams).  It have seen students relax and work harder than they usually do and while the change in results is not always an astounding improvement, the change in attitude certainly is.

But the other side to this is that making students better writers doesn’t end with simply giving your students a choice in the matter.  They may be more engaged if you do, but they will still default to the human behavior of taking the easy way out, which means safe topics and pieces that may be clearly organized and mechanically clean but are bland and boring.

Which is why choice should be blended with required assignments, especially ones that can be challenging.

The other day, I asked one of my classes to write about the most important thing their fathers ever said to them.  Even before I asked the question, I knew that all of my students have stable home lives, have good relationships with their fathers, or even know their fathers.  But that’s why I asked the question.  As I told them as they began writing, I wanted them to write from a place that made them feel bad.  Some of the best writing they may ever do could be cathartic, as letting feelings out onto the page, perhaps with the intention of nobody ever seeing it.

It was a forced assignment.  The audience was not authentic.  Yet it worked.

Okay, I’m not going to pretend that lightbulbs went off all over the place and this is where the sequel to Freedom Writers begins or something; what I will say, though, is that teaching writing effectively is more complicated than simply offering a choice.  The best, most memorable assignments are those which challenge you and make you feel uncomfortable, and without those, young writers will never get the chance to grow.


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