Students’ voice will only surface after they have had ample experience of choice.
It is essential in the 21st century to teach kids how to learn and to think critically about the information they access. Gone are the days with trips to the local library to research in the tomes of knowledge that were not allowed to be borrowed and removed from their quiet halls. Instead, students throw a few words into a search engine, and have immediate access to thousands of sources of information, both reliable and ridiculous. It is naïve to think, therefore, that the content we teach inside of the classroom is more important than the skills we model for how to process and deconstruct that content.
If you were presented with a template from a person of authority, in the same manner every day, each year, then one day asked how you’d like to express yourself, without a template, in all likelihood you’d chose to do it the same way you always have, and have always been told. Now add to that an element of assessment- how well will you do with your own choices? It’s no wonder students balk at first when told to choose whatever form of writing or topic they’d like. We all like what’s comfortable, we like what’s expected, and we like to know the results of our actions. As a student, if I know my teacher likes narratives, then I will choose a narrative in order to increase my chances of being successful with him or her.
Voice and choice are buzz words in today’s movement of best practice. But to concede to this movement, means letting go, and giving students’ the power to make choices, and have their voice heard. This is not always comfortable for teachers, but neither is it something that is done overnight with little regard for its execution.
I have always started the year focusing on purpose and audience for students’ writing. This allows for the greatest lee-way in choices and allows students to justify which form of writing they’ve chosen, and why it fits their topic and audience. Mini-lessons on word choice and sentence fluency, not to mention grammar and conventions, easily follow. Brainstorm choices and let students list all possibilities. I don’t mean a choice of two, but a true unfiltered brainstorm of writing forms or topics. To begin with, most kids will still choose what’s familiar to them. What they need to see, however, is that you encourage risk taking, and that if they choose familiarity this time, next time they will still be able to make a choice. They need to know you’re serious, and not about to renege on the tacit agreement of freedom. The classroom needs to be a safe environment, free from censure before they can take the risk of putting themselves and their choices on the line. Don’t be surprised when in the early stages of giving students choice that they check frequently for restrictions. You mean I can choose any form? So I could write a list? You mean ‘anything’? I can pick any topic? Video games?? If we focus on the bigger ideas – justifying why the form is appropriate for their purpose and audience – then it follows that the organizational pattern in which they express themselves does not need to be 30 identical copies within a classroom.
In the end, when students feel comfortable making choices which suit their individual style of learning and interest, we increase ownership and engagement. When students feel like making choices is expected, only then will they venture out more progressive ideas and opinions. Only then will they express their voices.
Photo Credit: Choices by Caleb Roenigk; CC BY license via flickr