In a recent post I wrote about the importance of allowing students to choose their writing topics. Whenever I make that statement, I am always prepared to hear the “Yes, but…” responses. “Yes, choice seems important, but don’t I have to teach my students how to write for a prompt?” “Yes, but my students have to be able to pass the state writing assessments, and the state test doesn’t give them a choice.” “Yes, but what if my students say they don’t have anything to write about? They just don’t have background experiences, so they can’t think of good topics.”
I want to make sure there are no misunderstandings here. Is there ever a time when students need to write to a prompt? Yes! Should we teach them how to write for a prompt? Yes! I believe it would be educational malpractice if we didn’t. HOWEVER, this is NOT the only type of writing that should be happening in our classrooms. I have had many teachers tell me that this is the only type of writing their districts require them to teach all year.
Let me give you one way to think about this. Writing to a prompt or test-taking writing is one genre of writing. It is worth spending time on a test-taking unit of study to help prepare students for these tests. However, this is only one genre for writing. We need to expose our students to many genres through varied units of study throughout the year. These units may include personal narrative, personal essay, literary essay, book reviews, memoir, poetry, fictional narrative, editorials, and the list goes on.
The units of study at each grade level may not be negotiable at your school, but the students’ topic choices within those units should be. Teachers sometimes ask, “What about the child who wants to write about the same topic over and over?” What about that child?
A couple of years ago I heard Patricia Polacco speak at the Michigan Reading Association Annual Conference. She said we should be encouraging students to linger over topics longer and write multiple pieces on the same topic. She said that she, herself, really only writes about one thing—family stories. Think about her picture books. They all stem from stories of her own life or those of her relatives.
I’ve always had my students keep a list of their writing “territories.” This was a technique I learned in my early writing workshop days from Nancie Atwell in her book In the Middle. Hearing Patricia Polacco’s advice made me think more about these territories. These are the areas in our lives where we are experts. Territories are not single topics—they contain multiple topics. We should be encouraging our students to write deep, not wide.
A couple of weeks ago a teacher told me that she has a student who is obsessed with hunting and would want to write about hunting all the time if given the choice. Perfect! I love when students are passionate about something. Along with that passion comes loads of writing topics. I told this teacher that I wouldn’t care if he only wrote about hunting all year. Here are some pieces I imagine him writing:
- a personal narrative or memoir about a time he went hunting with his dad (he may have several). I’m thinking of Owl Moon by Jane Yolen or Crow Call by Lois Lowry as possible mentor texts for this type of writing.
- a safety manual for hunters
- a persuasive essay on gun control
- a personal essay on how hunting is a great father-son bonding experience
- a how-to piece like “how to become a successful bow hunter”
Do you get the picture? You could help a child who is passionate about hunting find topics in every genre unit of study and keep him engaged all year. He becomes the class expert on hunting. Pretty soon, other students decide they want to become the class expert on something, and they begin to find their areas of passion and interest. It’s contagious!
It sure seems to work for Patricia Polacco. Want to know what some other professional authors have to say about choosing writing topics? Here are a few:
“Write what’s in front of your nose.” —William Carlos Williams
“You’re welcome to write about anything, but the places and spaces where you spend time, that’s where you’ll know the details. That’s how you can take readers anywhere, make them see and feel.” —Jeff Anderson
“Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about. It is this genuine caring, and not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style. I am not urging you to write a novel, by the way — although I would not be sorry if you wrote one, provided you genuinely cared about something. A petition to the mayor about a pothole in front of your house or a love letter to the girl next door will do.” —Kurt Vonnegut