Remote Learning, Week 2: Thinking about Writing as Choices

Nathan Coates

Nathan Coates teachers junior English at Mason High School, a large suburban district near Cincinnati. He tweets when he can remember to from @MHSCoates.

This post was first published on #MasonPLJourney and is reprinted with permission.

One thing I tried: My English teacher heroes beyond MHS, Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle, recently published a terrific piece called “The curse of helicopter teaching” in ASCD. In it they argue,

“When students haven’t been required to wrestle with difficult writing decisions–and when much of that decision making has been done by the teacher—they lose their sense of agency and their confidence as writers.”

This immediately resonated with me because the result of that student’s loss of confidence is boring writing, and HS English teachers everywhere are well acquainted with boring writing. But it also pinpoints that the role of the teacher in the writing process is to find ways to empower students to wrestle with choices that writers make and to foster the thinking that writing is a series of choices, that writing is thinking. Too many of my students think of writing as something academic (because that’s the only kind they often do) or as a means through which to answer a question and not as something that empowers them as individuals.

One way I’ve tried to go about creating this environment is through smaller Writing Challenges, a chance to write without some of the traditional constraints or rubrics. Instead, I give a few parameters and a skill focus. These are non-graded, feedback-only tasks. For Writing Challenge 2 during our remote learning experience, I asked students to make two intentional choices: the topic and the structure. You can see how I set it up below:

I think I’ve often given content choices throughout my teaching life (choose this prompt or that one). I’ve been less open about how to go about answering those prompts. By giving over some control of the structural choice, it gives students more ownership of their writing process. Instead of figuring out which three quotes to use as support, it opens it up to them to see where they need support and what kind of support they may need. Those are far more interesting discussions to have in class, too. This gives multiple variations for each topic which makes for more interesting reading on my end.

What I liked/didn’t like: Their finished products were good. The vast majority opted for option 1, which makes sense because it’s so immediate. But I saw all 4 structures employed to varying degrees of success. What I really liked was seeing the combination of choices—which structure they chose based on the topic. I think that takes some worthy thinking on their end. I think that next year I’ll probably spend more time during the first quarter discussing some of these basic choices and structures so we can add to it throughout the year and build outward from there.

What’s next: In week 3 book groups will have a final online discussion (written) to complete Unit 2. We’ll also move into some poetry to celebrate National Poetry Month.

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