By Matt Glover
Last week, a teacher emailed me this quote from her child after one of his first days of school. That night at the dinner table her son Barney said:
“Mr. Harry made me LOVE writing today by just saying ONE WORD. He said we could write ANYTHING!!!”
So much is implied in the word anything. It’s ripe with possibilities for writing about any topic, in any genre that is meaningful to a child. Fortunately for Barney, his teacher wanted to capitalize on the power of anything to increase engagement. And judging by Barney’s reaction, it worked.
For years I have been advocating that teachers start the year with a writing unit of study that allows for choice of genre. In fact, I believe students at any grade should have several opportunities within a year to experience some units that allow for choice of genre, in addition to plenty of genre studies. However, I believe choice of genre is particularly important during the first unit when teachers want to maximize student engagement. If there has ever been a year when we need to think about increasing engagement, it’s this year.
I realize that having units that allow for choice of genre runs counter to the prevailing practice in many schools today. I work in a wide range of schools across the United States and internationally, and increasingly I’m in schools where students never have the opportunity to choose their genre. There are many schools where every unit of study in writing workshop, from the first day of kindergarten to the last day of eighth grade is a genre study. This is tremendously problematic, especially in terms of the impact on student engagement.
Let me be careful. This isn’t an anti-genre stance. I love genre studies. I spend significant amounts of time finding stacks of mentor texts for specific genres, and I have a wide variety of genres to study. But I also care about student engagement, which means I have to think about the role of choice of genre. Since engagement is especially important at the start of the year, I would not begin the year with a genre study.
If as educators we care about engagement, then we have to consider the role of choice. Choice and engagement are inseparable. In any activity, choice influences what we do, how we do it, and our disposition towards the activity. Learners in any area will be more engaged when they have ownership and control over their learning. In writing, choice manifests itself in many ways, including choice of both topic and genre.
I’ve written at length about the specific benefits of students’ choosing their genre, but I want to zero in on a few of the reasons that impact the beginning of the year. Regardless of whether you are teaching in person, online, or in a blended environment, engagement is more important now than ever. If your students are learning virtually, they need to be engaged in order to write a lot, which is crucial in becoming a better writer. If you’re teaching face to face, you may be online at some point and we want to maximize engagement now so it will carry over into an online setting.
Maximizing engagement right from the start should be enough of a reason to begin the year with a unit that allows for choice of genre. Here are a few that particularly influence the beginning of the year.
Understanding our students as writers
At the beginning of the year we want to understand our children as writers. I want to know what their favorite genres are, as well as their favorite topics. I want to know who’s the fantasy writer, the comic writer, the how-to writer. I want to be able to ask the question, “What genre have you chosen, and why?” That’s an incredibly revealing question and I can only ask it if the child has choice of genre.
Understanding all our students can do as writers
In addition to understanding children as writers, I want to see their best writing so I have an accurate understanding of their strengths. If I choose to start with a genre, whichever genre I choose will decrease engagement for someone in the class, and decreased engagement will make it difficult for them to show me all of their strengths.
Students will learn more when we study something in depth. Having choice of genre for a few days before we start a genre study won’t be enough. Instead, by going deep into topics (units) such as revision, peer conferring, illustration, or reading like a writer, we can accelerate student learning and provide them with crucial skills and understandings they can employ in every unit throughout the year.
Now that we are going to start the year with choice of genre, we need to think about the possibilities for units. A unit of study is simply a collection of days of teaching writing that work towards significant goals. There are at least three types of units we could include in our year. We could have:
- Genre Studies- Studying a specific genre of writing
- Process Studies- Studying an aspect of how authors create pieces of writing
- Craft Studies- Studying specific techniques authors use to craft effective pieces of writing
Students can meet the goals of a craft study or process study by writing in any genre they choose, thus increasing engagement in writing in any environment. In craft and process studies, the learning is dependent on students writing in a particular genre.
When working with teachers, I have a list of over twenty craft studies or process studies we consider. I wouldn’t rule out any of the them for the first unit of the year, and I know grade level teams that have used all of them as their first unit. But, some of them occur more frequently as the first unit. Some of the most common craft studies and process studies used to start the year are:
- Launching Writing Workshop– This process study focuses on helping students become self-directed, independent, and productive in writing workshop each day. The focus is often on the routines and procedures students need to start the year, especially if they are new to writing workshop.
- Launching the Use of a Writer’s Notebook– The key to this process study is that students are using a notebook as a tool to help them produce pieces of writing. Students are learning to use this important tool they will continue to use throughout the year.
- Finding and Developing Independent Writing Projects– When I tell 3rd to 6th graders that they can go write anything they want, I am sometimes met with, “What do I have to write about?” Or, “Which genre are we supposed to write?” Those questions indicate that students don’t know how to create independent writing projects, often because they have been consistently directed what to write for years. A process study on finding and developing independent writing projects teaches students how to choose topics and genres, plan and revise their writing, and how to start new projects.
- Reading Like a Writer– This process study nurtures students’ habit of mind of noticing what published authors do to craft texts well and then try those techniques out in their own writing. This important process skill is one they will need in every genre or craft study throughout the year.
- Author Study– Early in the year we want to support students in creating and maintaining a strong identity as a writer. An author study is a craft study that helps students realize that they can use the same techniques that published authors use.
- Genre Overview– An interesting question to ask your students is, “What genre have you chosen?” Many students don’t answer that question well simply because they haven’t heard it. This craft study helps students answer that question by supporting them in better understanding the concept of genre, as well as being more intentional and articulate about the genres they choose.
- How Authors Find Ideas– If your students consistently say they don’t know what to write about, this process study will provide them with strategies they can use to find meaningful topics throughout they year.
Again, in each of these units, students can meet rigorous unit goals by writing in any genre they find meaningful and energizing.
There are other units that often occur later in the year, but they could provide a significant benefit early in the year. For example, a unit on Revision sets students up to have a positive disposition toward revising throughout the year. Throughout the unit, students create pieces of writing and try out the revision techniques they are studying. This deep dive into a process that they are applying to personally meaningful genres and topics impacts their ability to revise in every unit that follows.
In whichever way we start the year, we have to consider how our actions align with our beliefs. If we believe that engagement is crucial in helping students become better writers, then we would have to consider the role of choice of genre. Writing anything will allow our students to write with energy in the first unit, and all the units to come
Matt Glover has been an educator for over 30 years, including the last 10 as an educational consultant. He is the author of numerous professional books for teachers, including Craft and Process Studies: Units of Study that Provide Students with Choice of Genre. Matt can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.