differentiation in writing through choice

carol ann tomlinson, the guru on differentiation, teaches that you can differentiate the content, process, and product of what you’re teaching. in writing workshop, student choice plays a role in each of these areas.

before diving into some examples, a little bit about the value of choice. as adults, it’s easy to forget the interest and autonomy that’s gained from the opportunity to make a choice for ourselves. making choices is just a part of reality, of our daily lives for adults. for kids, choice has some novelty because so much of their lives is decided for them.

our opinion is that kids become more invested and engaged, and feel more respected, when they’re given the chance to make choices. and while certainly not everything is open for discussion in our room, we think it’s important to purposefully consider where there might be room for kids to make choices, and then honor the choices they make.

choice in content. this is sort of the heart of writing workshop: kids are choosing what they want to write about. of course, we teach strategies in each genre as a way to support students in finding a writing topic (e.g. thinking of people, places, and things close to our heart when we’re writing personal narratives), but the students are the ones making the choice about what to write about.

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an example of a page in our writer’s notebook from gathering a list of ideas to write about. each writer has his own individual list of writing territories – topics he could return to over and over, no matter the genre.

choice in process. when we teach a strategy in a mini-lesson, it’s rare that we say that everyone is trying that strategy that day. there are times when everyone needs to try it (like on the day that we devote to choosing an idea – we’ll typically ask the whole class to choose that day to help move them along in the writing process), but usually, kids are making choices about how they move through the writing process. so, our language during our mini-lesson sounds more like, “this is something you may decide to do today,” and we might add on some qualifiers to help students a little bit more (e.g. “if you feel like your draft is the best first draft it can be, then you might be ready to think about revision, and so you might decide to try the strategy we learned today…”)

Photo 2014-06-16 10.42.25 AM

an anchor chart reminding students of the writing process. we author the chart in front of the students as we move through our first unit of study. the post-its are student initials to show where in the writing process the students are for their independent project. (chart structure courtesy of shana frazin.)

most of our kids need some support in moving to next steps of the writing process; the openness of moving through the writing process at their own pace, when the reality is there are deadlines for the beginning and end of units of study that we need to meet as a class, is too much for fourth graders, in our experience. students do have more say in timing and pacing of each part of the process in their independent projects. in the unit of study we’re working through as a class, though, students choose which strategies they’ll try at each part of the process, and move more at pace through the process as our mini lessons progress (i.e. most students end up doing some type of revision work for three days if we’re teaching three days worth of revision mini-lessons, but they may not do each strategy we teach. some students may spend more than one day on a single strategy and others may return to old revision strategies).

our anchor charts are extremely important for students to be supported in this work, as they act as a record of teaching and also provide a scaffold for students when trying the work independently. our anchor charts make it more likely that our students will be successful with a strategy when they’re trying it a few days later (or even a few months later, since we’ll return to old anchor charts when they fit with our current unit – during realistic fiction, for example, we’ll return to the revision strategies we learned during personal narrative, since both are narrative genres).

narrative revision chart

an example of an anchor chart in writing. we try to make the charts transferrable, so that this isn’t specific to a single unit of study, but instead, can be used across a genre (narrative, in this example). the strategy is listed with some examples that students can look at or borrow (they peel off & restock to the chart) to support their independent work.

most years we have some students who need more structure than having the choice of strategies be totally theirs. often, these are students who have difficulty being productive in writing workshop or are reluctant to try strategies on their own. for these students, we differentiate by asking them to first try the strategy taught during the mini-lesson that day, and then moving on to other strategies of their choice, using the class anchor charts. in this way, they’re provided with some structure – and have just been given a model of how the strategy looks during the mini-lesson, so they’re set up to be successful – as well as the opportunity to choose strategies for themselves. we’ve found this to be an effective way to support students who struggle with the independence of writing workshop.

choice in product. our class units of study end in a published piece, which students have the choice to handwrite or type. if students choose to handwrite their piece, they have a choice in the type of paper they use, with different width of lines and with or without a box for illustrations. students have choice in how they publish their independent projects, which are ongoing across the year, and also how they share their piece during some of our celebrations.

during our poetry celebration, for example, we often do poem performances. students choose one of their own published poems or a published mentor poem that influenced their own poetry writing to share at the celebration. students then choose how they’ll share their poem – will they read it? create a piece of artwork to accompany the poem? write music to be played as they read the poem? act the poem out? bake something related to the poem?

in our celebrations for narrative pieces, we have tried letting students choose a golden line that they share either orally or by marking it in some way and telling why they are proud of this line. this gives students an opportunity to highlight a part of their writing that they’re  particularly proud of and gives us an opportunity to notice the purposeful moves students are making as writers.

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