Where Has All the Real Choice Gone? Part 1-Ralph

This is the first of a three-parter inspired from a panel of the same name at the NCTE national conference in NYC this month.

 

I attended (along with a LOT of other teachers) a panel addressing the issue of the lack of authentic or even reasonable choice within the writing workshop as it is often practiced in the not-so-halcyon days of NCLB.  Ralph Fletcher, Katie Wood Ray and Peter Johnston tried (and succeeded) in pushing my thinking on how choice is both offered and framed in my classroom. 

Ralph Fletcher spoke about how giving students choice in what to write—topic, form, genre, etc.—needs to be given a higher priority than homogenizing classrooms so that students receive “parallel” experiences.  I respond to this notion as a teacher, a writer, and a citizen.  I know without doubt that when I am given choice, my writing is more important to me and better received by the audiences of my writing.  I know as a teacher that the vast majority of the best student pieces I’ve had the privilege of being audience to have come out of a choice environment.  Finally, as a citizen of a country whose hallmarks include individualism and diversity, I want all children to be raised with rich and varied opportunities for learning—not the same opportunities.

So what’s killing off choice?  In part, Ralph says the high-stakes testing and NCLB et. al. are partly responsible.  Real writing needs purpose and pay-off—for the writer, and these conditions don’t exist in the context of the tests.  Students are producing scores, not writing/ideas/truth/beauty.  The second factor Ralph talked about is the cultural norming in schools that seems to pull even well meaning writing teachers back to the norms of prompts and homogenized projects with discreet steps that limit the process of creation.  Assigned writing is blown way out of context and becomes all writing, or at least all writing assigned value by the adults surrounding our young writers.

Here’s what I’m thinking:  Choice is non-negotiable in creating powerful, self-efficient writers.  The classroom is the last place students have left to take risks and try on who they want to be, and classrooms that provide experiential learning like writing workshop have the best chance of producing the kind of citizens our economy and government and society need.

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