Where Has All the Real Choice Gone? Part 3–Peter

choicewords.jpgThis came from the NCTE in NYC last week:

Peter Johnston from the University of Albany approached the notion of choice in terms of the language in which we frame choice and generally speak to our young writers.  What words build a sense of agency in writers?  Peter’s work on language choice in teacher comments to students is revealing. 

I hadn’t thought about how some of my positively-intended reinforcement might create fear in students.  Peter’s work suggested that by making general “you’re smart at” statements, we might make the students afraid to risk new strategies, etc., in fear of losing the “smart at” status, leaving them continually plucking that one note.  Whereas if we frame things in terms of hard work or observation that simply reveals what the student has done, “naming” and acknowledging the strategy without value-tagging it, we do not create the dynamic of potentially losing some “smart” status.

Peter also emphasized that we do need to manage choice, and cites Carl Anderson’s work with conferring with young writers.  Sure, he gives choices, but when he has a teaching point to deliver to a student, he holds that student strictly accountable for making true effort to show learning on that point.  This makes me think how some teachers might read this choice business and see it as fluffy, non-rigorous business.  For the non-professional, uncommitted teacher, that could be true, because managing choice in the writer’s workshop is a very challenging endeavor for us as professionals.  It is working through that challenge, I suspect, that contributes to the much higher pay-off that writers workshop students and teachers get from their writing work than those who are working with more traditional models of instruction/learning (or not writing at all!).

Another light bulb—let them make choices, but ask them WHY—how much could we learn from that and how much could this kind of question help student writers find clarity and direction as a result of thinking and speaking to that big question.

So many ideas came out of this session for me, mainly because  I used a digital voice recorder to capture the audio part of the panel and listened to it a second time later at the hotel.  The sound quality is poor because I was far back in a very crowded room, otherwise I’d post excerpts.  Maybe I’ll figure out a way to “clean up” the audio—give me a few days to play with it.

“Teachers need to push students to be consciously aware of what they’re after in their reading and writing lives.”—Peter Johnston


4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Michele Corbat
    Nov 28, 2007 @ 19:43:24

    Erin turned me on to your blog and I am so glad that she did. I haven’t read all of your posts yet, but will. I have heard great things about this book and plan to read it over winter break. What do you think about using it for a book study in SC?
    Can’t wait to hear more about your trip to NY!


  2. hloney
    Nov 29, 2007 @ 23:46:18

    This title is also on my holiday reading list. I have to say it’s an area that I think I haven’t explored carefully. I think, like a lot of teachers, I just thought lots of positive feedback/encouragement/reinforcement was all it takes, but after hearing Peter speak, I am really questioning my assumptions. I think the interesting thing about this book is how the ideas apply to all subject areas, which makes it a great book, in my eyes, to use for book study.


  3. Melissa
    Nov 30, 2007 @ 22:01:23

    I bought this last year at NWP in Nashville, it is an excellent read! The RCWP book club also read it. It really makes me think about how I speak to my students and how important my words are!


  4. Trackback: Summer Goals Update Part 2 « Teachery

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