academic choice · big picture · writing workshop

The Big Picture Series: Freedom in Topic Choice

“Write what makes you happy.”  — O. Henry

What wise words from O. Henry! So often we try to inspire our students to write by giving them topics we think will interest them. I know for me, relinquishing topic choice was one of the harder things to do when I transitioned into teaching according to the Writing Workshop philosophy. Looking back, I’m not sure why it was such a tough thing to let go.

 Perhaps part of it was because developing topics for students to write about was fun. I enjoyed the creativity of it. I enjoyed the safety of it. I enjoyed the ease of it. Not to mention, I was a little wimpy. If I gave freedom in topic choice, then what would they write about? What would I do when they said, “I don’t know what to write about?” One more thing, I was also a little egocentric. If I came up with the perfect topic, then they would love to write. I would have changed their lives.

 Oddly enough, I never developed the perfect topic. Can you believe it? Once I was brave enough to give students choice of topic, I was astounded at the results. Sure, there were the problems I expected. However, I armed myself with lots of strategies to teach in focus lessons about ways to find a topic. (Ralph Fletcher’s Writer’s Notebooks: Unlocking the Writer Within You was the main key to my teaching students the art of finding a writing topic.) By helping students to develop their writer’s notebooks, possible topics began flooding every writer.

 Ironically, these were the topics which changed my students’ lives as writers.  When they wrote the important stories of their lives, they were changed.  Suddenly Writing Workshop was a happy, productive, pleasant place. Students were much happier and so was I, for they were writing more than ever before. Since they cared about the topic, they cared about the process and craft and conventions too. These things mattered because the writing mattered.

 If I would have known the positive impact the simple change of giving students the freedom to chose what to write about and teaching the strategies to find these topics made, I would have made the switch in a snap. When teachers give students the freedom to write what they want to write, it is like waving a magic wand over the Writing Workshop. Perhaps you will even see the sparkles of the magic dust falling around your happy students as they settle in to write what matters. 


Today look for ways you can encourage students to write about topics that matter in their lives. Find out why students are writing the story, poem, or essay that they are working on. During conferences or in a focus lesson, encourage the writers in your room to consider the following: 

  • Why is this important to write?

  • What is the purpose?

  • What is the big idea I want my readers to realize?

More importantly, give students the freedom and encouragement to abandon any draft that isn’t making them happy. There are too many important lessons to teach for students to waste precious time writing unimportant pieces.

 Reflective Journal:

Record a conference or a focus lesson in which you shared O. Henry’s wise advice with your students. Reflect on your thoughts about giving students freedom to choose their own topics. What makes you hesitant to give this freedom? What makes you excited about this choice? Finally, take a moment to consider your happiest writing experiences. Are the times that come to mind when someone told you what to write about or when you decided what to write about?

 For More Information:

Katherine Bomer, Writing A Life

Ralph Fletcher, Keeping a Writer’s Notebook:  Unlocking the Writer Within You

Don Graves & Penny Kittle, Inside Writing

5 thoughts on “The Big Picture Series: Freedom in Topic Choice

  1. As you know, I’m a big fan of yours, and this is my favorite writing teacher topic. I love, love, love that you “get it” and that you keep on sharing! I’ll keep sending teachers your way…


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