choice · routines · strategies · writing workshop

Structure + Choice

Here’s what I’ve been thinking about lately: How do we provide both structure and choice in writing workshop?

Both are essential to empowering young writers. Structure is necessary to lift the level of every writer in the classroom. Choice is crucial for writers to learn to write with energy and strength.

Yet they sometimes seem to work against each other instead of with one another.

Sometimes, in the name of structure, choice is sacrificed. Other times, in the name of choice, structure is forgotten.

I believe it is possible for structure and choice to live together in symbiosis. I’ve been pushing myself to notice how I allow for both as I lead writing workshops in kindergarten, third grade, seventh grade, and eighth grade. Here is a small list of my initial reflections.

  1. I listen more than I tell.
  2. I operate from the basic principal that students want to be readers and writers; therefore, their choices are reflective of what they believe about reading and writing. I want to get behind them and nudge them to become more effective readers and writers.
  3. I smile. I find myself enjoying students. I want students to know they are valuable and special. I show this by trusting them to be readers and writers.
  4. I do things that scare me. In workshop, I’m always teetering on the line of success and major failure. I’m coming to believe if I’m sure of success, then I’m not trusting students enough. I should be relinquishing enough control that I feel a little unsettled. If not, then I’m controlling too many of the decisions writers should be making for themselves.

Okay. This is why I write lists like this. This is what Harvey Daniels would call a WRITING TO LEARN experience. I’m using writing to learn more about teaching writers. (As a side note, I’m helping to lead professional development tomorrow around the topic of writing to learn.) Number four on my list is really big. I’ve been trying to catch that learning for years. Now that I finally put words to the thoughts, I’m understanding more. I’m thinking about things in new ways.  And I’m asking myself: Is that true? Is that really what I mean?

My heart is pitter pattering with this new learning. I’m itching to write more, to find out what else I know about the symbiotic relationship between choice and structure. I’m thinking about what I’m going to do in workshops tomorrow that scares me, and how my decisions will impact writers for the better.

{I hope you are inspired to write a list in order to learn more about teaching writers. Trust me, it feels really good to find out you know things you didn’t realize you knew. Happy writing.}

7 thoughts on “Structure + Choice

  1. At the end of last year, I facilitated a cycle of professional development at my school that we called: “Choices, choices! How does offering choice in writing content and process affect students’ independence, ownership, and writing quality?” We explored how we could build more structures into our workshops to enable students to make more choices… We played with offering choice during teaching shares, minilessons, partnerships, and writing process. Unsurprisingly, teachers were really excited about the level of engagement and ownership students brought to their work! So, I do think that choice and structure can go hand in hand, but perhaps this works best when we’re clear about the reasons for offering choice (What will students gain through making more choices, what might they lose?), and perhaps construct structures to serve writers’ choices and choice-making?


  2. Thank you, Ruth, it was great to read your words today. I think choice and structure can support and sustain the other. In the right conditions choice provides engagement and empowerment, while structure offers both safety and the opportunity to stretch. I often ask myself and the teacher I work with, “What is invitational in writing workshop and what is not? Why?”


  3. Number 4 – do things that scare me – Oh YES! This is my life right now – I have 5th grade in the am ( I get them and we are slowly but surely moving forward) and 4th grade in the pm – reading, writing and science. My afternoon 4th grade is all extremely low. I am swimming in deep water and not sure where to even begin. They have yet to truly understand school. They love picture books – were great with predictions today when reading Stuck and No David but pencil to paper was not happening. I am looking closely at structure which they need but choice which will help motivate them to try. It is an amazing line to walk. Thoughts and ideas are welcome and needed. Teaching in high poverty is always a journey of soul.


  4. I wonder if we have gone too far afield from the Donald Graves’ concept of writing workshops where students are empowered to write about personally meaningful concepts? I wonder if sometimes, we feel we always need to be in control of everything that happens and assure that all projects work to some greater good. Writing and reading about personally significant topics means that we need to pass some of the control to our students. Yet, in reality, we seem to be taking more and more control of everything that happens. We might want to think about the balance of structure and control in light of workshops where students are engaged in personally meaningful tasks. A great thought provoking post.


  5. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking along those lines as well. How does the dichotomy of structure and choice change when working with second language learners? They need more scaffolding of vocabulary, syntax, and grammatical structures (= structure) to be able to fully express themselves (= choice). When you teach in a language immersion setting, all the students are learners of that language (Spanish, French, or Chinese, etc). So I struggle with choice when the kids constantly don’t have the vocabulary to express what they want to say. Is it appropriate to give choice within a very structured writer’s workshop? For example, if you have everyone work on a descriptive piece about their best friend, you can generate a large word bank so everyone has the vocabulary and expressions needed. At the same time, the writer’s workshop shouldn’t feel like you are writing to a prompt. What are your thoughts?


  6. THis is a hard concept. This year I’m trying to combine my learning from a couple of professional books. So I’m providing the structure of genre, but giving them choice of topic, when they write them, what they write about and let them break the “rules” of the genre if they feel the need. Scary to turn them loose, but I’ve gotten some wonderful writing from them in the past.


  7. I think #4 sounds true, and that makes it more scary. I expecially am thinking about the not trusting and too controlling parts- that kind of puts structure/choice in a different light, not only an academic kind of choice, but personal, valuing the individual. I’m also thinking about #2. I think we have to believe that students want to be readers and writers…but it isn’t so easy when you look into bored faces and hear more talk of video games and scary movies (that I never allowed my kids to watch at the age of the kids talking about them!) than anything else.


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