Uncomfortable Topic Choices in Writing Workshop

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Let’s face it. Sometimes kids write about stuff that makes us uncomfortable. Sometimes it’s a topic bordering on inappropriate for school: a fart story, a book about butts, or a zombies-eating-your-brains type of story. Or if you teach middle school –  maybe there’s something a little too sexy.

Sometimes it’s more serious: a family argument, or a story revealing that the student is in crisis.

How do you handle these moments? What does a conference look like when you’re thinking, “Oh my goodness. Should I even be letting them write about this in school?!”

In his book, Boy Writers, Ralph Fletcher provides advice that is helpful for all of our writers. His work always reminds me of the importance of:

  • Encouraging all students to write about topics and ideas they are passionate about, no matter what.
  • Understanding that writing and acting out fight scenes, hunting, and action stories are normal for many kids, and can actually be an important, healthy way for students to organize their thinking about action and violence.
  • Recognizing and encouraging humor when we see it, and honoring it for the smart thinking that it involves.

With this in mind, it’s helpful to consider guidelines for thinking about uncomfortable topics when they come up. And they will come up eventually.

For starters, we can begin with the baseline assumption that pretty much anything goes. Including: zombies, butts, farts, uncomfortable family stuff, even middle school crushes. Anything happening in students’ lives, or anything they are interested in–it’s all allowed.

Except… there are a few very clear bottom lines:

  • Absolutely no hate speech is allowed.
  • We must report any evidence that any student would cause harm to themselves or others, or if there is any evidence that any student is in danger of any kind.
  • Students should know that we plan to share what is written in class with families, and students should factor that into their decisions about topic choice.

But even with these very clear bottom lines, there are many pieces of writing that fall into a grey area. I could list a hundred examples of topics that I have seen forbidden from classrooms: Minecraft, zombies, fighting of all kinds, hunting. . . I even knew a group of teachers who banned kids from writing about football anymore because “kids wrote about too much.” Many years ago, before I knew better, I talked a student out of publishing a story about his pet guinea pig eating its own offspring. (I know, gross, right?) We all make mistakes.

The problem with banning a topic is that it not only takes that topic off of the list of possibilities for a particular student, it has a domino effect. Because you banned one topic for one student, now all your students know that you consider some topics off limits. This will stop some students from writing, for fear they might choose the wrong topic. Other students will simply pick less meaningful, less interesting topics, leading them to find writing in and of itself less meaningful and less interesting.

Instead of banning a topic, we might use these guidelines for conferring with writers:

Is the student actually engaged, curious, and passionate about the topic? Or is it a fleeting interest? Or are they using this topic as a distraction from a deeper issue?

  • If not genuinely engaged, curious, or passionate about the topic, you might teach the student new strategies for choosing truly high-interest, meaningful topics.

Is the piece of writing going to cause harm to any other person’s feelings (including other students, parents, or teachers)?

  • If the writing could be interpreted as hurtful or unkind, teach students to consider their audience and revise so that it has the impact they were hoping for, rather than hurting others. Often students just haven’t considered how their writing might affect particular individuals or groups — you might use role-play in a conference to help develop empathy and perspective-taking.

Is it possible for the student to practice the work of your unit of study if they stick with this topic?

  • If not, then you might teach students to look to mentor texts for genre, organization, elaboration, craft, and then think again about what they might want to write about that would fall within the realm of your unit of study.

Why am I uncomfortable with this topic to begin with? Is it because I don’t know much about it myself?

  • If yes, then use this as an opportunity to learn from your students. We can learn so much from them if we’re open to it.

Encouraging students to write anything they are genuinely passionate about is key to developing the type of relationships you need with students to help them grow as writers.

That guinea pig story? It was written with detail, and tension, and drama. It was simultaneously heart-wrenching and hilarious. It was shared and reshared among my fifth graders despite my attempt at censorship. Kids were genuinely curious and enthralled by his account of this incredible thing that a classmate had witnessed. It wasn’t hurting anyone. In fact, the author of the guinea pig story became known as a funny, subversive, creative writer among my students. Thank goodness kids recognized great writing when they saw it!

P.S.

If you haven’t already, you should listen to this episode of Mindshift, The Creative Writing Assignment, from KQED. It’s all about the importance of students having space to share the stories of their own lives, but also about how hard it can be to carry the weight of it all, for you, the writing teacher. Get your tissues ready. It’s a tear jerker.