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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.

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BethMooreSchool View All

Literacy Coach, Consultant, Author, Graduate Course Instructor, and Mom. Passionate about fostering a love of reading and writing in learners of all ages.

6 thoughts on “Uncomfortable Topic Choices in Writing Workshop Leave a comment

  1. First of all, Boy Writers is one of the best writing resource books I have ever read, very enlightening!
    Second, after reading some heart-wrenching 5th grade memoirs last week, I truly understand the importance of allowing students’ choice in topics. One girl told me she cried when she wrote hers, and we talked about how good to it can be to let it all out through our pens!
    By the way, I have been reading a lot papers about Minecraft, and the other hot topic, Fortnite!

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  2. YES! We want them to write and then limit their choices, no wonder so many writers get turned off. I am definitely in the “now that I know better” camp when I look back on my former self.

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  3. Beth, this post reminds me of my fifth grade teacher. The movie Star Wars had just come out, and I become obsessed with writing science fiction. I imagine that my stories weren’t terribly original, but he always encouraged me. I credit him for helping me see myself as a writer today. The points you make around careful consideration of allowing certain writing topics are super helpful!

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  4. When I read that a teacher would no longer allow her students to write about football, it reminded me of my seventh grade English teacher, Sister Elenita. She required us to submit a weekly writing assignment. She was wise enough to allow us to write about anything we wanted. And this was in 1967! Each week my writing was about baseball; the Boston Red Sox were in the World Series and my life revolved around that team. Not many nuns in my many years of experience would have allowed this, but Sister Elenita was one of a kind. She was the one who inspired me to teach and to write and I am grateful to her for the wisdom and kindness she showed. I like to think that she has helped guide me in my 41 years of teaching.

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  5. Great advice! All things come and go in cycles. I’ve read A LOT about Minecraft over the last 3 years, but this year it seems to be fading out. (Just when I was starting to understand the game. HAHA) I feel like if their parents let them play the game and watch the TV shows then it’s already have a stamp of approval. And kids do get obsessed with topics, which means they don’t have to do much thinking about a topic to start with. Fan fiction, I guess we could call it.

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  6. This is an important conversation to have. I’ve changed my tune over and over again. Ralph Fletcher’s books Guy Write and Joy Write have helped me navigate this topic. All year one of my students has been developing a story about a dung beetle. He has used amazing puns and imaginative settings. It’s really been funny. My boys also love to write about Fortnite these days, a popular video game. I used to not allow any writing about video games, but like you said, when I took away this topic choice, they felt defeated and disrespected. I did recently tell a kid he had to take the word “sucks” out of his post. That word just rubs me the wrong way. I talked with him about school appropriate language and audience. Thanks for writing this post.

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