Never Write About the Same Topic as Your Students–Except Sometimes

The cornerstone of writing workshop is that students get to choose their own topics rather than be assigned a topic by the teacher. If you are teaching informational writing, for example, students might choose any topic to write about: skateboarding, dogs, dragons, Pokemon, and ice cream would all be legitimate topics for a student to choose. If this seems crazy to you, read this post about uncomfortable topic choices and then come right back to read the rest of this.

Allowing for student choice of different topics is so engrained in the workshop model of teaching, in fact, that alarm bells go off in my mind when students “steal” my topic, instead of generating their own.

Once, in a kindergarten classroom many years ago, I demonstrated writing a book I titled “All About Goldfish.” As part of my minilesson, I quickly sketched a few things I knew about goldfish. I drew a picture of a pet store on one page and gave it a heading (“Where to Get Goldfish”), a jar of goldfish flakes on one page (“What to Feed Your Goldfish”), and then, just to be kind of funny and memorable I gave the last page the heading “What to Do if Your Goldfish Dies” and drew a goldfish with X’s for eyes. (Trust me, it was funny and cute, not nearly as morbid and weird as it seems).

This is a recreation of the original.

The kids soaked in my lesson, enraptured by my advice on what to do with a dead goldfish. I ended the minilesson by having them each close their eyes and think of a topic for their own books. I said, “When you’ve thought about what you want to write about, give me a thumbs up and I’ll tap you on the shoulder to go off and get started on your own book.” One by one, these adorable kindergarteners whispered to me their topics, a wide-range covering everything from sports to cooking to fingernail polish. They tiptoed off to their spots and got busy drawing.

There was only one problem. Can you guess what every single kid was drawing?

Yep. Dead goldfish. Everywhere.

First I sighed the sigh that only a kindergarten teacher truly understands. Then I did everything I could to encourage kids to choose their own topics. Eventually, they all did.

All except for one. We’ll call him Josh. Josh stayed with the goldfish thing, despite my coaxing and cajoling to pick a topic of his own. “But I have a goldfish too,” he said. Maybe this was true, maybe not. But he was drawing and writing a lot about goldfish. If he didn’t have a goldfish at home, it didn’t matter, because there was a fish tank right there in the classroom. Ultimately, I could see that drawing and writing about goldfish was important to him–and he was a student that did not usually want to write at all.

In my work, I travel from classroom to classroom, and school to school. Josh and the goldfish thing stuck with me for a long time, and I began to realize that I could harness the power of the teacher’s topic. I started to match my topic to the topic of the most reluctant writers intentionally.

I can’t remember when I first heard or read other people talking about using the teacher topic as a support for reluctant writers–for many years I was a full-time staff developer at TCRWP, so it could have been at a conference, a Thursday think tank, in a draft of a book, or all of the above. It mostly likely came from mentors of mine like Lucy Calkins, Kathleen Tolan, Kathy Collins, Shanna Schwartz or others. In any case, over time, matching my own teacher-chosen topic to the topic of the most reluctant writer has become a habit and I’ve found it to be incredibly supportive.

If you’re integrating social studies or science, your students might choose a subtopic of their own related to the whole class topic, still allowing for plenty of choice within a whole-class study.

The subtopics and questions are a work in progress. C3 is new to us!

Often, teachers use a topic of their own to use in minilessons and conferences with students. During a Westward Expansion unit, I might use the Pony Express as my own topic to demonstrate on, while students write about other Westward Expansion topics of their own choosing, allowing students to transfer the writing strategies I demonstrate to their own pieces of writing.

Even in the upper grades, during a content area unit, I encourage teachers I work with to model with the topic their most struggling students are working on. This doesn’t take work away from those students. Instead, it is incredibly supportive.

A few ways you can support students who need extra help by writing about the same topic they are writing about:

  1. In your minilessons, you can use that topic as you demonstrate how to plan a draft, get started drafting, revising, and every part of the writing process. The students who are also writing about that topic will be familiar with the content-related vocabulary and concepts, so they can focus more on the writing strategy–instead of being bombarded with both a writing strategy AND an unfamiliar topic.
  2. You’ll be referring to parts of read-alouds and mentor texts that support your topic–which also happens to be the same topic as some students. These reminders might provide a little extra inspiration for what to write about.
  3. Students’ writing can mirror what you wrote. It’s okay if they write their own version of essentially the same thing you just wrote–if the likely alternative is that they might write nothing at all. You won’t allow them to simply copy, but using your writing as a close mentor can help them get over the hurdle of getting started.
  4. When a student is writing about the same topic as you, your writing might be more easily understood by that student. It’s easy to assume that your writing makes perfect sense to all the students–don’t assume!
  5. At every step of the way your struggling students’ work can turn into a source of inspiration for you and the class. Since they are writing about the same topic, you can easily say, “So I got this great idea from so-and-so because we’re writing about the same topic…”
  6. Your ultimate goal is to encourage and nudge students to branch off and make their writing their own. In your conferences you will need to suggest different strategies to try, other sections or features to include, and ensure that the student is making decisions about their writing, not just copying.

There is just one very important caveat to all of this. The goal is independence and meaning. Always. Using your topic and writing as a springboard to get over a hurdle or a frustration is a starting point, but there has to be a plan for cutting back the scaffolds over time so that every student has the opportunity to do this work on their own–to make choices and decisions about what to write and how to go about it. Perhaps you change your topic after a few days or weeks. Perhaps you encourage the student to move on to a new topic. Maybe you become very intentional in exactly how much you physically write down in your modeling, and how much you just think aloud, leaving more of the writing for the students to imagine.