The Importance of Repertoire: Nurturing Independence From the Start

Early in my daughter’s cooking career, she learned how to make strawberry shortcake. Cecily had attended a cooking class, and her highlight was the dessert. We ate a lot of strawberry shortcake. At first, we all loved it, but after several renditions, we (might) have gotten a little sick of it. Since then, Cecily has expanded her dessert repertoire. Sometimes she reads cookbooks. Sometimes she watches videos. Sometimes a newspaper recipe will inspire her. She makes many different desserts, including strawberry shortcake, and we are always happy to try them! Now that I’m not having strawberry shortcake a few times a week, I look forward to it and love when she makes it. 

Repertoire is all that we know and are prepared to do within our craft. While many people think of repertoire and music in the same wavelength, the term can apply to almost anything. In Cecily’s case, it applies to desserts. In writing classrooms, repertoire applies in a few different ways. 

At one level, maybe the highest level, repertoire relates to students in terms of what they know and are able to do as writers who consider audience and purpose. Even kindergartners arrive with a set of understandings about writing, and we can tap into their knowledge right away. One way to do this is to co-create a chart of different writing types early in the year. 

How to plan for it
Important structures it has
How to make it better

This sort of a chart does not have to be elaborate, but it helps remind students of what they already know as writers, and that is always a good thing!

Repertoire involves not only what students know and are able to do in terms of various genres, but also what they know and are able to do within genres. 

Sometimes I visit classrooms, read one student’s writing, and feel impressed  with how they hook readers with a question. But then, I walk around the room and realize that everyone is beginning their introduction with a question. And, if I read other pieces the students have written, all of the pieces begin with a question, too. So how can we inspire students to begin pieces in different ways other than asking questions? That’s where repertoire comes in again. Think about charts that are set up along these lines: 


From that chart, we can show students the different ways these strategies could go. I’ll use the following  idea:  

Which is better for ordering ice cream? Cups or cones?


  • Have you ever ordered an ice cream cone and had the scoop hit the ground when you take the first lick? 

Three Questions in a Row

  • Have you ever ordered an ice cream cone and had the scoop hit the ground when you take the first lick? Have you ever had your cone melt faster than you could possibly eat it so that your hand ends up a sticky mess? Or have you ever had ice cream drip out of the bottom of the cone onto your shirt or your lap? 

A Quick Story

  • I remember the time I ordered an ice cream cone at Scoops. Maybe it was the server’s first day, and maybe I should have watched her more closely as she packed the ice cream into the cone (or did NOT pack the ice cream into the cone). In any case, I took the first lick of my peppermint ice cream and the whole scoop landed kersplat on the ground. I had to clean it up and get back in line for a new cone.

An Image or Scene

  • Imagine waiting in line and finally getting your ice cream cone, taking a first lick, and having the entire scoop land in a heap in front of your feet. 

Once we have these sort of samples in front of us and students, we can have important conversations about which one we think is the most effective lead and why. Whenever we ask students to rank, we are almost always asking them to do higher-order thinking. Also, we are modeling the importance of experimentation and process for writers. 

My sample is for leads in opinion writing, and I envision this sort of lesson in a third or fourth-grade classroom,  but we can expand this thinking to fit any genre and any level. The important element is that we are acknowledging and showing students that there are different ways to do something within the process. Just thinking within a narrative lens, there are different ways to:

  • Think of ideas
  • Plan
  • Begin a story
  • Make characters come to life
  • Incorporate dialogue
  • Show how characters are feeling
  • Spell words

…and I could go on. The important thing is that we show students those choices, give them opportunities to try them, and let them decide which will work for them as writers. We can have conversations about why they made the decisions they did, and we can challenge them to try out other strategies. Rather than tell them to plan by drawing across pages in a way that communicates an assignment as opposed to a process (we want a process and not an assignment in our writing instruction!) we can have conversations that go along the lines of: 

“You planned by drawing across pages. How is that easier for you than making a timeline? How about you try a timeline as well, and see what feels better to you as a writer?”

When these types of conversations happen, our writers internalize various ways to address a challenge instead of one way. And, they can make decisions in future situations with an understanding of themselves as learners and writers. The truth in writing — and in many aspects of life — is that there  isn’t really one way to do anything. The strongest writers understand their options and are flexible and intentional with their choices. That’s repertoire! 

Sometimes it’s hard to know how to fit this kind of experimentation into our workshops. Maybe what’s important is that not every piece has to meet every expectation. Students can try out some options even during a minilesson. Minilessons have specific components that include a connection, instruction, active engagement, and a link to students’ work. During active engagement, we can say something along the lines of:

“Choose two strategies that you think might work for you and give them a go. Practice saying how they could go with your writing partner.”

This sort of statement empowers writers to weigh options and make decisions without being told what to do. And it’s this kind of empowerment that leads to more courage, greater independence, and a more expansive repertoire for developing writers.

Giveaway Information:

This giveaway is for a copy of No More “I’m Done!” and No More “How Long Does It Have to Be?” by Jennifer Jacobson. Thanks to Stenhouse Publishers for donating a copy of each of these books — one book for a primary educator and one book for a secondary educator. (You must have a U.S. mailing address to win a print copy of this book.)

For a chance to win this copy of  No More “I’m Done!” or No More “How Long Does It Have to Be?”, please leave a comment about this or any blog post in this blog series by Sunday, August 11th at 6:00 p.m. EDT. BE SURE TO WRITE DOWN THE GRADE LEVEL OR GRADE BAND YOU TEACH SO WE CAN PUT YOU IN THE RUNNING FOR THE BOOK THAT MATCHES THE GRADE BAND YOU TEACH. Betsy Hubbard will use a random number generator to pick the winner’s commenter number. The winners will be announced in the ICYMI blog post for this series on Monday, August 11th.

Please leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment so Betsy can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win.  From there, our contact at Stenhouse will ship the book to you. (NOTE: Your e-mail address will not be published online if you leave it in the e-mail field only.)

If you are the winner of the book, Betsy will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – NO MORE BOOKS within five days of receipt. A new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.