academic choice · choice · middle school · process · units of study

Designing Writing Units Where Students Choose the Product

Once upon a time, I was a lock & step writing teacher. I started my career devoted to the idea of a singular, linear writing process. Essentially, everyone in the class took a pre-designated amount of days to work on a particular step in the writing process. Unsurprisingly, writing often felt ho-hum and the products students created were near replicas of each other.

A lot has changed since those formative years in the classroom. I have learned how important it is to nurture each writer’s process, progress, and growth, and not overly focus on a predetermined product. Over time, I accepted- and then embraced- the “messy” weeks when the daily work of writers was as unique as the writers themselves. I nudged my practice further after reading Beth’s blog on process-focused writing. I dramatically nodded along while reading the ideas included in Melanie’s brilliant post on individual writing processes. As I transitioned away from a one-size-fits-all writing process, I joyfully witnessed the energy that results from honoring the different processes classroom writers use. I became a believer. 

…And then I began to rethink other classroom writing protocols. I wondered, What if I offered students choice in process AND product? Was it REALLY necessary for everyone to write a personal narrative? Did all 26 students have to write a character-based literary essay? Why couldn’t I abandon the idea that all class members needed to present their research findings in a formal essay? 

This lightbulb moment was quickly followed by curiosity – and a little fear. Questions like these began running through my mind: 

  • Why was I insisting that we all create the same kind of product? Was it because it was easier for me? 
  • What else might I learn about students, their writing identities, and their preferences if I loosened the reins?
  • What kinds of decisions would students be responsible for making? How would I support students in this work? 
  • What might stay the same – and what might need to change? 
  • How would I manage the day-to-day challenges of having students work on different kinds of products?
  • Was taking this risk worth the effort? 

I took a deep breath and let my wheels begin to spin. The more I contemplated making this shift, the more excited I became. Within a few days, I decided to go for it.
First, I brainstormed the different kinds of products I had created with students across grades and settings. Here’s what I came up with:

Through this exercise, I began to realize that within each text type, my teaching was fairly similar, even when the format of the product changed. This gave me a boost of needed confidence. 

Next, I found a partner and dipped my toe into the “choice of product” waters. As a coach who has the opportunity to partner with teachers and students across grades, I took my first low-stakes risks with mini-units that did not have a formally published piece. I collaborated with a couple of colleagues to try out the following “open product” mini-units. 

  • During a two-week conventions-themed bootcamp, fifth-grade students were invited to practice using prioritized conventions in any kind of narrative writing they wanted. Students in that class chose to work on realistic fiction stories, graphic novel chapters, and high-fantasy hero stories.
  • During a two-week craft study on figurative language, seventh-grade students tinkered with infusing figurative language into their free-verse stories, memoirs, and one-scene screenplays. 

These dip-in units were surprisingly successful. Students embraced the offered choices. There was a marked uptick in stamina and perseverance. During this time, I also realized that the whole-class lessons didn’t need to change; offering a choice in product did not require shifting the focus of our planned minilessons. Small-group lessons and conferring conversations were ideal times to provide instruction and feedback on both process and product. There were a few clunky moments, but overall, these pilot units were much smoother than I imagined.

After that, I was ready to take on a full-fledged choice-in-product unit. It was an information writing unit. In the past, the students all created websites. However, this time around, we invited students to choose whether they wanted to present their findings in a research paper, website, or webinar. 

Here are the details on how this sixth-grade unit was structured in one class:

 Here’s what it looked like in another sixth-grade classroom:

Admittedly, these full-fledged units felt a little trickier. In retrospect, it would have made a LOT more sense to pilot the units in the classes where we practiced making these kinds of decisions in the low-stakes mini-units. I also think that the next time I try a choice-in-product unit, I would use a hybrid version of the two above formats. 

That said, I am officially a convert! I loved the renewed sense of energy and enthusiasm that came with offering middle-grade writers choice in product. They appreciated the trust, respect, and open opportunity to explore something new. Classroom writers were focused and diligent when they met with “same product” peers to collaboratively problem-solve and celebrate. I am confident that the bumps we experienced this time around will smooth out with practice. I look forward to the adventures that will take place as we forge new paths in writing. 

Many of today’s students crave choice, freedom, and the excitement of exploring something new. This year, as you prepare to roll out your writing units, you may also want to reconsider the level of constraints within each unit. How and when might you invite students to choose the product that best fits their personal preference and intended audience? What level of risk feels right for you?

6 thoughts on “Designing Writing Units Where Students Choose the Product

  1. I really appreciate the ideas here and the awesome chart! I think I could share this with my colleagues and have a conversation about product. Our district asks us to hand in samples of specific products (personal essay, literary essay, persuasive speech) so I’ve always felt locked into the product students have to produce. I think students would be excited and motivated to learn about other possibilities that live in the world and that they can try.

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  2. Pam, this post made my writer-self (and my teacher-of-writers-self) so happy to read! I appreciate your thoughtfulness in test driving with low stakes writing before diving into full units. The questions you asked yourself and the charting you did added structure to your process that we can all learn from as we follow our own curiosities around the teaching of writing. Thank you so much for sharing this with us!

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  3. Pam,
    Thank you for this. I’ll be sharing it with my MS 6-8 teachers in VA! You give us lots of great ideas to ponder. I especially like the questions you asked yourself, the chart of products and the unit planning charts!

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  4. There is so much to love about this post. I appreciated not only the list of products by grade band and type of writing, but your honesty about how it went to implement these choice in product units. Thanks for showing us the way, Pam!

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