Amping up Agency Blog Series · choice

A Writer’s Choice: Amping Up Agency Blog Series

The conversation around the table is a familiar one: First grade teachers are busy unpacking their next genre study: How-To. “It’s the perfect time of year,” they say. It is December, and in Colorado that means snowmen, sledding, skiing, and hot cocoa. 

Then comes the big question: “So, do kids pick their topic?” 

At first, they share reasons for saying “no”: A few students will choose a topic without enough steps. Someone might choose a topic they don’t actually know how to do. A few will struggle to choose a topic at all. 

Lucky for these first graders, their teachers know the power that comes from making these struggles a part of workshop. It is by making choices like those about topics that students build agency and learn how to navigate the struggles that all writers encounter.

There are a variety of ways that we can infuse our workshops with opportunities for students to flex their decision-making muscles. Even when other facets of our planning require us to structure certain parts of our writer’s work, there is often still room to offer choice. Here are a few places to consider, starting with the one from the first grade team above:

Choice of Topic

These first-grade teachers quickly shift from anticipating problems to designing possibilities to support student choice, like:

  • Brainstorming topics that have multiple steps;
  • Adding students’ ideas to a growing class chart;
  • Conferring and giving feedback as students make their selections; and
  • Meeting with small groups to develop shared topics.

Sure, this process takes longer than it does to assign a topic, but students will invest more in writing about things they care about. Worse-case scenario? Someone chooses a topic that fizzles in the planning or drafting stage. When we see this as a natural part of writing processes, we understand that even decisions that don’t seem to work out teach students powerful and transferable lessons.

Choice of Genre

In my last post about big ideas in persuasive writing, I describe how—over the course of several days of immersion—a group of fifth graders studied a variety of genres, including public service announcements, commentary, and speeches. We discovered how authors of many kinds of opinion writing use figurative language among other craft moves to evoke emotion and add emphasis. Our big idea helped us to name critical attributes and allowed us to explore the connection between form and function. 

We studied opinion writing, and the same sort of study can support students to see the connections within and across informational and narrative writing, too. When we give students choice in genre, they learn about the nuances at both the macro- and micro-levels. They learn how some techniques transcend genre, and how each form has its own unique qualities, allowing them to discover those that best suit their purpose and voice.

Choice in Purpose 

In his book Joy Writing, Ralph Fletcher calls this “greenbelt” writing, conjuring images of large swaths of open land amidst urban areas to inspire the kind of writing students enjoy when we open up decisions about purpose. We might invite students to engage in this kind of writing during a center or literacy rotation, or it might hold its own place in our workshops, like Katie Wood Ray’s “backup work.” 

From space to create a birthday card or book to time to work on a novel, graphic or otherwise, this kind of writing—where the purpose originates with the writer—allows our students to write with abandon. It can even, as Kelsey Sorum describes in her 2019 post, facilitate other choice activities. In this way, students understand how writing is a tool—to make thinking visible—as well as a toy—to explore and enjoy. 

Choice in Process

I drafted this entire post without a plan. For me, “working” on a piece of writing means that I have to have material to work with. It would be hard for me to create a coherent outline ahead of time as I often don’t see connections or even what I am trying to say until it is a messy whole—something it has taken me decades to discover.

We all work at writing differently. As students get to know their personal preferences, we can offer choices within and across writing processes. For example, what might students choose when given several options for planning, like Melanie suggests in her 2017 post focused on narrative writing? How might students describe the way they move from an idea through drafting to a final piece? These are the kinds of decisions we can make visible so that students can choose them with intention. 

Process can also include writing tools and materials, so be sure to check out Jenna’s post later this week for more on how choice makes a difference for even our youngest writers.

Agency is about setting the expectation that each of us is the protagonist of our own story. It’s our job to help studenta see this as their role. When students make choices in our workshops, they experience life as a writer does, complete with all the uncertainty and failed attempts that come with it. What’s more, when students sense that we trust them to make these kinds of decisions we can learn from their experiences, enhancing our own writing choices and the ways that we support future writers.

Let’s face it, as teachers, we have enough decisions to make in the course of any day both in- and outside of the workshop. Whenever possible, the decisions about what and how to write—the decisions that make our students writers in the first place—belong to them! 

Share in the comments ways that you maximize choice in your workshops. What is the impact on students and your writing community?


Throughout the week, we’d love to hear your thoughts. We even have a book giveaway for those of you who share comments! 

  • This giveaway is for a copy of Engaging Literate Minds: Developing Children’s Social, Emotional, and Intellectual Lives, K–3 by Peter H. Johnston, Kathy Champeau, Andrea Hartwig, Sarah Helmer, Merry Komar, Tara Krueger, and Laurie McCarthy. Many thanks to Stenhouse Publishers for donating a copy for one reader.
  • For a chance to win this copy of Engaging Literate Minds, please comment on any of our blog series posts by Noon EST on Sunday, February 12. Leah Koch will use a random number generator to pick the winner whose name will be announced in the blog series wrap-up post on Monday, February 13. You must have a U.S. mailing address to enter the giveaway.
  • Please be sure to leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment, so Leah can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win. From there, our contact at Stenhouse will ship the book to you. 
  • If you are the book winner, Leah will email you the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – AMPING UP AGENCY BLOG SERIES. Please respond to her e-mail with your mailing address within five days of receipt. Unfortunately, a new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.

3 thoughts on “A Writer’s Choice: Amping Up Agency Blog Series

  1. I am loving this blog series! I just finished up a coaching cycle focusing on student agency in writing. These resources will help with any writing based instruction moving forward!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Bringing agency and joy to all of our literacy instruction! Thanks, Morgan, for these simple reminders about how to do this – even within the other guidelines we’ve got!

    Liked by 1 person

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