One of the hardest things I ask my students to do all year is choose their own topics. We start generating ideas on the first day of school. We watch video clips, read quotes and short passages, listen to poems, look at cartoons — and we write responses. We create various versions of writing territories in our writer’s notebooks. We have many ideas stored in our well-used notebooks by this time each year.
But with every writing task, students seems to always start the topic journey right back at square one, even when I remind them that they have a mine of ideas sitting in the pages of their composition books. I’ve decided that just like me they like the process of discovery.
My goal is to get them to move past topic discovery into writing discovery. Too often, students think they have to know what they want to say before they ever start writing. No wonder so many kids have a hard time approaching the blank page. (See NCTE’s 10 Myths of Learning to Write #4)
The last writing assignment my students complete each year is a multi-genre type piece wherein they show they’ve improved in the various writing modes we’ve practiced throughout the year. They have almost total choice in terms of what they write, and they have most of the choice in terms of the forms they write in.
I have just two mandatory suggestions (oxymoron intended): one piece must be a Rogerian argument, and somewhere in their master piece, students must show they know how to use an academic database to find valid sources, and then they must use the sources in the correct context, and cite the sources correctly.
We look at a few mentor texts that use multiple genres within the same piece. Narrative, informative, persuasive — plus images and info-graphics, or other types of forms that present information, including videos and interviews. My favorite is the award-winning feature article, Snowfall: Avalanche at Tunnel Creek by John Branch.
Once students know their end-goal: the creation of their own multi-genre writing piece that shows off their writing journey for the year, they must choose a topic. Some will want to stick with a topic they’ve written about multiple times this year. Depending on the topic, and the student, I may be oaky with that.
This mini-lesson came about in an attempt to help students figure out a topic that they know enough about to ask questions but not so much about that they could answer all of them.
Objective: Using the language of the Depth of Knowledge Levels, students will construct a list of things that make them wonder; they will formulate questions about a self-selected topic derived from their wonderings. They will then categorize the questions in sets that make sense. Finally, they will determine which questions may best be answered through a specific genre or form of writing.
Lesson: I tell students that we are about to play in our notebooks. “Turn to a new page, and write a list of all the things you wonder about,” I say. They usually sit there writing nothing, so I get them started: “I wonder if teens got paid to go to school if they would want to learn more.”
Most students start to write, but I keep wandering the room, stating things that make me wonder as students list their own wonderings in their notebooks.
“I wonder when the state of Texas will get wise to the lack of wisdom in state testing. I wonder why students choose to do their APUSH homework over AP English. I wonder if the Dallas Cowboys will ever win the Superbowl again.”
Once students have at least a half a page of wonderings, I ask them to talk with one another in their small groups. “Perhaps your peers will remind you of something else you wonder about. Add it to your list.”
“Okay, look at your list and zero in on one topic that you think you can find the answer to with a little bit of research. Now, let’s think all the way around this topic.”
I ask students which of my wonderings I should use as a model for their next step, and they tell me the one about the Cowboys. I write it on the board. “Okay, help me come up with questions that look at this from every perspective possible — like who has a stake in whether the Cowboys win the Superbowl again.”
When was the last time the Cowboys won the Superbowl?
Who led the Cowboys to the Superbowl in the past?
How many times have the Cowboys been in the Superbowl?
Is the Cowboys coach as good as the coaches in the past? Are the players as good as the players in the past?
What is different or the same about the NFL?
What do the Cowboys need to do to win more games?
Who would be a better quarterback than Tony Romo?
Does the current team consist of Superbowl quality players?
Which teams are in the way of the Cowboys going all the way again?
Some questions get silly — pretty sure the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders don’t matter all that much to the reality of getting to the Superbowl. Sorry, girls — but students get a hang of the idea. “Ask as many questions as you can think of. After you write a list of your own, ask your peers for help in writing others.”
Next, we need to put our questions in categories. I ask students to talk with one another and determine which of our questions about the Cowboys might go together. We decide we’ve got questions about 1. the history of winning the Superbowl, 2. similarities and differences in the game, the coach, the players, 3. current Cowboys, 4. the opponents.
We talk about what genres and forms might work to convey the best answers to our questions.
“Compare and contrast the differences. That’d be easy,” someone says.
“The history of the Cowboys’ past wins would be information, right?” another student says.
“What could be the topic of a persuasive piece?” I ask.
“The question about the ability of the current players. Easy.”
I tell students that they get the idea, and I charge them with reading through their questions and categorizing them into groups that seem to go together.
I remind them: “All good writing begins with a good question.” And they’re off.
Follow up: Students should use their questions and their categories to guide the choices they make as they write their end-of year multi-genre pieces. In conferences, I read through questions, helping students add to and clarify. I remind them that form helps determine meaning, so as they make choices, they need to think about the best way to share meaning with their intended audiences. Students will present their writing projects as their final exams.