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When Choice Becomes an Imperative

I’ve been fascinated with the language I hear in classrooms for a long while now.

My TTT friends and I like to use welcoming, inclusive phrases to describe what goes on in our classrooms–we practice offering choice, inviting learning. But many classrooms I visit use more permissive phrases that emphasize teacher control–“I make them;” “they have to;” “I let them.” Often, without ever stepping foot into a classroom, we can make inferences about what kinds of work students are doing just by hearing a teacher describe their learning. Is the learning situated as an invitation, a choice, a welcome pastime–or a mandate?

I worry that, for many critics of the readers-writers workshop, this language might be what convinces them that student choice lacks inherent rigor, as if choice is something to be offered on a menu. A luxury. A privilege.

This article details nicely the evolution of the readers-writers workshop in the last 40 years. Veteran teacher Lorrie McNeill, after visiting Nancie Atwell’s classroom, wiped away tears and described Atwell’s students as “so fortunate.” “It makes me sad that my students can’t have this every day,” McNeill said.

Student choice is depicted this way often–as a privilege a lucky few students are given. But in an era of increased measurement, standardization, and monologic thinking, I believe choice is not something that should merely be offered to students. Choice has become an imperative if we want our students to be successful, purpose-driven citizens.

We’ve all read Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken,” and are doubtless familiar with its final stanza–“I took the road less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” However, I find that the first stanza is far more descriptive of the students I’ve had in the past several years:

75854-Robert-Frost-Quote-Two-roads-diverged-in-a-yellow-wood-And-sorry-I.jpg

“Sorry I could not travel both.” Our students, often unaccustomed to making meaningful choices, are paralyzed when they come to roads that diverge in their lives. Growing up in a culture that is saturated with meaningless choices–social media, Netflix, and smartphone games come to mind, combined with an academic and social culture that emphasizes standardization and sameness–is devastating a generation.

So many of our students lack the agency afforded to them by frequent, authentic opportunities to make choices and mistakes–both low-stakes and high-stakes–at a young age. Too often, kids are paralyzed by indecision, faced with the paradox that too many choices becomes similar to having no choice at all:

I’d been thinking about this concept for a while, but it was driven home for me by one of my students, Sara.

Sara was one of my favorite kids, a secondary English major with a penchant for words and a passion for education. She seemed an indomitable force, never bogged down by her workload, her multiple jobs, or the high expectations she put on herself.

Until a few Fridays ago, when she asked to meet privately, and told me that she wanted to drop out of our education program.

Four years into her schooling as an English Ed major, and she was just now realizing she didn’t want to be a teacher–and no less, a potentially really awesome teacher?!

That was my initial reaction…until we talked, and I realized that she was just now finding the courage to decide she didn’t want to be a teacher.

“I cried when I got my acceptance letter into the program,” she told me. “I was hoping I wouldn’t get in and the choice would be made for me.”

Sara is part of a generation of students who have been shepherded through their education without getting the opportunity to make important decisions about her future. Like many millennials I know, while Sara enjoyed learning and higher education in general, she didn’t really know what she wanted to be when she grew up. How do any of us, really? Still, she toed the line, went to college, and was a senior before she realized she was in too deep.

On a large scale, Sara is one of many “college-track” students who, while in high school, have very little say in if they’ll go to college–if they’re lucky, they get to choose their major. On a small scale, this looks like a school experience that prizes correctness, conformist thinking, compliance. It looks like a school culture that positions kids in a binary: college or career-ready. It looks like a nation of kids who grow up believing in a new, sinister American Dream: that college is the path to success, despite a growing trend in research that shows it’s really not.

To help kids like Sara–and all students–we need to make choice less of an offering  in schools, and more of a necessity. How can we graduate teens who have to ask to go to the restroom on Friday and expect them to make responsible decisions about where they might live or work on Monday?

Our students need to grow up, K-12, in a culture of choice. They need to not only self-select what to read, but should be guided toward choosing their own purposes, evaluations, and goals when it comes to that reading. The same is true for their study of writing, mathematics, and the social and natural sciences.

Students should make their own choices, early and often, so that when they no longer have a parent, a school, or an institution making those choices for them, they know what to do. Making good choices is a life skill that requires practice like any other. We get into dangerous territory when we ask students to make their first real decisions when the repercussions of poor financial, employment, or relationship choices are often irreversibly permanent.

For me, this makes my quest to spread the love of readers-writers workshop even more meaningful. I believe that the power of letting students choose what, how, and when to read and write empowers our students far beyond the ELA classroom.

Don’t you?


Shana Karnes is mom to 1.5 spunky little girls and wife to a hardworking surgical resident.  She teaches practicing and preservice English teachers at West Virginia University and is fueled by coffee, a pregnancy craving of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (this week), and a real obsession with all things reading and writing.  Follow Shana on Twitter at @litreader and read more of her writing on the WVCTE Best Practices Blog.

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14 thoughts on “When Choice Becomes an Imperative

  1. […] A 2012 study, summarized nicely here, showed that the very act of requiring students to track their reading made them likely to read less than they would have to begin with. In contrast, students who were offered “voluntary reading logs” were actually more likely to enjoy reading, and read more often. It seems that choice is imperative. […]

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  2. […] hearts and buzzing minds about the opportunities that Readers and Writers workshop afford. From choice to challenge, talk to Twitter, and many, many elements in between, we explore, question, wrestle […]

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  3. Lisa Dennis October 10, 2017 at 8:47 am Reply

    As one of the most supportive and inclusive teachers I have ever had the pleasure to work with, I can say without hesitation that my dearest Shana would never “lob a random insult.” When insults are due (which let’s be honest, sometimes they really are), they are pointedly, diplomatically, and wittily stated. In this case, an honest reflection of the tendency of some in the profession to hang on to control in the classroom through verbal framing shouldn’t be an insult. It’s simply a wake-up to any and all of us to be cognizant of how we invite (whether or not we use that word EVERY time, which this piece certainly does not suggest) students to the learning at hand. Thanks for being you, Miss Shana. xoxo

    Liked by 1 person

  4. LT October 10, 2017 at 6:04 am Reply

    That first paragraph weakens your piece— you make assumptions when teachers use simpler words to describe their classes? I run a workshop classroom and still say “I have the kids get out their books” or whatever stage we’re at, because “have” is the normal verb to use for describing teaching of any sort. It would sound goofy to say “I invite” all of time. The fact that you’re judging others, including potential teachers, on this is frankly annoying. It also has little to do with the rest of your piece, so it’s just a random insult to lob in the opening.

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    • Shana Karnes October 10, 2017 at 6:18 am Reply

      Hi LT –

      “Students have to” is synonymous with “students must.” “I make them” and “I have them” are not the same thing. You aren’t using the kind of language I was talking about when you say “I have students take out their books.”

      I don’t think being conscientious about the language we use when we talk with and about our students and their work is insulting – see Peter Johnston’s work for research support about how damaging it can be to use a lexicon that enforces an asymmetrical power relationship between Ts and Ss.

      I wasn’t insulting anyone with my opening, but you’ve sure insulted me with the assumptions you made in this comment.

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      • LT October 10, 2017 at 10:20 am Reply

        I’m sorry that you feel insulted, and I did not come to insult you; I wrote in order to critique a first paragraph that’s needlessly negative and discuss your word choice, because I disagree and wanted to hear more. You said, “Often, without ever stepping foot into a classroom, we can make inferences about what kinds of work students are doing…” and that concerned me, and frankly, was off-putting, because you began with a statement that implied that you judging based on the inferences you discussed.

        I agree that language is important (obviously, we’re all English teachers here), but I believe “invite” is disingenuous. There is no invitation if the kids can’t RSVP “NO!” to something, and “no” isn’t an option for most classrooms, including workshop classrooms. If I set forth the expectation that kids read, then I will make sure (in various supportive ways) that they read. In that way I am not inviting them; I am getting them to do something through a variety of methods; a gentle form of coercion, but it’s still there. I don’t do that with party invitations, calling up my friends and using various methods to wheedle them into coming to a party they’ve already said “no” to. I accept the “no” and count them out, because it was a true invitation. There is no similar ability to opt out of a workshop; there’s just more support for those who would rather decline. Everyone must, at some point, in their own way, “show up to the party.”

        This is, to my mind, this sort of language that makes non-workshop teachers suspicious of our methods. They see us as wishy-washy and unstructured, when, as Atwell and all the others (including you, I’m sure) assert that it’s highly structured, just in a different way. Kids are still expected to complete work, and those expectations are enforced. Playing with language in a way that makes it sound like kids could take a nap mid-class doesn’t support the idea of structure and rigor in workshop in a way that will convince skeptics.

        Choice about *what* to learn is key (thus my total agreement with the rest of your post); however, I believe that choice about whether or not to learn should never be on the table, implied or otherwise.

        I hope that you do not still feel insulted; I’m trying to engage with ideas here, not be personal about anything, and I’m sorry that did come across in my first post (a sorry excuse, by I typed it on a half-broken phone, which leads to editing so severe sometimes I lose my point).

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        • Amy Rasmussen October 10, 2017 at 12:21 pm Reply

          I appreciate the dialogue here, so I’ll jump in. I know Shana well enough to know she’s not judging harshly. I think it’s possible she’s worried sick that the pre-service teachers she works with have her scared for the profession, and the language they report hearing and then use themselves has reached a tipping point that needs addressing.

          The idea of control — or even better, giving up control — is one few teachers I know ever learned at a university. If young teachers think they can make students do anything they don’t want to do, they’ve lost the every day battle most of us face before they ever begin. Really, the only way to get students to engage is by invitation. Sure, there are consequences for their lack of accepting that invitation, but even then, sadly, some students do not care if they ever “show up to the party.” (I have two in my AP English class this semester.)

          I’ve found the best way to reach all students is by changing the way I address them because — it really is about relationships. I use a lot of “we” and “let’s” in my classroom. We learn together, write together, read together, talk in small and large groups together. “Let’s…”

          We work to establish a learning community that’s exclusive — and it all rests on the invitation to come and learn with us, or not. Of course, this does not mean that my two hard-case kids get to take a nap in class — I won’t give up trying to get them to want to contribute, but it does mean I recognize their right to decline if they so choose.

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          • LT October 10, 2017 at 12:41 pm Reply

            So, there’s no “or not” then. You don’t give up- there is no “you get to not attend!” It’s not loosey-goosey, as I know it isn’t; that’s my point! Workshop needs *more* buy-in and participation than a normal room, if anything. I was just never successful using language like “invite” with eighth graders, who can sense pandering from a mile away, and will try their damndest to opt out if they think it could be funny.

            I totally agree in the relationship building aspect. But I also believe that it’s imperative that I’m honest with both myself and my students about exactly what that relationship is; it’s not one where they get to opt out (I’d argue, and I’d bet you’d agree, they have LESS opt-out choice in the workshop model since we don’t do nightly reading assignments).

            I totally agree about the giving up of control; I just was not sure that the opening was the best way to get across that, since it seemed nit-picky when the rest of the article was focused on big, important ideas.

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  5. Amy Rasmussen October 9, 2017 at 2:43 pm Reply

    You say everything in my head and heart with such veracity. Thank you for advocating for the language we must use as influencers. You do important things every day with the pre-service teachers who rely on you for guidance and wisdom. Thank you!

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  6. Gary Anderson October 9, 2017 at 10:30 am Reply

    Oh, heck yeah. I thank the Maker every day that I was born a rebel. When I was in high school, I didn’t read the assigned books or do much of anything else that was required–mostly because it was required. I read all the time but not what was assigned, and I have the high school transcript that proves it.

    If we want students (like me) to do something, we will get a lot farther by inviting and motivating than by requiring, forcing, and manipulating. There are obviously students who will do whatever we say, but I’m not sure they are developing lifelong patterns and habits as readers or writers.

    When students make choices, they are invested. When they finish books that they chose, their reactions are authentic. When they finish an assigned book, their reaction doesn’t matter: It’s just something they had to do.

    3TT, I don’t know how you do it post after post, but you continually hit the sweet spot of what matters most when helping students become real readers and real writers. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Shana Karnes October 9, 2017 at 7:17 pm Reply

      I love being a rebel, too. I was similar to you, hiding Grisham novels under my desk in high school while the rest of the class discussed the Salinger I hadn’t read. Thanks, Gary!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Terri October 9, 2017 at 7:48 am Reply

    Amen! Thank you for the article! The one teacher could afford all her kids an ATWELL classroom if she so choose:)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Shana Karnes October 9, 2017 at 7:18 pm Reply

      Yes! And she did end up committing to workshop, so her kids did get that opportunity. 🙂

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