Tag Archives: choice

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:

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“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.

When rubrics are unintentional ruBRICKS – Guest Post by Julie Swinehart

My fourteen-year-old son surprises me with some of the things that come out of his mouth. I won’t repeat them all here (you’re welcome), because sometimes I’m astounded in a way that makes me laugh, but doesn’t necessarily make me think.

But the other day, he did make me think.

We were at the kitchen table. I was reading my students’ online readers notebooks while he was working on homework. Responsibly, he checked the rubric that accompanied the assignment he was working on, but by doing so, he seemed to get more frustrated instead of finding clarity.

I looked over at him, eyebrows raised in silent question. His response was, “This rubric is more of a brick than a help!” and he went on to explain that it felt like he was weighed down by the rubric rather than feeling like it provided guidance.

I immediately understood his comparison. Rubrics as bricks, hobbling students,

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“This rubric is more of a brick than a help!”

confining them to strict definitions and requirements, weighing them down instead of allowing them to soar.

Rubrics as brick walls on paper, wordy, unclear, sometimes too demanding, confining creativity instead of providing a place from which to let creativity flow.

I then turned my thoughts to my own teaching and to my own students. Have I unintentionally weighed down my students with a brick of a rubric?

Have the rubrics I’ve attached to my class assignments served as brick walls, stifling creativity, rather than as foundations that my students could use as guides for demonstrating what they know and what they can do?

Have the rubrics I’ve provided my students allowed them to show that they can exceed and see things in a way that I, as the teacher, never imagined?

During this school year my thinking and teaching style has evolved dramatically. I’ve moved away from a more traditional method, in which my students read the same texts, responded to the same writing prompts, learned the same skills, and turned in the same assignments, all at the same time. I used rubrics for most of their assessments, and while my students demonstrated their learning, I inadvertently didn’t really allow for a ton of creativity.

This year, my students are reading different texts, sometimes have individualize due dates that they have chosen, and are turning in very different assignments from each other.

This year, I’ve also still used some rubrics, and I think there are some good ones out there. But in response to the advice of one my colleagues, I started the slow move to a more holistic approach to scoring guides.

I still include the standards and learning targets for students on the task sheet, and I describe what an exemplary, middle, and poor quality product will look like, include, or omit. But I find that the more holistic scoring guide approach allows for the student choice and creativity that is essential in the workshop model.

It’s not as prescriptive as a rubric can be, and instead of being a document made of bricks that build walls around and confine creativity, it serves more as foundation of sorts, something students can build from, and also demonstrate their learning through their own creative ideas.

A holistic scoring guide does not provide all of the answers that a rubric holds. There aren’t as many words on the paper, which means that students have to think about what they are going to do, rather than simply tick some boxes of requirements in order to get the grade.

I’m enjoying the holistic scoring guide approach, and my students are still doing well with the change. They demonstrate creativity, they show their learning, and they allow their personalities to shine through in their work.

Workshop is about student choice, and I think some rubrics unintentionally stifle the choice that we are so eager and willing to provide.

I’m going to be careful from now one, doing my best to ensure that the assignments I give allow for student agency, and doing my best to ensure that my students aren’t weighed down or walled in by unnecessary bricks.


Julie has been teaching secondary language arts for eighteen years, spending the first fifteen in rural Central Oregon, and the last three in Amman, Jordan. A recent convert to the workshop model, she likes to blog about and share her learning and experience with others.

Follow her on twitter @SwinehartJulie

Follow her blog https://adventuresinhighschoolworkshop.wordpress.com/


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