Going Deeper in Our Topic Choice

Before I start, you should know that my first priority as a writing teacher is that each of my students write pieces that matter to them. Sure, I teach many mini-lessons related to craft and conventions, but none of those matter if my students’ writing doesn’t matter to them. As a result, we put a lot of work into finding topics that are deeply important to us; I teach a mini-lesson entitled The Rule of So What?, a phrase I’ve borrowed from Nancie Atwell; we read and discuss pieces that were meaningful to the writers, pieces written by me, former students, and professional writers; and I emphasize finding real purposes and audiences for our writing, rather than just writing for the teacher or for a grade. Most of the pieces students write will be read by others.

For most of my students, this is all new. For most of them, the only reason they’ve ever written before is because they were in school and a teacher told them they had to. Many students buy in to this idea immediately, though. They examine their memories and their lives, and they find topics that matter to them. Others come around more slowly but still eventually begin exploring meaningful topics when they write. However, there are always a handful of students who just never get it. All year, they write because they have to. As a result, these students improve their skills as writers, but they miss out on the real potential that writing has, the rich rewards that those of us who write have experienced. This always pains me, because I know if they don’t experience this in 7th and 8th grade, the chances of them experiencing it in high school are greatly reduced.

This fall, about six weeks into the year, I became especially aware of a handful of students who were still staying at the surface level when it came to topic choice. So one morning, between our mini-lesson on good titles and writing time, I tried a new approach. I asked students this question: What topics do you need to write about but haven’t, for one reason or another, been willing to write about yet? After taking a few minutes to record these, I challenged them to take a risk and, at some point when they thought they might be ready, write about one of these topics.

For many students, the results were immediate as students began writing about topics that were difficult yet critically important: a mom or cousin who had die, seeing a father for the first time in several years. Other students started writing about moments with people who mattered: a girl whose grandpa told her stories from WWII, a boy who felt a strong attachment to his mom when he was younger. Each student sets a goal for the quarter in terms of topic choice, and I saw many more of them showing up there. While some students will still need to be nudged in conferences to explore these topics, I think it’s the farthest a class of mine has ever been at the end of the first quarter.

I know what I did is nothing extraordinary, but it amazed me how such a simple question—What do I need to write about that I’ve been avoiding?— made such a big difference for so many students, and I can’t wait to continue nurturing them as writers the rest of the year.

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