Unit 3: Incorporating Student Agency and Decision-Making in Writing Essays
Unit Kick Off
Take a moment to examine one of your writing lessons. Highlight portions of the lesson where you incorporate student choice. How do you think these choices impact student agency?
Growing up, I remember using the tried and true hamburger-style graphic organizer to write an essay. The approach was easy, organized, and what my teacher wanted. I went through the process of making sure my ideas fit into the hamburger outline. I didn't care about my essays. They were monotonous, voiceless, and repetitive, but I was checking off all the boxes needed to get a good grade. I was more focused on the structure of my essay than its purpose.
There are plenty of benefits to the 5 paragraph essay. The format provides an organized structure for students to express their ideas.
- An introduction
- 3 Body Paragraphs- Beginning, Middle, End
- Conclusion to reinforce the main idea and wrap up the piece
Something is comforting about the predictability of this structure. Both students and teachers know what to expect. But there's a more authentic way students can express complex thoughts and expand their thinking beyond five paragraphs.
When you break up learning into a series of steps, they never lead to authentic learning. When given step-by-step instructions, students don't realize their full potential and what they are capable of mastering on their own.
As educators, we can teach essay writing without squeezing the joy out of the process. Students can write rich and engaging essays- narrative, opinion, or persuasive- where they are passionate about the topic. One way to ensure students will enjoy the writing process is to provide them with choices. In this unit, you will learn different ways to incorporate student choice into writing curricula to foster student autonomy and interest.
What's so Wrong with Using the 5 Paragraph Essay?
Read the following excerpt from Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher's book, Four Essential Studies: Beliefs and Practices to Reclaim Student Agency, to find out how the five-paragraph essay formula affects students in the present and how it will impact them in future academia.
Key Takeaways from the Reading
- Step-by-step instruction masquerades as learning; formulaic writing limits student opportunity to generate and organize ideas and make decisions on format and style.
- Student autonomy is further constrained when educators choose the topic and the audience for student writing.
- In higher education, students are expected to make decisions about their writing. Many students lack the experience to write, develop and explore their ideas and questions, and organize their thoughts in a paper utilizing a format other than the five-paragraph essay.
- Reimagining writing instruction to include choice must incorporate new teaching practices and additional opportunities to provide students with feedback during the writing process.
Why is it important to provide students with choices?
Providing students with developmentally appropriate choices can help foster student autonomy and intrinsic motivation. Watch the following video from Education Week to discover ways to incorporate choice into the classroom.
Key Takeaways from the Video
- Providing students with choices and control over their writing will directly impact their intrinsic motivations to be better writers. They will want to improve their writing skills for themselves over receiving a good grade.
- There are different types of choices teachers can incorporate into the classroom and instruction:
- Organizational choice- Choice in organizing the classroom environment (seating arrangements, partner/small group work, class expectations).
- Procedural Choice- Choice in the process and the result of an assignment or project.
- Cognitive Choice- Choice that provides relevance to a student's learning (project-based learning, sharing thought processes, individual goal setting).
Growing Your Ideas: Self-Reflection
Using the following Padlet, to share ideas for incorporating organizational, procedural, and cognitive choice into your writing lessons.
Incorporating Choice into Writing Curriculum
Some ways to encourage learner autonomy in writing include providing choices in:
- Topic: All students will write either a narrative, persuasive, or opinion essay, but what they choose to write about is entirely driven by their passions and experiences.
- Audience: The tone of an essay changes based on its intended audience. For example, an essay persuading parents to buy a dog will sound different from an essay persuading local government officials to add green spaces to the community.
- Purpose: Determining the key takeaways of an essay will help determine its purpose. Is the writing meant to share a point of view, show why one argument is more legitimate, to share a personal experience or emotional truth?
- Organization and Form: Utilize different mentor texts to learn ways to structure an essay. Students will experiment with structure throughout the drafting and revision process. Rearranging ideas and experimenting with design will help students decide how best to deliver the purpose of their essay to their intended audience.
- Anticipated Response: Students will anticipate how their readers will respond to their essays. Students use peer and teacher feedback to determine any gaps in their writing.
- Words and Sentence Structure: Students decide if their words and sentence structure coincide with their intended audience, purpose, and tone. Students will determine whether their essays call for formal or informal language and if their sentences build on each other.
- Publishing: Students determine if their essay is ready to be read by their intended audience.
Check For Understanding
Use the following quiz to review your progress.
One way to foster student autonomy in the classroom is to see how other professionals have incorporated choice into their writing lessons.
Read the following outline of a narrative writing unit and the first lesson provided by Park Hill School District. Park Hill School uses Lucy Calkins Writer's Workshop for its writing curriculum.
Afterward, watch the following video of a 5th-grade teacher demonstrating ways to generate narrative writing ideas. This lesson coincides with the one provided by Park Hill School District above.
At the start of this unit, you highlighted parts in your lesson where you incorporated student choice. Ask yourself:
- What choices did I provide my students (organizational, procedural, cognitive)?
- Where in my lesson are there additional opportunities to provide choices for my students?
Apply what you know about choice to create a writing lesson.
- Review the sample lesson on Narrative Writing as a guide. This lesson plan is modeled after a Lucy Calkins lesson from Writer's Workshop.
- Fill in the lesson template provided by Responsive Classroom.
Share the lesson you created with other learners using Padlet. Provide positive and constructive feedback on the other lessons posted.
References and Resources
Calkins, L., Marron, A. (2013). Units of Study for Teaching Writing: Narrative Craft: Grade 5. Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Heinemann.
Kittle, P., & Gallagher, K. (2022). 4 Essential Studies: Beliefs and Practices to Reclaim Student Agency. Heinemann.
Park Hill School District. (2022-2023). Writing Curriculum (Grade 5). [Program of studies]. https://resources.finalsite.net/images/v1659710570/parkhillk12mous/tpyukvknpftu7w3d8uxz/5thgradeELA-WritingCurriculumBOE6-23-2022.pdf