Topic Choice- It Matters.

Archive from The Teacher Triathlete, March 13, 2015

Imagine this, it’s the first day of a new writing unit in writing workshop.  The class will study information writing. Instead of learning how to pick a topic of interest, the teacher asks the class to each pick a bug to study. What could possibly be going through each individual student’s mind when the teacher reveals that students must pick a bug to study…

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Perhaps some students are excited to write about bugs.  Yet, others never think about bugs, never will think about bugs, and are now dreading the bug essay assignment.  In no setting in our school system do we have a class entirely comprised of aspiring entomologists.  I’ll fully admit, while I’ve never asked my entire class to write about a bug, I have done similar things in the past.  The quality of the writing and the motivation of my students always tanked when topics were assigned.  When free choice of topic was given and students were taught strategies on how to come up with their own topics, the level of the writing and student motivation soared!

I like to compare student writers to popular authors.  After all, we all do go through some type of similar writing process.  Would Stephen King, JK Rowling, or Jon Krakauer write best sellers if they were assigned their topics?  How would Judy Blume or Roald Dahl have handled being assigned a bug essay?

To truly teach children how to be proficient and confident writers, we must give them topic choice.  More importantly, we must give them strategies that writers use to come up with their own topic ideas.  Only giving assigned topics stifles creativity, motivation, and ultimately the writing process itself.

I know what some of you may be thinking- what about my student who can never come up with an idea?  What about my student who always states at the beginning of writing time, “I don’t know what to write about.”  This is truly a difficult task for many of our young writers.  It can be handled in many different ways.  Let’s consider a few scenarios… 

Scenario A:

Student:  I don’t know what to write about.

Teacher:  Look at the class list of topics and pick something.  Anything you like.

Student:  Ok (looks at the wall, picks an idea written by someone else). 

Scenario B:

Student:  I don’t know what to write about.

Teacher:  Write about your weekend. I’m sure you did something fun!  

Student:  Ok (now racking his brain to think about the prior weekend).

Scenario C:

Student:  I don’t know what to write about.

Teacher:  Write about your favorite bug.

Student:  I don’t have a favorite bug.

Teacher:  How about ladybugs.  You can write about ladybugs!

Student:  Ok. I guess they’re kind of cool.

Scenario D:

Student:  I don’t know what to write about.

Teacher:  Sometimes, finding an idea is the hardest part of being a writer. Can I help you figure out a way you can find an idea today and every time you set out to write a new piece?

Student:  Sure. 

Teacher:  One way writers come up with an idea is by____________.  (The scenario continues with the teacher modeling a strategy for coming up with an idea.  Then, the student tries out the strategy on his own).

In which of these scenarios is the student actually asked to think?  In the first three scenarios, the teacher immediately gives the student the answer.  The issue of what to write about has been solved, but the student just learned the lesson that he or she must depend on the teacher for an idea.  I honestly think this is the same as giving students answers in math class without asking them to try to figure it out on their own.  In math, we give students strategies to solve problems.  In writing, we should do the same.  Rather than giving students topics, we have to start giving them strategies to find topics and ample opportunities to practice these strategies.  

Sometimes, we get caught up in just alleviating the struggle for students that we end up teaching them to be dependent on us rather than independent thinkers on their own.  Struggle is ok.  It is a part of school and life.  If we teach students strategies to deal with and solve the struggles on their own, we are helping to empower them for the present moment and future moments.  If we just solve problems for them, or give them an idea when they have a tough time coming up with their own, we are showing them that they cannot independently handle the struggle.  This is a resilience and competence killer instead of builder. 

One of the reasons I really appreciate the Units of Study in Teaching Writing from  The Teachers College Reading and Writing Project is that in every unit, our littlest (and not so little) writers are taught strategies to find ideas.  They are given the tools to become independent thinkers and writers.

For example, in the fifth grade narrative unit, students are taught that one way writers of narrative pieces find an idea is to think of first times and last times. Another way is to think of a person or place and moments associated with those people and places. This is just one small example. The idea of using a strategy to find an idea or topic starts much earlier than this. 

Screen Shot 2017-05-16 at 8.38.42 PMGiving students strategies to find their own writing topics actually starts in kindergarten!  I’ve had the pleasure of seeing many talented kindergarten teachers lead their classes in mini lessons focused on thinking of something to teach others, fixing a problem in the classroom, or even describing a fun or important time with someone special.  All of these lessons ended with students starting to think for themselves and produce authentic and meaningful writing.  

Perhaps, one of the best ways to help students find ideas is to model the process yourself.  Rather than telling students how to find an idea- show them!  There truly is nothing more powerful in writing workshop than the teacher modeling her own struggle to think of an idea or topic.  Using the SMARTboard, chart paper, or a document camera, actually show students how you come up with an idea.  Think aloud as you start generating your ideas. It may go like this… 

Let’s see, what are some first times for me… hmm.  This is tough.  I’m thinking- what are first times in my life that I remember.  Hmm…   Oh!  There’s  my first day of teaching! Yes- that’s it.  I can write about my first day as a teacher. More importantly, the first time I greeted my new third graders at the classroom door…  Did you see how thinking of this idea was tough?  Did you notice that I struggled a little bit?  That’s ok.  Taking time to think of a first time to find an idea can be tough, but you can do it.  You will do it in a few minutes.  So, watch me as I think of another first time I may want to explore…

In writing workshop, we’re not teaching topics.  Rather, we’re teaching our young Screen Shot 2017-05-16 at 8.38.24 PMwriters the strategies and giving them the practice time to help them attain the necessary skills to be thoughtful, competent, and confident writers.   When we teach writing in this manner, it can easily be transferred and applied to every single subject area in school- and life itself!


Topic choice matters. Removing free choice of topic from our writing workshops can suppress emotions, resilience, independence, and creativity.  I do recognize that there are times in school when students must write to a topic- however, this should take place across the curriculum, not in writing workshop.  Or, if it must be taught in writing workshop (for dreaded test-prep, sigh…), tackle it as a genre on its own- perhaps a short study on how to write to a prompt.  

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Writing workshop is for giving students the strategies to become writers within the authentic process of writing.  The first step in the process is thinking of a topic. Let’s empower our students to take that first step on their own!

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