By Sara DeMartino

I’ve never had a krabby patty, but I’ve seen one on TV. And in PD. Teachers proudly put their writing formulas on display when I talk about writing in our professional development sessions. Sometimes that formula is a burger, with the meat of a writer’s argument or idea sandwiched between two buns – the introductory and closing paragraphs. Sometimes students’ writing fits neatly into that burger – especially when students are being taught to write for a test.

When I ask about the formula, teachers often comment that students need to be taught the formula first so they can break it. But more times than not, that formula never gets broken. Rather, it serves as a barrier to using writing to explain ideas, make compelling arguments, and create daring adventures.

There is not a
“one size fits all” approach to writing.

The formulas are often supported by unbendable prescribed writing strategies that require students to create linear outlines or fill in specific graphic organizers to show what they think before moving that thinking into paragraphs. There is little wiggle room for students to have a voice in the process. There’s nothing wrong with these strategies, but we need to acknowledge that there is not a “one size fits all” approach to writing, and that once students have the tools, we should make space for student choice in the writing process.

In this article, I’ll outline one way to use writing instruction to help students build a writing strategy toolkit that they can draw from to draft, revise, and refine their writing and have agency and choice in the writing process.

The Whopper in the room (I’ve got burger puns for days).

A writing formula is one strategy for writing. It’s something that students can have in their toolkits and draw upon when they are taking a test or completing another piece of writing that requires a standardized form. However, when we ask students to follow that formula for every essay they are asked to create, and when every writing assignment includes a graphic organizer that represents the formula, that graphic organizer has taken away students’ ability to make decisions about how to approach the writing process they’ve been asked to undertake, especially when part of their grade is dependent upon how well the graphic organizer was completed. 

Telling vs. Inviting

As teachers, we often spend a lot of time telling kids how to write and spend much less time inviting students to show and make public their writing and decision-making processes. Part of teaching students to write is creating space for students to make choices about the strategies they use to craft a piece of writing. Deborah Dean (2017)[1] explains “strategy” in writing as, “individualized ways of approaching a writing task” (p. 12) that can be transferred to other writing tasks. Our job as teachers of writing is to help students try out different writing strategies, reflect on what the strategies did (or didn’t do) for students as writers, and then have that strategy as a tool in their writer’s tool kit that they can draw on the next time they engage in the writing process.

So, what does creating a space for students to try out and make decisions about writing strategies mean? It means that we may have to let go of some of the writing processes that we’ve grown to (and that work for us) in favor of using the beginning of the school year to engage students in a range of strategies, ask students to reflect on those strategies including how each strategy worked for them, and how they might use that strategy in future writing tasks. It also means that there needs to be gradual release of the decision-making process around the writing process to students – that once they’ve tried a variety of strategies, you begin to give students agency in how they approach writing assignments by inviting them to make decisions about how they’ll pre-write, how they’ll approach drafting, and how
they’ll revise.

We may have to
let go of some of the writing processes that we’ve grown
to love.

In practice, this process might look something like this:

There are a few things to note about the example processes. First, after each step in the explicit process writing graphics, students should be asked to reflect on the strategy after they use it. For example, in Writing 1 after students draft with drawing, ask them to use quick writes to reflect on the process with questions such as

    • How did identity mapping and story mapping help you plan your writing?
    • How might you use these strategies again?
    • What might you do differently the next time you use these strategies?

These types of questions help make visible for students what they found useful and why and gives them a record of their thinking about strategies they can refer back to when it comes time for them to make their own writing process decisions.

Writing 3 represents the gradual release process. In this example, students aren’t completely writing without guidance, but have been invited to make decisions at strategic places in the writing process. After each student-based step, students should again be asked to reflect on the decisions they make as writers. By asking students to reflect on why they chose to utilize certain strategies in their writing, you’ll provide a space for students to be thoughtful about the decisions they make (as opposed to selecting the most recent strategy they used or selecting the strategy that they think will please the teacher) and provide students with a space to talk about their own decision-making processes. The final step of reflection is similar to the think-alouds we do to give students insight into a new process. Asking students to share their decision-making process will allow us as teachers to formatively assess students’ procedural knowledge about writing, as well as provide some peer-to-peer learning for students who may be stuck on how to approach a task.

Check your tools

 Finally, for the gradual release of the decision-making process to be truly effective, check your tools. Are you really inviting students to make decisions as a writer, or do your tools send a message that a particular formula or graphic organizer will get them a higher grade? While sometimes it might be necessary to use a rubric that values a particular formula, for instance if you are engaging students in prep-work for standardized testing, ask yourself if that rubric is appropriate for every piece of writing that students complete. There may be other rubrics or scoring guides that you can utilize (or co-develop with students!) that prioritize important skills and content without communicating to students that they don’t really have a choice in how their writing is developed and what it looks like in its final form.

If you’d like to begin strategy work with students, check out our new secondary writing unit, Navigating Who We Are: Developing Personal Narratives, available late fall 2022.

We’d love to hear from you! How do you approach giving students choice and agency in the writing process?
Please share with us here.