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The Element of Choice in Writing


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The Element of Choice in Writing

Stacy Rosenblum

In this first part of our MyloWrites Students Speak series (click here to view to watch all of the four parts) entitled, “Starting the Conversation: What is the Experience of Writing?”, we hear from our student panel about their participation in writing activities during their school careers thus far.  As you can see in the video, the students quickly come to a consensus that they would much rather be given a choice of topic or genre on which to write, rather than have the assignment strictly dictated by the teacher.  In fact, Ava reflects that her worry about writing assignments, and subsequent desire to avoid writing tasks, are directly connected to the anticipation of “requirements.”  The other students agree that they may feel overwhelmed when assigned an essay for class, and that the worry about adhering to assignment directions stymies their idea generation.

Luc and Will recount their most enjoyed writing projects as ones when they felt as if they were in control of the topic choice.  Motivation for writing seems to be universally increased when students have greater autonomy over what they write about within a general guideline, such as time period, geographical region, or theme.  Andrew recalls his best writing experience as including an opportunity to write about himself as connected to the main character in the novel his class had read. He summed up this experience beautifully by explaining:

“When you enjoy it, that’s when your best writing comes out because you are trying hard….it’s the best because it’s the most personal.”

All students agree that when they had had opportunities to choose a topic or subject on which to write, they received the best feedback from teachers and felt the most satisfied with the overall experience.

In reviewing this scene from our student panel, I was struck by how clearly and eloquently these six students have articulated a set of educational principles called Universal Design for Learning (UdL).  UdL is a research based practice that suggests that each student has a unique learning profile and that a “one size fits all” manner of teaching is ineffective and antiquated.  A classroom in which UdL principles are used is responsive to the natural variability between the learners.  

Our students want autonomy and choice. They agree that without a strong level of interest in the topic, their writing performance suffers.  Universal Design for Learning gives these choices in presentation of information, expression of understanding, and in student engagement in their learning.  Teachers who use UdL present information in a variety of ways, such as literature, film, photographic evidence, research materials, and hands-on experiences.  Teachers then ask students to choose how to express their understanding, from traditional writing assignments to more contemporary means such as multimedia or artistic presentations.  The main goal of UdL is to increase student engagement through presentation of information that caters to a variety of learning styles and increases motivation and performance by providing students greater choice in how they demonstrate their learning.  

Some may question, “Does a UdL approach mean that a student can avoid practicing skills that they don’t enjoy or aren’t good at?”  The answer is no.  Skillfully applied, UdL ensures that students demonstrate knowledge in a variety of ways, but that the teacher acts as a guide and sets boundaries on which projects are acceptable.  For example, an 8th grade class with a goal of improving writing skills may have assignment choices such as “conduct an in-depth character analysis and write about how you relate to this character,” or “explore a prominent theme within this book and write about parallels between this theme and a current event,” or even “write a screenplay which extends the novel beyond the final chapter.”  The teacher sets goals for what is to be achieved, yet gives students choice in how they demonstrate achievement of those goals.  

When the students in our video series are asked about their favorite or most memorable writing experiences, they each give different examples of a writing assignment that appealed to them. What each of their responses have in common is the element of choice.  Student performance, and satisfaction, improves when they are provided some autonomy over how to best express their understanding.  

Universal Design for Learning has been implemented in thousands of schools nationwide, with support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.  Learn more here.  

Watch the Kids Panel clip below and tell us what you think in the comments - about our Student Speak video series, MyloWrites, Universal Design for Learning, or anything else that’s on your mind!