It took me several years in the classroom before I was able to wrap my mind around how to run effective reading and writing centers. When they were running well, it was a joy to witness students flowing from one activity to another. There were always those students who were so eager to read what they had just written, and they’d run up to me, tugging on my sleeve, “Miss Kathleen, can I read my story to you?” I’d listen with a smile on my face and offer encouraging words.
Unfortunately, it also used to be one of my most frustrating times because I was keenly aware of those who were off task. My eyes would distractedly scan the room to spot the students who were not doing their work rather than paying proper attention to the student before me.
I was constantly excusing myself from the eager students to get the others back on task. It was always the same comments: “I don’t understand”, or “I don’t have any ideas”, or “I hate reading/writing.” For the most part, I chalked it up to being a kid.
“There will always be children who just don’t like reading and writing and who will resist doing the work,” I’d tell myself.
When additional explanations and assistance failed, I’d try to motivate them by using common behavior management techniques such as, “Well, you need to finish the work if you expect to go out for recess. Stop wasting your time!” or “I guess you’re just going to be late for (insert favorite specialist class, e.g. physical education, art, etc.).”
Unfortunately, these kinds of incentives do nothing to encourage students to connect with the task or find enjoyment in what they’re doing.
What I didn’t properly understand at the time was that no matter how interesting or important I believed the assignment to be, that didn’t mean they found it engaging.
Then I discovered the magic of voice and choice. The assignment for this center was to write a few sentences about the book they had just read. This particular student, we’ll name him Simon, was still working on his decoding skills. The books he was reading were quite simple and writing was an arduous task for him. I knew the assignment needed adaptations, but I was at a loss for how to make the activity interesting and accessible enough for it to be meaningful. To have him write just one sentence about his book was sure to be met with resistance. Lucky for me, Simon had an idea.
“Miss Kathleen, can I use the Chromebook to type?” he asked.
It would have been easy to say no and I had plenty of reasons:
I worried that if everyone else wanted to use a Chromebook too, I wouldn’t have enough devices.
I wondered if he wasn’t best to use a pencil to practice his printing since his fine motor skills weren’t sufficiently developed.
I was also concerned that it sounded like too much fun. What if he got distracted and started using the Chromebook for purposes other than his work?
However, here’s a student asking me for a tool to accomplish a task. Why not say yes and see what happens? The worst-case scenario is that he doesn’t do his work, which is probably no different from what’s going to happen if I tell him no for the Chromebook.
More importantly, what was the learning objective for this assignment? Why was I asking them to write a few sentences about the story they’d read? Was it to practice printing or to see if they could compose a coherent sentence? Since obviously the learning goal was the latter of the two, why not give this a chance?
Having run through these thoughts in my head as he stood before me awaiting my response, I took a chance and replied, “Yes you may.”
My response was met with a wide grin. “Can I add illustrations?” he asked. This time, my mind raced to think of why this could be a good idea. He would have to figure out how to spell the words for the images he was researching. This would be a higher-level skill than I was expecting of him. I wasn’t sure how he was going to go about achieving this goal, but since he seemed confident in his question, I decided to trust him and give it a go. “Yes, you may add illustrations once you’ve written your sentence.” His smile widened. But he wasn’t done with his requests. “Can I create more than one page?” This time it was my turn to smile. In a regular pencil and paper scenario, I had never seen him produce more than one sentence at any given time, and it was painfully slow.
“Yes, you may,” I replied. Seizing the opportunity to up the ante I added, “Each page is to have at least one complete sentence. Deal?”
“Deal!” He walked away beaming. I can honestly tell you that from that day forward, guiding Simon in his learning became a piece of cake. I had shown him that his interests mattered to me and that so long as the learning target was met, he had a say in how he produced his work.
This child, who up until now had been an expert at avoiding his reading and writing tasks, raced to the Chromebook cart, and got down to business. When he came back to me later to proudly showcase his work, I was amazed. And the lesson for me was clear: involving students in the decision-making process of how to create and present their work gives them a sense of ownership and it motivates them to accomplish the task.
My initial target for this student was to compose a single sentence. He upped the ante. It came from him. Why? He was in the driver’s seat. He was given a say in how he would meet the requirements for the task. We removed the barrier that was holding him back and in doing so, he went above and beyond.
This set a precedent for the rest of the class as well.
Building in voice and choice in reading and writing centers meant that the level of engagement increased, and the need for behavior management techniques decreased, allowing a greater amount of time for me to interact with students in more purposeful ways.
So long as the learning targets are clear and attainable, don’t sweat the details, and trust that the students are more eager and interested in being creative and ingenious than we often give them credit for.