Summer Reading: The Freedom to Choose

The last pieces of writing I see from students each year are reflective in nature. Some celebrate areas of literacy growth and proudly exclaim, “I am a writer!” Others share classroom routines, like creative writing and poetry, that have stuck with them throughout the year. There are a few students who are gracious enough to thank me for enlivening a love for reading and writing that they had lost over the years. These reflections would brighten any teacher’s soul.

On occasion, however, I receive student reflections that are concerning. In the honest space of reflective writing a few students say they missed having writing prompts, or writing templates, or a clearly defined rubric they could have used as a writing checklist for their assignments. Though the number of these types of reflections are small in number (5-6 students out of 95), these are the ones that give me pause and guide my summer reading.

As a teacher of 12th grade students I have learned to appreciate honest feedback from those who matter most – my students. It is their experiences in the classroom that direct my learning.

This summer my reading is trending toward helping students move their literacy lives a little closer to home: rural America. To jumpstart my learning I leaned on Rural Voices: Place-Conscious Education and the Teaching of Writing which is a collection of essays edited by Robert E. Brooke.

Though his book is targeted to an audience of rural educators, Brooke suggests a pedagogy useful for any demographic. He offers three guiding principles regarding what he calls “place-conscious education” for the teaching of writing:

  • An Inquiry Stance – students who actively identify local issues they want to affect through meaningful projects, self-reflection, and evaluation.
  • Prioritizing Local Interests – first building a deep local understanding that spirals to more distant knowledge and issues.
  • Locally Active and Intradependent – learning about, for, and with local communities in rich and authentic ways (13).

In other words, evocative and engaging writing comes from a place of deep personal interest to a writer. Some students’ reflections reflect the unease they feel with this deeper engagement in writing, especially within a school context. The freedom to choose can be daunting!

Realizing this truth shaped my summer reading. My focus is to incorporate authentic ways that will honor student voice, offer writing choices, and connect them to both the community they are leaving as well as the world they are entering. Next year my students will again be encouraged to propose individual writing projects in genres and modes that awaken their writing identities. Inviting an inquiry stance, encouraging personal interests, and celebrating in authentic ways will shift student perspectives about what it means to write and be a writer.

The summer months bring with it the freedom to choose new avenues of reading and writing that spark personal curiosity. Although I imagine some students will express concern again next year about the approach, it is the freedom to read, write, risk, and share that most students will embrace as they come to identify as writers.

Andy Schoenborn is a high school English teacher in Michigan at Mt. Pleasant Public Schools.  He focuses his work on progressive literacy methods including student-centered critical thinking, digital collaboration, and professional development. He is a co-facilitator of the monthly #TeachWrite Twitter chat, past-president of the Michigan Council of Teachers of English, and teacher consultant for the Chippewa River Writing Project. His first book, co-authored with Dr. Troy Hicks, Creating Confident Writers will be published next Spring. Follow him on Twitter @aschoenborn.

Work Cited: Brooke, Robert, editor. Rural Voices: Place-Conscious Education and the Teaching of Writing. Teachers College Press, 2003.

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