In her article in this December’s Voices from the Middle, Nancie Atwell explains why middle schoolers engage and learn best when they choose what they read and write, and why teachers thrive when they allow them to do so.
She cites John Goodlad’s 1984 study written up in A Place Called School which
“asked kids in grades six through eight about the choices they made during their school day [and] two-thirds reported they had no say ever, about anything… The big picture revealed young adolescents disenfranchised from their own learning, discouraged— if not prevented—from assuming agency, and more likely to view school as a place to satisfy social needs than to identify and meet intellectual ones.”
Atwell, and now her daughter Anne, wanted to change these findings in their own school and they used the workshop methodology pioneered by Donald Graves to do so. Atwell explains
“In a workshop, individuals develop their own ideas as writers and choose the books they read. The teacher supports their intentions and growth by conducting brief, pertinent lessons to the whole group and then conferring with writers and readers as they work independently.”
Two NCTE position statements on intellectual freedom speak to and affirm this practice:
NCTE’s The Students’ Right to Read notes:
“The right to read, like all rights guaranteed or implied within our constitutional tradition, can be used wisely or foolishly. In many ways, education is an effort to improve the quality of choices open to all students. But to deny the freedom of choice in fear that it may be unwisely used is to destroy the freedom itself. For this reason, we respect the right of individuals to be selective in their own reading.”
And, the NCTE Beliefs about Students’ Right to Write emphasizes that
“The expression of ideas without fear of censorship is a fundamental right…
Teachers should foster in students an understanding and appreciation of the responsibilities inherent in writing and publication by encouraging students to assume ownership of both the writing process and the final product.”
In her article, Atwell goes on to tell how she repeated the John Goodlad survey with the current students at her K-8 school where these students make their own choices for reading and writing. The results of this survey, much different than Goodlad’s results, demonstrate the positive results of student choice in their own learning:
“When asked, ‘What’s the one best thing about this school?’ 35 percent named choices they were empowered to make, starting with books to read, ideas to write about, and topics to research in history, math, and science.”
One student added that
“a school environment in which she was invited ‘to love writing and to practice, regularly and passionately’ taught her how to write, period.”
Choosing for oneself makes that important difference.