could not understand why students did not want to
write. In my most effusive voice I would announce
that we were “going to write,” and groans would fill
the classroom. Going to the dentist came to mind.
After dutifully drafting to my specifications, the stu-
dents did not seem to want to revise, nor did they
edit carefully. Students would make cosmetic changes
to their papers and be satisfied. They were finished
with their writings. I told them that it was like send-
ing “your child to school in a torn dress with dirt on
her face.” But these writings were not their children;
I know that now. They were my children, and I was-
n’t paying the students enough for babysitting.
As I read about style and voice, I realized that
I had been caught up in listening to others instead
of to my heart, trying to fulfill what I thought were
the expectations of the students’ future teachers
rather than listening to the voices of the students. I
had taught personal style right out of my students.
It was time to put the writer back in the writing.
I analyzed my teaching and found that I was
not only directing what to write, but I was also com-
manding how and when to write. Day One was
Prewriting: brainstorming and organizing; Day Two
was Drafting; Day Three, Revision Groups and Re-
vising; Day Four, Editing Groups and Editing; and
on Day Five the Final Copy was written. I knew
the Writing Process; I had the posters hanging in
my classroom. But I also knew that writing is re-
cursive. I had read about the
recursive nature of the writing
process, and I certainly wrote,
revised, and edited recursively
myself. Still, the research did
not mean anything until I
thought about what the stu-
dents wanted to write, what
they wanted to say, and how they wanted to say it. I
then revamped my writing program.
Choice became the central concept. Choice in
writing is the key to inspiring students’ desire to learn
different modes and genres so that they can have op-
tions for writing a particular piece. Choice returns the
power to the writer. Students who exercise their choices
write what they like and what others like to read.
How did I implement choice? I added writing work-
shops, taught effective peer-revision techniques,
avoided error hunts, and instituted freewriting and
portfolios. With student choice at the center of the
program, students wanted to write, wanted to revise,
wanted to edit. They wanted their “children” to look
good and impress the world. Choice gives the power
back to the writer. Donald Murray said, “You can
command writing but you can’t command good
writing” (Writer 83).
Giving the students options was not a problem
after I completed the twelve-step program at Control
Anonymous. However, students still needed to learn
what choices were available to them. Therefore, I
taught them about various topics, modes, and genres
and how they could communicate more effectively by
building on the relationships between what they were
writing (topic), how they were writing (mode), and in
what format they were writing (genre). As a teacher of
a literature curriculum, I wanted students to respond
to certain curricula and texts and, at times, topics. I
needed to continue to teach grammar and mechanics
so that nothing interfered with their messages. I
wanted to teach students so that they could make the
right choices for their writings.
In “A Framework for Choosing Topics for,
with, and by Adolescent Writers,” Kelly Chandler-
Olcott and Donna Mahar give reasons for occasional
teacher choice of topics: “to promote engagement
with issues that students might not choose on their
own . . . knowing that students who have not expe-
rienced [traditional frameworks] may be disadvan-
taged in subsequent contexts where it is valued,”
that is, state assessments and the workplace (42).
These teachers feel that, in some cases, topics should
be chosen with the students, “to coach students
through strategies they can use to select topics by
themselves” (43; italics in original).
Every assignment I now give has three
components—topic, mode, and genre. When I looked
back over my curriculum and assignments, I saw how
I could alter the assignments to give choice. I now ex-
plain that each assignment has these three elements
and, in most cases, one will be predetermined—the
topic, the mode, or the genre, depending on the ob-
jective of the lesson—and the writer will have a choice
regarding the two other components.
In the past, for example, after reading O. Henry’s
“A Retrieved Reformation,” students were to persuade
a reader of one of two theses: “Jimmy Valentine really
did reform” or “Jimmy Valentine did not reform.”
They were to use a “correct” five-paragraph essay and
42 September 2004
Toppling the Idol
In my most effusive voice
I would announce that we
were “going to write,”
and groans would fill the
classroom. Going to the
dentist came to mind.
SEP-EJ2.QXD 8/10/2004 7:58 AM Page 42
outline it first because that is what I do. I even gave
them a template for the outline so that they would do
it correctly. I told them what types of examples to use.
I did not mention an audience, either authentic or fic-
titious. There really was no choice in this assignment
because, after reading the story, one could hardly prove
that Jimmy Valentine did not reform.
Introducing the element of choice, I required
the students to draft a persuasive piece but asked
them to choose the topic and genre. In O. Henry’s
story, safecracker Jimmy Valentine reformed his
criminal life after falling in love. When saving his fi-
ancée’s niece from suffocation in a time-locked safe,
he cracked open the safe, thereby revealing his past
to his fiancée and her father. This act also exhibited
his heroism and lack of self-interest to Detective Ben
Price, who was in town to apprehend him.
After my reformation, students had choices.
They could write as Jimmy attempting to persuade
his fiancée Annabel that he had changed and they
should still wed or as Annabel convincing her father
that Jimmy had reformed and she should marry him.
A superior could convince Ben Price that, reformed
or not, Jimmy Valentine needed to serve his time in
jail. Billy, Jimmy’s fellow criminal, could induce
Jimmy to return to his old life and go on a safe-
cracking spree with him. As another choice, the
writing could serve as the speech of either a defense
or prosecution lawyer convincing a jury of Jimmy’s
innocence or culpability. These, of course, were mod-
els, not the only choices.
Next, depending on the topic selected, the stu-
dents adopted the genre that was most effective in
getting the job done: a letter, a love poem, an office
memorandum, a speech, and so forth. The students
were still responding to the text and learning a mode
of writing; the writers chose the genre and the topic.
Two curricular areas had been addressed (literature
and writing), and I was excited about reading the
results—hopefully as excited as the students were
about their writings.
I must say that the writing improved greatly
with the addition of voice, and this assignment was
fun to read. Lauren’s letter from Annabel to her fa-
ther began, “Our eyes met, and I glanced down,
blushing. He smiled that sly smile as I resisted star-
ing. My whole day was made from just one glance
into the easygoing, sea-green eyes. My beloved
Ralph, while still Jimmy Valentine, moved here
with every intention of robbing your bank when our
paths crossed and our eyes met. He became a new
man, became Ralph Spencer, for one reason and one
reason only—to win me.” Three pages later, after in-
troducing her proofs of reformation, including allu-
sions to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Annabel (Lauren)
made her final plea, “Jimmy Valentine has always
been a pure-hearted and responsible man, and he
truly reformed into Ralph
Spencer. I still wish to marry
this remarkable fellow with
your blessing. I love Ralph, and
Ralph loves me. You must let
this marriage go on if just for
love’s sake. Who among us
could deny true love?” The voice of a romantic had
spoken, as earnestly and persuasively as only an
eighth-grade author could. Best of all, the writing
did not sound like a fifty-year-old realist.
Another student elected an option not even
proposed. Andy wrote a scene in which detective Ben
Price returns home after allowing Jimmy Valentine
to go free and explains his motivations to his wife,
who is afraid that he will be fired. After listening to
Ben’s arguments, she, as well as the reader, is con-
vinced that Ben took the “right” action, if not the
To help students who wish to attempt a mode or
genre that has not yet been formally taught, I bor-
rowed and revised an idea from Linda Rief. I pre-
pared outlines of the basic format of each genre and
models of writings in each—social and business let-
ters, compare and contrast, legal briefs, different
types of poetry, news articles, scripts, critiques,
speeches, obituaries, brochures, personal memoirs,
descriptive narratives, diary entries, and so forth—
for the students to use as references. These are kept
in a file accessible to the students, and when they
want to attempt one of these genres, the students
can borrow models. We also look for models in lit-
erature as we read. After implementing writing
choice in her classroom, Nancie Atwell found that
“[f]reedom of choice does not undercut structure.
Instead, students become accountable for learning
about and using the structures available to writers
to serve their purposes” (15).
In “Unlearning Writing,” Donald Murray
writes that he had to unlearn certain lessons that
Giving the students
options was not a
problem after I completed
the twelve-step program
at Control Anonymous.
SEP-EJ2.QXD 8/10/2004 7:58 AM Page 43
were ineffective and “guaranteed to produce writ-
ing that says nothing, is dull, graceless, unread”
(par. 3). One of these lessons was that form precedes
meaning. Murray reminds us, “Of course we often
sit down to write a column, an essay, a textbook, a
novel, a memoir, but the genre, its form and struc-
ture, should rise out of the evolving meaning. I have
had a magazine article become a novel, a poem be-
come a column, and a column a poem. And the form
within the genre should grow organically as the
writer writes to discover what to say and how to say
it” (par. 18).
When students write in response to a specific
topic as an assessment for a unit of study or a prac-
tice for standardized testing, I
give them freewrites on liter-
ary topics or themes and then
let them choose the mode and
genre. By the end of the year,
writers are able to respond to
literature by choosing the
most effective ways to present
their ideas and their voices, de-
pending on what they need to
communicate. Linda Rief
wrote, “to express themselves
effectively all learners have to read and write and
speak in their own voices. But they can discover
their voices only by answering their own questions,
their own inquiries” (10).
Nancie Atwell shares the explanation of Susan
Sowers, who observed how students develop as writ-
ers and how schools help this process. The children
“decided what they would write. They wrote on a
range of topics and in a variety of modes wider than
their teachers had dreamed of assigning. They cared
about content and correctness” (12). I have found
this to be true as my students attempted writings
based on the models that I presented or had on file
and on brochures, eulogies, a variety of news articles,
and even recipes.
Analyzing Purpose and Audience
After we permit and encourage students to make
choices, how do we teach them to make effective
choices? I find that it is most successful to concen-
trate on two areas—the purpose to be achieved and
the intended audience. The best device I have found
for demonstrating the importance of purpose and au-
dience in choosing format and mode is analyzing ad-
vertisements. Advertising is a medium where success
is completely dependent on reaching a targeted au-
dience for the purpose of convincing them that they
need to buy, use, or vote for a product. Here the form
truly fits the function rather than the function fitting
To help students see the relationship between
purpose and audience, I have them contrast several
commercials. I pair a commercial for Boston aimed at
attracting tourists and a commercial for Philadelphia
targeting residents. Students note the devices used
and the differing formats of the two commercials.
Another effective comparison is a commercial for
milk and one for coffee. The milk commercial is
clearly aimed at a teenage market and uses music,
popularity, and the drink’s similarity to soda. The cof-
fee commercial is aimed at tea drinkers. A staid
“Queen Elizabeth” sedately drinks coffee in her cas-
tle at teatime.
Applying the analysis of purpose and audience
to writing, students listen to the story of a murder
mystery and decide how (genre) to write about it for
a variety of audiences and purposes—as the victim’s
mother-in-law (to celebrate with the wealthy widow),
as the victim’s daughter (notification of death), as a
reporter writing for the newspaper (obituary and a
society report of the funeral), as a police officer (offi-
cial murder report), and as the district attorney (to
prosecute the court case)—and in which mode to
write for each assignment. During analysis the stu-
dents discuss the effectiveness of each choice made.
Experimenting with Form
Sometimes I have pushed students to experiment
with forms they may not have considered. When stu-
dents read articles about the World War II concen-
tration camps, I suggested that they write their
reactions as poetry. At first they complained. After
they responded in poetry, many said that they ex-
pressed such a strong reaction because of the format.
Of course, only those who felt successful told me
that. There may be others who wrote in the format
because I suggested it but might have felt more
successful writing a news article or a diary entry. In
44 September 2004
Toppling the Idol
By the end of the year,
writers are able to
respond to literature by
choosing the most
effective ways to present
their ideas and their
voices, depending on
what they need
SEP-EJ2.QXD 8/10/2004 7:58 AM Page 44
either case, the exercise introduced them to the idea
of trying new genres and of seeing what fit their style
and got the job done. It forced them to think out-
side the five-paragraph-essay box.
I was concerned that I might be replacing one
template for another. However, after studying a unit
on the Holocaust and reading The Diary of Anne Frank,
my Humanities class studied apartheid and read
Sheila Gordon’s Waiting for the Rain. When I gave the
open assignment of writing a final reflection on the
novel, I received a variety of responses. Possibly be-
cause they had just written their concentration-camp
poetry, many students chose to write their reflections
as poems, but even in those cases I found rich, indi-
vidual variety. Some wrote about the novel, others
wrote about apartheid, and a few wrote about dis-
crimination in general. Students wrote poetry that
rhymed, blank poetry, and free verse, depending on
their purpose and voice. Many incorporated poetic de-
vices that we had studied. The responses were heart-
felt and moving.
Apartheid was the South African government initi-
ated in 1948;
Apartheid was the political system that caused
people to separate.
Apartheid was a system that ruined many lives.
Apartheid destroyed friendships; many people died.
Joe explained the title of the literary work in
An unjust government
Keeping freedom contained.
While a race quite different
Is waiting for the rain.
Amber retold the story:
One black, one white—
Would they become lost in the fight?
Two different worlds soon to be torn apart;
Two different souls who seemed to share one heart.
As time went on, things quickly changed.
Lives were broken apart; both worlds rearranged.
Frikkie and Tengo were the closest of friends
Until Apartheid brought that to an end.
Using a different poetic device, Bobby wrote
first-person refrains that demonstrated Tengo’s grow-
ing awareness of oppression:
Stanza 1: I never questioned how things were
Stanza 2: I seldom questioned how things were
Stanza 3: I occasionally questioned how things were
Stanza 5: I frequently questioned how things were
Stanza 6: I usually questioned how things were
Stanza 8: I always question how things are
This year, after completing both the study of the
Holocaust and apartheid, I asked my students to com-
pare and contrast The Diary of Anne Frank with Wait-
ing for the Rain. Left to their own devices, Katie and
Emily wrote about conversations between Anne (The
Diary of Anne Frank) and Tengo (Waiting for the Rain)
in which the two protagonists discuss the discrimina-
tory activities of their governments. Katie began, “If
Anne Frank and Tengo could meet, they would find
their governmental situations to be somewhat similar.
But they would also have many differences. Tengo
might even feel appreciative after hearing Anne’s
story, and Anne might find
Tengo very fortunate to be able
to live freely on a big farm.”
By coincidence, or maybe by
eighth-grader proclivity to so-
cial discussion, Emily recounted
a comparable conversation in her
own, distinct voice. She wrote,
“If there were to be a meeting of
all oppressed people, it is a cer-
tainty that Anne and Tengo would find each other.
They would have more to talk about than anyone
would have thought. Anne might say to Tengo that he
must have been so lucky to be able to run around in
the fresh air all the time since she was cooped up in an
attic for years. Tengo might reply that she must have
been very lucky to receive such an education since he
did not receive an education until his early teenage
years, and then he learned mostly on his own.” She ends
her writing, “Funny, how a conversation between two
completely different people from two completely dif-
ferent worlds could show so much about oppression
through the years.” What a creative (and effective) idea!
I will have to resist the urge to assign it next year and
remove the choice from the assignment.
Reflecting on Practice
How did I know when I was successful in reaching
my goal? Students wrote; I didn’t have to apologize
This year, after
completing both the
study of the Holocaust
and apartheid, I asked my
students to compare and
contrast The Diary of
Anne Frank with Waiting
for the Rain.
SEP-EJ2.QXD 8/10/2004 7:58 AM Page 45
46 September 2004
Toppling the Idol
for giving writing assignments. I now enjoy reading
their writings and so do they. The highest indicator
of success is effective writing, deeply revised and, in
a different respect, writing that is done when not as-
signed. Note passing has become an art; when I con-
fiscate a note, it is a pleasure to read.
Where will I go from here? I hope to follow
Linda Rief and “[e]ach year I [will] let go of more
and more and the students [will] take more and more
responsibility for their own learning. Their think-
ing [will be] deeper, richer, and more diverse” (3).
Whereas I once thought the omnipotent deity 5¶
Essay ruled the world of exposition, I now trust stu-
dents to inform and persuade in their own ways, in
their own voices. I will find a new religion as I top-
ple my idols of the past and help the students decide
how to get the job done.
Atwell, Nancie. In the Middle: New Understandings about
Writing, Reading, and Learning. 2nd ed. Portsmouth:
Chandler-Olcott, Kelly, and Donna Mahar. “A Framework
for Choosing Topics for, with, and by Adolescent
Writers.” Voices from the Middle 9.1 (2001): 40–47.
Goodrich, Frances, and Albert Hackett. The Diary of Anne
Frank. Prentice Hall Literature Silver. Englewood Cliffs:
Prentice-Hall, 1989. 303–68.
Gordon, Sheila. Waiting for the Rain. New York: Bantam,
Henry, O. “A Retrieved Reformation.” Prentice Hall Litera-
ture Silver. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1989.
Murray, Donald M. “Unlearning Writing.” Learning Matters
2.6 (1998): n.p.
———. A Writer Teaches Writing. 2nd ed. Boston: Hough-
Rief, Linda. Seeking Diversity: Language Arts with Adolescents.
Portsmouth: Heinemann, 1992.
Lesley Roessing has taught eighth-grade language arts and humanities for fifteen years at Ridley Middle School in Ridley Park,
Pennsylvania. She is a 2002 Writing Fellow of the Pennsylvania Writing and Literature Project. email: lesley_roessing@ridleysd.
EJ 5 Years Ago
Revolutionizing the Research Paper Assignment
In high schools and colleges today, English teachers and their colleagues across the curriculum are still as-
signing research papers. Students still go through a process to research and locate suitable sources for their
topics, but the personal computer and access to the vast and tangled web of the Internet have revolutionized
the research paper assignment. Not only does word processing, with its quick and easy revision applications,
make writing the paper easier, the ability to find resources via the Web makes researching appealing, almost
glitzy, to adolescents.
Susan A. Gardner, Hiltraut H. Benham, and Bridget M. Newell. “Oh, What a Tangled
Web We’ve Woven! Helping Students Evaluate Sources.” EJ 89.1 (1999): 39–44.
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