Last weekend I had the opportunity to read for the Scholastic Writing Awards. Each year students throughout the United States submit original pieces of literary work for this nationwide competition and the foremost pieces are annually published in the Best of Teen Writing. The writing can fit a variety of genres including short stories, novels, journalism, poetry and portfolios. I was fortunate to read a collection of short stories, short short stories, and science fiction entries submitted by California teens. As I reflect back on that experience and the pieces I read, a couple of thoughts continue to resonate with me.
- Power of Student Voice – In my district “student voice” has become part of the fabric of our instructional core. We’re trying to create learning environments where students not only use conversation to construct knowledge, but to also advocate for their learning and shape the world around them. I probably read over 60 pieces for the Scholastic Writing Awards and in every single one I was impressed by the level of student voice. Granted, the technical writing of some pieces were better than others, however in every single piece I observed students synthesizing the world around them through text on a variety of topics. One student talked about gay marriage and homophobic bullying through a short story. Other students debated evil vs. good and us vs. them through accounts of isolated communities and dystopian futures in science fiction pieces.
- Choice & Creativity – As I read through the 60 pieces, more than once I had to stop and reflect on the thought that this student chose to independently write on this particular topic using this unique format. As a matter of fact, our rubric actually marked down for anything that was formulaic or looked like a “classroom assignment.” When we don’t provide students opportunities for choice, not only in their writing topics but also their writing formats, what opportunities for authentic writing are we really providing? Is the 5 paragraph essay or the Jane Schaffer format scaffolding the writing craft for our students or is it actually holding them back? When we use scaffolds how do we gradually pull them back and hand off the thinking, learning, and creativity to our students? Do we want our students to be authors or writing automatons? Where do we teach them to navigate the choice between one medium and another?
Chances are if you read this blog, then you have children in your life. They may be your biological or your classroom children, but in either case they are your kids and your students. Encourage your students to write and write often and as they develop their written voice consider having them submit a piece to the Scholastic Writing Awards. While you are checking out their website make sure you download the 2010 Best of Teen Writing anthology. It makes excellent mentor text and if you care about kids you will be moved by their voices.