‘Writers learn to write from studying the craft of other writers’ (Fountas & Pinnell, 2017, pg 225
When my students are excited about writing, I am excited about teaching! Or is it the other way around? Certainly a chicken versus egg conundrum, nevertheless, this is a story about engaging our youth in creative writing. Like many writers, our students’ work is deeply influenced by their exposure to the books they have read (or had read to them). (Laminack, 2007)
‘Choose your Own Adventure’ writing project
Let me take you back to a time in my career when I was a Year 4 teacher at what I would describe as a challenging school. I came to be these students’ teacher midway into Term 2, 2015 and they would have to be the most challenging group of children that I have taught in my 15 years of teaching. I learnt a lot about engaging the disengaged that year, but I would like to describe to you, one project that I developed to engage these students in writing. I’d recently bought a box set of ‘Choose your Own Adventure’ books (Choose your own adventure- Race Forever, 2005, Scholastic). I was struggling to get some of my students involved in reading and writing. I showed them the books, but the covers are old fashioned and the students didn’t really take to them. I tried again. This time I began reading the books to the class. I pointed out the unusual style of second person writing and let the class cast votes as to the direction each story would take. Offering choice was the hook. After reading these to the class for a few weeks, the students began wanting to read the books independently, which was very exciting. It occurred to me then that perhaps I could transfer this engagement to a writing project.
We’d only just completed a unit on narrative writing, where I’d taught the students about planning, setting, characters, problem and resolution. They were in the right mindset for this task. I proposed my idea and stuck up a huge piece of butcher’s paper. We began by brainstorming a problem. What would Year 4 students consider an exciting problem? Well it was getting close to Christmas and being the very politically minded young people that they were, they decided that the story would be about the Prime Minister cancelling Christmas. ‘Okay’ I said, ‘fair enough, but you have to think about why.’ I explained to them that the story wouldn’t make sense without a reason for this devastating problem to occur. We collaborated some more and they were able to agree on a reason.
We were ready to plan. We used a tree diagram and began with an idea. From there I drew two branches. These would be our first two choices. From each of these two choices I drew two more branches. Now we had four possible paths for the reader to take. My aim was to ensure that each student in my class would have one part of the story to write. So the planning did not continue on a pattern of doubling as you may imagine. Some of the parts at this point led straight to a conclusion, whereas other ideas circled back to a part on another path. It may sound confusing but when you map it out and have 20-something eager helpers, it will be okay. We’d worked out five different endings in total and ensured that every path led to one of these. There were enough parts so that each student was responsible for writing a page and each had an assigned number that would be the actual page number.
We spent significant time analysing the style of the book. I had to reiterate and model how to write in the second person and present tense, explaining that we would be placing the reader as the main character. It was also imperative that students understood that they could write plenty of detail for their part but they could not write anything new. It had to follow the class plan. As in any class, there were students who were ready to go and others who felt unsure. I was able to work with those that were unsure together in a group to unpack their parts a little more and give them more of a framework for what to write.
The students wrote their parts. Some wrote a page, some wrote a paragraph. It didn’t matter as long as they covered the information they needed to, within their part. I helped each student proof read and edit their work, to ensure that they had been successful with the present tense, second person criteria. I collected all of their drafts and put them in the order they needed to go. I had already typed up the little choice boxes that were to appear at the bottom of their pages (the big map we’d made, travelled to and from school a number of times) and I attached these to the drafts. We read the drafts together as a class and identified any areas in the story where there was repetition between two pages or something clunky that didn’t make sense. Due to the mini lessons and proofing process, there really wasn’t too much that needed to be changed or fixed. The next step was the final copy. Students took their edited drafts and rewrote their page as neatly as they could. They then illustrated their work on a separate piece of paper. All that was left, was for me to collate the work, add the choice tags at the bottom and photocopy the book for each child.
Their reaction when I handed them the completed book was priceless. Never before had I seen them so excited about their own work or so proud. It was exactly what I had been hoping for.
Testing the project again
A few years later I changed schools. The cohort at my new school was quite different. I was working with Year 3s this time and I decided to give the project another go. I’d learned from my mistakes (e.g. leave a margin so that it is easier to staple the book together) and felt a lot more confident as we broached the planning stage. I showed them the book that my previous students had made and the response was enthusiasm and excitement. They all wanted to be a part of this project. Again, this was the perfect project to end the year with and these students also chose a Christmas theme (see Figure 1 and 2). I had 100% buy-in and the end result was just as precious.
How can we apply this to other age groups?
In 2020 I had a Year 2 class. The ‘Choose your own adventure’ books sat for a while in the classroom library, untouched. I saw some of my capable readers losing engagement in their reading and decided it was time to introduce the joy of mystery and choice. I worked with them in a small group, showing them how the books worked and guided them through reading some of them. Once again, the modelling hooked them and they began to read these books independently. I then read some to the whole class, engaging everyone in making choices about the paths we should take as a group.
We began a unit on narrative writing. With this age group I was not prepared to task them with writing such a complex story, but that didn’t stop me from modelling it. I presented the students with the first page of a story I’d titled, ‘The Missing Whiteboard’. It included the children from the class, as well as me, their teacher, and it had two choices at the end of each page. The class voted, we ticked the box and then they had to wait a week for the next instalment (see Figure 3).
Like many classes in 2020, our regular way of teaching and learning was challenged when we were all subjected to a range of Covid19 restrictions. The story was only midway through! We didn’t let that stop us though. During the seven week remote learning phase, I emailed the class a new instalment of the story each week. We would then meet together on WebEx and continue to vote on the path the story would take. It was a fabulous way to keep the students engaged while learning from home. I even had one student who decided to write her own ‘Choose your own adventure’ story. She asked her family to vote on the path that it would take and enjoyed hearing suggestions from the rest of the class about where she could take the story next.
Why is engagement in writing so important? Because it connects our children with the joy of reading. Writing creatively helps the student to become a critical reader and this is what we want for our students. It contributes to the expansion of their vocabulary, grammar and knowledge of structure.
‘Real writers are eager for collaboration.’ Mem Fox (Mem Fox, 2016)
Working collaboratively to represent each voice and create a collective, cohesive text is no easy feat but definitely one worth pursuing. Through the use of mentor texts and the gradual release of responsibility, students of many ages and abilities can experience success through a ‘Choose your Own Adventure’ writing project.
Year 2 Coordinator and teacher
Woodend Primary School
Fountas, I.C., & Pinnell, G.S. (2017). The Fountas & Pinnell literacy continuum. Melbourne: Pearson Australia
Fox, M. (2016). Should we teach writing well or badly?: The Donald Graves Memorial Speech. Australian Literacy Educators’ convention, July 2012. Retrieved from https://memfox.com/for-teachers/should-we-teach-writing-well-or-badly/
Laminack, L.L. (2007). Cracking open the author’s craft. New York: Scholastic
Leung, N. (February, 2020). 5 teacher tips for overcoming “I don’t know what to write about”. Retrieved from https://www.ozlitteacher.com.au/2020/02/02/teacher-tips-for-overcoming-i-dont-know-what-to-write-about/
Montgomery, R.A. (2005). ‘Choose your own adventure’ series. Retrieved from https://www.cyoa.com/
Are you interested in trying this in your class? Start small with these easy steps: