Quick Tip Tuesday: Nudging kids to make a choice

Nonfiction reading, research, and reporting is hard work. For students to maximize their inquiry experience, they should choose a topic they care about, know something about, and wonder about,” writes Stephanie Harvey in her book Nonfiction Matters: Reading, Writing, and Reseach in Grades 3-8. But some students find it difficult to pick a topic or they think that their hobbies and interests are not suitable for school. In this Quick Tip, we get a quick glimpse into a conversation between a student, Thomas, and his teacher, Mary, as they talk about Thomas’ interest in football and how that will make a great topic for his research paper.

Some students struggle with topic selection. On the eve of the topic deadline, Thomas had not come up with a single idea for research. His mother rang Mary first thing in the morning and described a family in turmoil. Thomas had been up all night fraught with anxiety over his eleventh-hour missing topic. His mom’s voice cracked as she wondered how he would ever organize sources, take notes, or write a report if he couldn’t even think of a topic. School was not easy for Thomas. Thomas’s mother believed that independent inquiry demanded too much of him. She suggested that Mary simply assign Thomas a topic so he could get started. Mary felt bad for Thomas and promised to talk with him that morning. The last thing Thomas needed was to be losing sleep.

Before kids entered the room, Mary pulled out Thomas’s wonder book. The twisted spiral wire extended at least six inches beyond the half-torn cover. Writing was conspicuously absent. But precise drawings of NFL team logos covered the lined pages. Mary approached Thomas during writing time and asked how things were going.

“Lousy,” Thomas answered.


“I can’t think of a topic for this research project.”

“What interests you, Thomas?” Mary asked.

“Nothin’,” Thomas answered.

“Tell me about these drawings,” Mary nudged.

“Oh those, those are nothin’,” Thomas said, as he slid his notebook back into his desk.

“It looks like football stuff to me,” Mary commented.

“Yeah, I guess,” Thomas acknowledged.

“Can I see them?”

Thomas reached into his desk and handed the tattered wonder book to Mary.

“Wow, these are great. How many team helmets did you draw in here?” Mary asked.

“All of ’em,” Thomas answered.

“No kidding. Did you copy them from somewhere?”

“No, I know the logo of every team in the NFL,” Thomas said.

“Really! Which is your favorite?”

“The Broncos, of course.”

“Thomas, these are really terrific drawings,” Mary told him. She continued to draw Thomas out on the subject of football. Thomas not only knew the logos, but also the standings, schedules, and player statistics of most teams in the league. Thomas was an expert on the NFL and football in general, even though he had begun this conference by saying he had no interests.

When Mary suggested that Thomas write about football in his wonder book and list a few questions he had, he was pleasantly surprised. He didn’t associate football with school. Mary pulled out several beautifully illustrated picture books and wondered whether Thomas might want to write and illustrate a picture book on some aspect of football as his research project. Thomas pulled a Sports Illustrated from his desk. John Elway graced the cover. Mary left Thomas reading about his idol. She hadn’t actually assigned a topic. But she had explored Thomas’s background knowledge and nudged him in a direction that matched his interests.

Thomas’s struggle was far from over, of course. Reading, note taking, and writing challenged him throughout his inquiry. But finding an engaging topic represents a major step forward for kids like Thomas. Independent inquiry allows for the widest range of exploration. Choosing freely from an unlimited spectrum of topics gives kids the best shot at finding a subject that appeals to them.

Young writers need to know that selecting a topic is challenging. When I meet professional writers, I often ask them what they find most difficult about writing. The answer is almost always the same: thinking of something to write about. My students are relieved when I share this with them, because they too struggle to come up with ideas to write about.

Add comment August 24th, 2010

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