Purpose Driven Writing: the relationship between Flexibility & Agency

In thinking about purpose-driven writing, I wrote previously about how the planning differs and here I want to dig into that more.

With purpose-driven writing, a lot of what is normally emphasized in an ELA class shifts, both in terms of whether or how we value it, who owns and defines these values, and how it gets communicated. In this post, the shifts we will discuss are deadlines/pacing, and process-based instruction that isn’t necessarily linear.

These are things to consider if making the switch but this doesn’t require a full-on conversion per se. It could be done as a unit but to get the full benefits of the approach, you would want to emphasize time.


With purpose-driven writing, time is one of the first changes you will need to commit to if you really want a class where kids are allowed to experience (and learn from) fumbling around and learning how to process through and “hear” their own thinking.

A lot of initial lessons, aside from teaching kids how to brainstorm, will be around how to start and scratch a lot of initial drafts until they find what they want to zero in on as their purpose. So, deadlines are not product-driven. Instead, we plan check-ins and confer with individual students or teams to see where they are at (this is where teacher expertise as listeners and writers comes in because we need to hear beneath the surface of the random pieces of notes and disconnected ideas or “I dunnos” to help kids determine a path– more on this in our Conferring post).

Once you have gone through a full cycle of this and kids get over the shock of making these decisions and find peace in their inner chaos, you will see them develop the skills of traversing their ideas and comfort in the uncertainties involved in writing.

When I started my literary analysis unit, which centered around kids reading a book they loved, finding and collecting sentences that felt powerful to them, I had a student from Burkina Faso asking me when I was going to give them “the form to fill out”. He had become so used to seeing writing as something someone else (the teacher) knows how to do and he was going to learn by sticking words in boxes.

He didn’t know how to get started so I just said to him — I don’t either. I said you know your book and writing down your thoughts as they come to you is part of how you discover what you want to say.

My instructions for the task was to have their readers fall in love with their book, to make their readers feel the strongest emotions they felt while reading it and anchor it in those most powerful sentences they found. From there they would discover their theme and then revise accordingly.

I knew by leaving it open, kids would need instruction through the chaos and I would discover who needed what tools to do that.

Needless to say the student from Burkina Faso not only wrote a good paper but gave one of the most passionate presentations.

This is why tight deadlines can be a killer because then that drives the decisions students make and the tensions they feel. That doesn’t mean we hangout by the mouse traps drinking from our water bottles while the kids loll around doodling random thoughts in their notebooks. Students, with help from teachers, set deadlines for themselves.

The “Dress Rehearsal Unit”

To get to this point, kids should experience 1 initial unit where they can feel what it’s like to get through one round of research (I hate the term pre-writing), drafting, revising, getting and using feedback (from teacher or partner at first — can teach into peer feedback later), and then editing and publishing (Deborah Dean has great chapters in her book on global vs local revising and other lessons that allow for nonlinear instructions).

Then spend time reflecting on the process (at the end or throughout) — “what was/is hard about this moment/part of writing?” “How and when did you find you didn’t your best work?” Etc.

You still will want to pad this initial unit with a flexible deadline so both you and the kids get used to seeing how to manage a learning environment where kids are at different points, finishing at different times and being comfortable with that.

Student Purpose as Motivator

So, purpose-driven writing can feel intimidating or even immoral at first to teachers who love a hard deadline. We often love deadlines because it feels like we are teaching students responsibility or how to handle pressure or .. for some.. we love it as a tool to push the kids who tell you they’re “just lazy” and never turn in work.

But in this approach, the student desire to express their message, in their voice, and complete their purpose wins as the motivating force. Yes, there will be students who flounder, get bored and lose steam but by focusing on purpose, the teaching (through conferences) can help students identify and unpack real hurdles they face rather than talking about how they’re going to meet a deadline.

In purpose-driven writing, you will find that if you have and emphasize tight, standardized deadlines, you will end up pushing for that finish line. Certain aspects of the routine will get rushed or even cast aside. We know sometimes these deadlines are external, set by others for the teacher to meet, but even then it shouldn’t be more than 1x a year at the high school level (I know my elementary peeps who use TCRWP are typically expected to have all kids produce within each monthly unit).

So, ideally you have flexibility to give students time.

Agency: From Deadlines to Goal-Setting

Again, removing teacher-mandated deadlines doesn’t mean we live in a fantastical realm next to that lovely mouse trap. It means we moved from relying on those teacher-made deadlines toward teaching students how to set deadlines for themselves. The purpose then shifts from “teaching how to meet the urgent pressures of real life deadlines” to “being taught how to pace yourself, resist procrastination, plan time for revision, and get to know what you need time for when writing.” There is time to meet the former and never enough time to learn the latter. And the reality is kids will learn, like with reading, some genres take a lot of time and attention and some they can just bang out, as they get to know themselves as writers.

You will feel tension and uncertainty at first, but the payoff is worth it if you can see student struggles (or reflect on your own as a writer) to teach strategies that help kids overcome those common, natural writing pitfalls, sand traps and dead ends.

I was an eternal procrastinator. I learned from teaching this way to overcome this.

Ha! Who am I kidding? In my personal life I still can be found writing and sending in papers moments before a deadline, but not when it comes to my students.

For our Performance Based Assessment Task, which has a hard deadline at the end of February (because our school schedules their “thesis defense panels” for specific days), I had students choose their texts the last days of October. We began reading (46 different books across 4 classes! Which I loved and regretted every single moment) in November. They began writing once they felt they saw a theme by collecting evidence, etc., and then almost everyone was ready to start writing by late January.

I believe this was one of the key tools that made it possible for a greater percentage of students to complete these projects (many in advance of the tight external deadline I was given of March 22).

I will share in a future post how I taught my students to write without any graphic organizers or even a strict “argument” form and using a non-linear approach.

Finally, this doesn’t mean students only ever set deadlines. Sometimes you will need to — but the goal here is to shift what drives students to meet deadlines, experience that feeling of wanting to fulfill a piece of writing for their own purposes so they can find the skills within them when they need to write for someone else’s purpose and right deadlines

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