5 Ways to Give Students Free Choice on Essay Topics and Still Save Your Sanity

Let students write about anything they want. But challenge them to do it better.

Why We Should Give Students Free Choice in Essay Topics

Recently,  we published an article about banning certain frequent flyer writing topics in middle school English, including pets, video games and sports. Any middle school teacher can immediately appreciate this instinct since often it seems those are the ONLY topics students want to write about.

And the writer says that the ban has improved his students’ writing overall. I’m sure that’s true, since more particular and specific experiences often make for better stories. But I would also argue that rather than ban students from writing about certain experiences, we should be challenging them to do it better.

I’m sure there have been thousands—maybe hundreds of thousands—of student essays on “the big game,” but I refuse to believe that subject is tapped out. I refuse to believe that some day one of your students won’t blow you away with their take on the matchup against the big rival. It could happen.

I know because if there were quotas on the types of stories people could tell, romance novelists would be in trouble. So would Renaissance painters (the Lamentation of Christ? Sorry, that’s been done). Not to mention any artist working in just about any medium, since we helpless humans are prone to telling the same stories over and over again.

The trick, of course, is to tell the story in the way that only YOU can. To offer a unique slice on one of those universal themes of love, war, discovery or regret. And admittedly, that’s a hard task for a middle schooler who only wants to talk about how the Cougars FINALLY beat the Unicorns, and OMG it was so exciting, go team go. But here are a few ways I think we can get students to go deeper, take their work to the next level and still save our sanity in the process.


(And by the way, I have no doubt that the teacher with the banned-topics list also works on these concepts with his students, only with more interesting writing to begin with. You have to do what works for your classroom, and sometimes that means pushing kids outside their comfort zones and having them write about topics they wouldn’t ordinarily choose.)

1. Have them focus in. Really focus.

Don’t have students tell the story of the whole game—or worse, the whole season. Invite them to write about what the goalkeeper is thinking in the last few minutes. About how she knows she needs to concentrate, but she can’t stop thinking about the way the light cuts across the field. Write about what it’s like to put on a uniform for the first time, or to shake hands with the team that’s just crushed you. Take two minutes—and only two minutes—of that exciting game and write the heck out of it.

2. Switch perspectives.

When you talk with students about different points of view, oftentimes they go straight for the inanimate objects—I’m going to write about the game from the point of view of the ball! Or the scoreboard! And while those could be interesting to read, simpler switches in perspective can go a long way not only toward deepening students’ writing but also nurturing empathy. Can they tell the story of the game from a parent of an opposing team member? From the kid sitting in the stands who didn’t make the team?

3. Add sensory detail.

The next time you get a totally flat essay on the big game, start by inviting the writer to add 25 sensory details to the piece. It might seem like a lot, but many novelists accomplish this in a single page. Beginning writers often focus on visual details alone, so be sure to challenge the writer to include taste, smell, touch and sound as well.

4. Get personal.

Ask your writers: Why are you the one telling this story? Could this same essay have been turned in by anyone else on your team? If so, what perspective can you bring to it to make it yours? If one of your great-grandchildren found this essay in a trunk in the attic, what would you want them to come away knowing about you?

5. Switch genres or forms.

Can your student take his boring essay on the big game and turn it into a heart-thumping mystery? A piece of alien-snatching science fiction? Or perhaps they could write a big game sonnet or pantoum. The trick isn’t just randomly choosing one of these alternatives, but thinking about how a different format could deepen the story the student wants to tell.

What do you think about banning certain topics versus going deeper? How do you get reluctant middle schoolers to revise their writing? Please share your thoughts in the comments.