Embracing Student Voice and Agency in a Composition Curriculum

By Kristen R. Strom

“I have always struggled with academic writing. I constantly work fiercely to set up the structure of my essays and make sure all the points are valid and make logical sense, yet I always end up getting undesirable grades.”

“I usually loathe writing in general because all the prompts that we have to do for school are incredibly boring and are hard for me to actually write about.”

“I believe my writing lacks quality when I am not interested in what I am writing about and when I do not put effort into it.”

These comments reflect three of my senior students’ responses on their first writing assignment for a dual credit composition class. The assignment asks students to share with me their personal and academic writing experiences as they answer the assignment prompt, “Who are you as a writer?” At the very beginning of the course, I want to learn about my students and what they need from the curriculum and my pedagogy to grow as writers. Their responses on this first assignment influence our semester-long dual-credit composition course curriculum that evolves with my student writers in mind.

Composition students choose to take the dual-credit class during the first or second semester of their senior year. They have experienced a variety of writing experiences and instruction throughout high school in regular, honors, and/or Advanced Placement level classes. Some of those courses are literature and/or writing electives where students are exposed to a range of writing opportunities based on the course and teacher.

By starting with this assignment on the first day of our composition course, they communicate to me the types of academic and personal writing they have done in the past, strategies that help them be successful, their struggles, and their perceptions of the different types and purposes of their writing. Their reflections help me learn about them as writers. Most importantly, what they reveal helps me craft a writing curriculum that responds to their needs rather than a composition textbook, a previously used syllabus, or suggestions from the dual-crediting institution. While I use these resources as a guide, my students’ writing abilities and preferences are at the center of our curriculum, assessments, and daily classroom activities.

Developing a Culturally Responsive Writing Curriculum That Honors Students’ Voices

Beginning the class in this way helps me be culturally responsive (Gay, 2010) to my students’ experiences in and out of the classroom, especially to their identities as writers. As a culturally responsive educator, I attempt to use “the cultural knowledge, prior experiences, frames of reference, and performance styles of ethnically diverse students to make learning encounters more relevant to and effective for them” (p. 31). My commitment to develop a curriculum that is responsive to students’ unique backgrounds came about when I prepared to return to teach secondary English Language Arts (ELA) after taking a four year sabbatical to pursue my PhD in English Studies. My research and teaching investigates how ELA teachers’ methods of instruction can take into consideration students’ diverse literacy needs and abilities. 

As I brainstormed how to create a culturally responsive senior-level composition course, I asked myself the following questions: 

  • How will I honor my students’ voices through my writing pedagogy? 
  • What writing assignments can I develop that will build on students’ prior writing experiences and skills? 
  • How can I create a writing classroom that allows students agency over their learning and growth as writers?

My answers continually circled back to my students. To be a culturally responsive writing teacher, I need to provide my students’ multiple opportunities throughout the course to share with me how they perceive themselves as writers and how I can best meet their academic needs. I then use their feedback to develop a relevant and engaging curriculum that honors students’ voices, gives them agency over their learning, and provides them with authentic writing experiences

Using Student Feedback to Develop My Composition Curriculum

To elicit student feedback, on the second day of class we have a discussion about their prior writing experiences, their academic goals for the class, and how I can best meet their needs. To begin the discussion, I reveal to my students that in order for me to create a relevant and engaging writing curriculum, my instruction needs to start with them. Therefore, I need to first learn from them what I can do to help them be successful and meet their academic goals. The following questions guide our class discussion:

  • What are your hopes for your senior year writing course? 
  • What curriculum could I develop to teach you the skills you feel you need to improve your writing? 
  • What specific writing instruction and/or activities could benefit your writing, research, and revision processes?

Students volunteer their reflections and I record their responses on a Google Document projected on our SmartBoard. Students’ suggestions include the following ideas that I embed in each of our units:

Opportunities For Student Voice and Agency In My Writing Classroom

During the semester, class discussions, teacher-student conferences, and end-of-unit reflections give students’ opportunities to provide me feedback about their progress and how I can continually improve our curriculum to best meet their needs. 

At the end of each large writing assignment, students reflect on their writing, research, and revision processes by writing a one-page formal letter addressed to me. The assignment requires them to research the genre of a formal letter and then compose their answers to the following questions: Did you meet the expectations of the assignment? What would you change or continue to work on, if given more time? What are you most proud of? What did you struggle with the most? Moving forward, what do you want to continue to improve upon? Is there anything from writing this reflection that you discovered about your writing/revision/research process? What else do you want to tell me about your learning/writing process during this unit?

I use students’ reflections to modify future writing assignments, classroom activities, and my writing pedagogy. For example, at the end of our first unit on the personal essay, many students provided suggestions for improving the teacher-student conference I conducted during the early drafting stages: one student advised me to “set up more organized times for conferences so that everyone knows when exactly they will be able to meet with you” and another student suggested building in “more time to brainstorm with you about our ideas for our writing and how we want it to be structured.” Based on students’ feedback, all future writing units include scheduled brief, introductory teacher-student conferences to discuss students’ ideas followed by longer conferences when they are further along in the writing and revision processes. 

By providing my students opportunities to share with me their perceptions of writing experiences from the past and in our course, students have agency over their learning. I use their ongoing reflections to adjust our composition curriculum, revision process, conferencing organization, and my specific feedback on their writing so that I can help them develop as writers. My success as a teacher is dependent on their honesty. I want to understand how they struggled and found success on writing assignments from previous courses and our course so that I can plan and continue to modify our composition curriculum to engage them in the writing process and the material they write about. 

Placing My Student Writers at the Center of My Pedagogy

“I knew this was going to be a good semester when you sat down with us and asked what we wanted to get out of this class. You care about your students and you want us to succeed.”

“This was the first time I have ever been allowed to write about a topic I chose, and because of this it was much more enjoyable to write those papers because I actually cared about the topic.”

These are two students’ comments from the Final Course Reflection assignment where I ask students to tell me about their experiences in our class. By placing them at the center of my culturally responsive writing pedagogy, my composition classroom belongs to my students.

Teaching in this way has taught me that a writing teacher

  • asks important questions about their student writers 
  • seeks to understand students’ previous writing experiences inside and outside of the classroom space
  • allows students agency over their learning by listening to their needs and honoring student choice
  • uses ongoing feedback to improve and deliver an engaging writing curriculum
  • keeps student writers at the center of their writing pedagogy

By starting the school year with my students in mind, I learn from them how to deliver and continually modify a composition course curriculum best suited to their needs. My writing course develops by placing my student writers at the center of learning, instruction, and curriculum development. What my students write develops from what we create together.


Kristen R. Strom, Ph.D. has taught secondary ELA and post-secondary literacy methods courses in Illinois and is currently the Coordinator of Teacher Education in the Educational Studies Department at Knox College. Follow her on Instagram @dr_kristenstrom or Facebook “Kristen R. Strom” and visit her blog https://soyoureanewteacher.weebly.com/


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Peer reviewed through the Writers Who Care blind peer-review process.

8 thoughts on “Embracing Student Voice and Agency in a Composition Curriculum

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  3. Hi,
    From what I could gather from your post, you have truly made your classroom student-centered. You have so much student reflection and feedback built into the course; it seems that it would be pretty difficult to have a student get lost in the shuffle. Here is on quote that really resonated with me: “To begin the discussion, I reveal to my students that in order for me to create a relevant and engaging writing curriculum, my instruction needs to start with them”. This is a risk for a teacher to take; students are given great authority in the classroom and over their education. But education should entail some risk; expressing one’s ideas is risky. Students need a space in which they can openly express their ideas, because, if they don’t learn how to do that in a classroom, then where will it happen?

  4. From reading this post it is clear that student agency is important to the overall success of the student and the classroom. Allowing the students to have power or at least believe that they have power is an important aspect to the classroom. Reading the post this also helps with feedback on assignments as well as dealing with assigning the correct curriculum. My only concern is the time management aspect of all of this. How are teachers able to manage themselves and in turn manage the time of their curriculum and their students. There are a lot of powerful aspects that go into making sure that classroom and students exceed to the best of their ability but how do teachers learn to manage this all.

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