Monday, January 4, 2016

Mentoring Passionate Writers: Avoiding the Educational Pit and the Pendulum (Part Two)

What Is The Educational Pit and the Pendulum?

Earlier this fall, I wrote a blog about the educational Pit and the Pendulum where I explored the notion that schools tend to make curricular decisions that vacillate from one extreme to the other, despite the fact that research solidly supports a middle ground approach.  My goal for today's blog is to to focus on narrative writing instruction and how a middle ground approach is essential for developing students who can and (more importantly) desire to communicate articulately and effectively via written discourse.
This November, I experienced life as a NanoWriMo participant for the first time in my writing career. NanoWriMo, which began in 1999, is a web-based writers' group (among other things) that encourages participants to start and finish an entire first draft of a novel during the month of November. The annual contest boasts many success stories via published works that started as NanoWriMo projects, including titles by popular YA authors Rainbow Rowell and Marissa Meyer. Although I didn't "win" the contest as I accumulated only half the required 50,000 words in a single month, I wrote more than I ever had in thirty day's time.  More importantly, I  was reminded of the inspiration that comes from interacting and sharing ideas with a community of enthusiastic writers.  This realization led me to think how every day classrooms across our country have the opportunity to build passionate writers or to cultivate students' misconception of writing as a cumbersome chore.

Hence, I'd like to examine closely some of the obstacles that instructors face when it comes to standardized tests and their potential to negatively impact curricular decisions. 

What Standardized Testing Has Done to Writing Instruction
Let's first begin by assuming best intentions on the part of government officials who have mandated written assessments for students on high stakes tests.  Their reasoning for including written tasks for students is to ensure that all students will be taught how to write fluently and be held to the same standards. I am guessing that anxiety probably plays a role here as well:   if students are not assessed in the area of writing, some schools and teachers may fail to focus enough of their instruction on writing and more on the skills that are being assessed instead.  I'm sure that at least some truth probably exists in this fear, unfortunately.  After all, this is where the notion of backwards planning lives and breathes.

So are standardized tests inherently evil?  No.  While I never really believed in the logic behind the "guns don't kill people, people kill people" mantra as an argument to explain why gun laws shouldn't be made stricter, I think that this analogy makes a lot more sense when we apply it to the relationship between standardized tests and writing instruction.  Standardized tests don't kill students' passion for writing;  however, what educators sometimes choose to do to "ready" their students for these standardized tests do. 

Despite even the best of intentions on the part of the mandators and creators of standardized assessments,  the effects of assessing students on a high-stakes standardized test via a written task often translate into detrimental curricular decisions that influence students daily. By no means am I suggesting we shouldn't assess students' writing.  However, I am suggesting that we need to recognize common curricular pitfalls that standardized assessments inevitably bring about in order to provide our students with quality writing instruction. I don't think anyone would disagree that students need to be solid readers and writers to obtain success in college and beyond.   If we wish for this goal to come to fruition, students must first value the art of writing as a way to creatively communicate their viewpoints to others. In order to help students value writing as an art form, the following potential pitfalls must be addressed.

Authentic Writing Is Never Timed Whereas Standardized Tests Always Are

Why is this a problem?  Well, if our goal is to develop authentic writers, we are definitely holding our students to a higher standard than we do published authors.  In an Interview with Scholastic, J.K. Rowling, for example, has admitted that the quickest she has ever written a Harry Potter novel is a year.  Of course you might point out that we are asking students to write much smaller pieces than Harry Potter during timed experiences, so comparing a novelist's experience to that of a timed narrative essay isn't necessarily fair. To make it fair, let's examine typical word counts.  Ernest Hemingway, for instance, boasted that he could write 500 words worth salvaging in a day (not, in a timed single hour of the day as expected of students, but in a full day from sunrise to sunset).  My point is this:  if a Nobel Prize winning author could only spit out a meager 500 quality words after a full day's work, why are we surprised when even some of our most talented students struggle to compose a masterpiece in an eighty minute setting?  I know, personally, it takes me at least a few days to map out an idea in my mind before I can even think about sitting down in front of a keyboard.     

Thus, as educators, we need to help students understand that two types of writing exist:  writing for standardized tests and pretty much everything else.  While we need to give students opportunities to practice writing within a strict time constraint so that they are confident in their abilities to do, we need to focus the majority of our time helping them to value that authentic writing involves a process  It is messy.  It doesn't always follow the brainstorm--pre-writing--outlining--first draft--revising--editing-publishing steps as illustrated on those beautifully laminated posters hanging on classroom walls.  It might include throwing out the entire rough draft and starting over, changing the wording throughout a piece to reflect a different tone or mood, or editing a rough draft only to realize that it needs to be revised yet again.  As a first step toward this goal, we need to talk through the pieces we are working on ourselves and detail the struggles we are having.  As Kelly Gallagher often reminds us, we need to show our students that writing is a struggle for everyone.  But that it is also rewarding.  It is not a high speed sprint with the winner being the one to cross the finish line first.  Instead, it is a cross country endurance run with many twists and turns along the way.

Authentic Writing is About Rewriting And Not for A "One and Done" Experience

Just this week, famous YA author Meg Cabot tweeted the following: " Day 2 of the New Year.  Are you a writer?  Do you hate the book you're writing?  Good, that's normal.  Get back to work."  Probably one of the biggest lessons we want our students to learn is that in first drafts never a finished product make. As I write this blog, for example, I am already rearranging sections in my head, knowing that I will have to go back through each portion many times with a fine-toothed comb before I publish it and allow the world to judge the quality of my ideas. In standardized testing situations, students' first drafts are their final drafts. How many popular books or news articles would have never made it to publication if their authors had submitted their first drafts? To quote Hemingway: "The first draft of anything is sh*t." Yet, on standardized tests, we not only expect students to craft exceptional pieces of well organized writing, but we are also sending the unnerving message to students that writing is a one and done experience. If all of our writing assignments mimic the experiences of the standardized tests, students will never learn to internally value the revision component of process writing.  Recently, too many teachers have expressed to me that students these days think that revising is simply changing the font or applying spell check to their writing.  They tell me that when students write their first draft, they assume they are finished; the hard work is over.  Do we own any of this responsibility for their misconception?  I know that in my personal experience with writing that revision is probably the most rewarding part of the whole experience.  It's where the real magic happens.  If students do not currently recognize revision as rewarding, we need to stop and wonder about what we can do to change their mindset.

Authentic Writing Is Written for A Real Audience And Not For a Computer of Scorer                 

Although we write for a myriad of purposes in the real world, we rarely write something that we don't intend to share with others. With the exclusion of journal writing (although I might argue that even this type of writing has the author as its authentic audience), we write to entertain or inform or change the viewpoints of others. We write to communicate our ideas and to help others a glimpse into the way we view the world.  We write to understand ourselves and the world around us. If every time I wrote something my final product was only assessed on a four point scale,  I am pretty sure I would grow to despise the act of writing.  And if I were writing this blog only to know that a computer was eventually going to determine the merit of my words, I definitely wouldn't put my heart and soul into revising.  Thus, the way teachers choose to give feedback to students in class is pivotal.  The reality is that most students will never read those lengthy comments you laboriously detailed onto their essay at Starbucks last Saturday (this should be good news as I have just given you a giant portion of your life back).  They respond much better to small group mini-lesssons and individual conferencing.  Stop and think:  when was the last time you halted class to share with everyone a beautiful line that a student had just crafted?  If you can't remember, do it today.  And tomorrow.  And the day after that.   While students may not remember whether they met or partially met on the PARCC examine ten years from now, they will remember classroom moments like these for a lifetime.

Authentic Writing Exists For a Variety of Purposes Whereas Standardized Tests Too Often Assess the Same Task Again and Again

To me, this is probably the most disconcerting worry when it comes to standardized testing. With the shift to the Common Core, the PARCC exam now assesses narrative writing very differently than the Illinois Standardized Achievement Test had previously. In the past, when the state actually had money to include and assess a written task, the ISAT test would ask students to write a personal memoir that focused on one specific moment in their lives. Often, the ISAT may have required students to describe a moment when they learned a lesson from recent experience they had. With a shift to the Common Core, the narrative task is now exclusively assessed in conjunction with the fiction texts that students read. The actual sixth grade narrative task from last year's test was released by PARCC and required 6th graders to write the following after listening to an audio recording of part of Alice and Wonderland: "Imagine Alice has returned from her journey down the rabbit hole and is retelling the events to her sister. Write a story from Alice's point of view, in which Alice explains what happened to her after she reached the bottom of the rabbit hole. Be sure to use dialogue to show how Alice's sister responds to the story. Use details from the audio recording in your response."
This is where the educational Pit and the Pendulum again chooses to rear its ugly head. I would vehemently argue that both types of writing tasks are essential to a students' growth and success with written discourse. The ISAT prompt asks students to delve into the world of personal memoir, to write from the heart, to reflect on one's own life experiences and to detail these experiences in a creative way that intrigues others.  Speaking from personal experience for a moment, the year 2015 has been one of my toughest yet.  I've learned lessons about myself and human behavior that I probably should've learned sooner.  And creative writing became the vehicle through which I learned these things.  I'm pretty sure I wouldn't be in the place I am today if I hadn't allowed my writing to take me there.  We need to show our students how creative writing can be therapeutic and lead them toward self discovery.  Reflecting on our experiences and thoughts enables us to grow in ways that we wouldn't be able to do so otherwise.  Therefore,If you've allowed the pendulum to swing fully in the direction of PARCC-like tasks, only asking students to craft writing attached to texts, your students are missing out.
Similarly, if your students only spend their time writing based on personal choice and their own life experiences, they are also missing out. The PARCC task is just as valuable as the previous ISAT task for different reasons.  The PARCC task requires students to read as writers, examining the craft and style of a mentor author.  Students must imitate the setting or characters developed by the mentor and incorporate them into their own piece.  By mimicking the style of expert writers, students continue to add new techniques to their toolboxes and understand the texts they've read on a deeper level. In his books, Kelly Gallagher describes several tricks to help students utilize mentor texts to grow as writers.  A great place to start if this is a new concept for you.
So if standardized assessments test essential writing skills, what is the problem? The problem occurs when we make curricular decisions based solely on the latest standardized test and ONLY asking students to do one type of task or the other. Let me ask you a question:  if you were an educator in Illinois prior to Common Core, did you require students to write to tasks similar to those on the PARCC? Or were all of your students' written experiences more personal or openly creative in nature?   Similarly, if you are teaching now in the age of the CCSS, how many opportunities have you given students to write about their own life experiences, to create their own characters and worlds, or artistically express themselves via the written word? How many opportunities do your students have to dabble in poetry writing?  In blogging about topics they love?   Students need  a myriad of experiences, and we cannot let the task of a standardized assessment dictate our every curricular move.
 I would further argue that those creative opportunities for students to craft memoirs and their own short stories are probably the most essential types of tasks. After all, what is the first piece of advice given to aspiring writers by the experts:  write about what you know.  Since all of our students are diverse and bring unique experiences to the table, they will not necessarily see themselves reflected in the characters inside the stories they read in class.  Writing about themselves gives them an opportunity to share their culture with others and learn about themselves while doing it. It is where student engagement is alive and strong.  By including creative writing into your curriculum, you are developing a student's passion for writing.  We know that research supports the idea that the engaged student achieves higher.  Thus, creative writing is definitely not a waste of instructional time by any means because it engages students in the art of writing.
To illustrate my point, consider the following scenario.  You are about to travel cross country with a toddler and desire to get there as soon as possible.  You know that stopping to have your toddler use the bathroom and gather up his favorite DVDs and toys for the road will delay your initial departure. You also know that this is time well spent as it guarantees that you will have to stop less frequently along the way and avoid many hours of incessant whining that might result if you didn't take the time to grab that Despicable Me DVD on your way out the door.  Such is the case with creative writing.  Yes, it will take initially take time away from some of your curricular objectives, but in the end, students will arrive at the final destination and objective mastery sooner, and they will have had a much more pleasant experience along the way.

How Do We Avoid the Educational Pit and The Pendulum and Allow Students' Creative Talents to Flourish?

What can we do inside our classrooms to ensure that students write for more than a grade on a rubric?  How do we develop that passion that we have about writing?    
      Find opportunities for students to write about things that matter to them by giving them choice and options in their writing opportunities.
      Explore all types of writing with students (blogs, poetry, advertisements, wikis, websites, infographics, fanfiction etc) with "scholastic writing" being just one type of writing students do.
       Make sure that students have ample time and opportunities to revise pieces that matter to them. 
      Prior to revising give them time share them with others, and teach them how to give feedback to their peers. 
      Have them reread their first draft and final draft days after completing the final draft and reflect on the effectiveness of each.
      Create a classroom environment where students feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and collaborating with classmates. 
      Provide meaningful feedback to your students.  Spend time talking to them about their writing rather than marking their papers up with comments (Isn't this one liberating????)
      Invite published writers into your classroom via email, twitter, skype, or author visits.  Ask them about their writing practices.  Ask your students about their own.
      Yes, give students timed experiences periodically to relieve their anxieties on standardized test day, but explain to them why they are being timed and that they can always go back and revise after time is up.
       Become a writer yourself.  You cannot teach something that you do not fully understand.  Start projects and set your own deadlines.  Share your successes and stumbling blocks with your students.
      *  Join twitter and follow the famous authors you enjoy.  Look for contests and other opportunities for students to share their work publicly and we awarded for their efforts.
      Most importantly, MAKE.  WRITING.  FUN. ( Otherwise, instead of a bunch of happy Despicable Me watching minions frantically waving their final drafts in your face, you could end up with a bunch of disgruntled Calilous on your hands.  Don't say you weren't warned)
                   I leave you with a true story that occurred last year while I was administering the PARCC examine to a group of 7th grade students for the first time last year.  The narrative writing task had just ended, and a student who I had only met that day came up to me with a look of intense passion on her face.  She told me she had just written the best story of her entire life.  She desperately wanted to save the story to share with her teachers and friends.  Since saving work is against the standardized testing rules, I had to deny her request with a heavy heart.  However, had I been her classroom teacher and had she had just written a story in  a class setting with that same passionate reaction, I would've reconfigured my lesson plans on the spot and found a way to provide this student with an audience for her new found passion.  Be on the lookout for little moments like these and capitalize on them.  Your test scores will thank you.  

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