Imagine a lot of automatons sitting in a room, writing as they have been commanded to write, with no personality, no voice, no purpose but the ones programmed into them by their overseers, and you have a not too exaggerated picture of what the Instructional Shifts can turn writers into.
The Common Core Instructional Shift in writing has put a generation of writers at risk by making writing an impersonal, voiceless activity that mainly involves embedding “text evidence” from other texts into formula essays that might as well be written by robots since robots of a sort (algorithms) score them.
I think this “instructional shift” was intended to counteract what was seen as a soft, fuzzy, touchy-feely approach to writing that focused on personal narrative. But correcting by going entirely in the opposite direction is an approach similar to Martin Luther’s proverbial drunk on a horse who compensates for leaning too far in one direction by leaning too far in the other direction and falling off the horse.
Of course, I would make the case that a focus on personal narratives is better in the long-run than robotic writing: at least you learn how to sound like a real human being when you write, and you get to feel you actually have something to say, which is not only good for you, but for little things like, say, democracy as well.
But what I’ve really become convinced of is that we need our writers to be flexible writers. There is a place for personal, passionate, heartfelt writing. There is also a place for standing back and attempting to be as objective as possible. There are times to write from your own experience or your imagination, and there are times to muster the support of other writers to help you explore your topic or make your point.
I began to think of how I could get my students to think flexibly about their writing, and what I began experimenting with last year, and plan to develop this year, is the idea of writing spectra, along which there many variations.
Here are the writing spectra I’ve come up with so far.
LITERACY SPECTRUMS: Choices authors make
Overly wordy, twisted sentences. Uses fancy words when simple ones would do. Obscures meaning behind fancy phrasing. Tries too hard to be sophisticated, and ends up being dull.
No use of the word “I.” Formal words choices: “Flatulence” not “Fart”. Clear, though possibly complex sentences. Objective tone.
Between Informal and Formal – Uses the word “I” but tries to be both objective and personal.
Free use of the pronoun “I.” Slang may be used. Varying tones, positive and negative are used, and writing has attitude. Details come from real life.
Writing makes little sense because it was drafted and never looked at again. To informal. Incoherent sentence structures and confusing ideas.
Loosely organized or plotted
Tightly organized or plotted
POINT OF VIEW
3rd person limited
3rd person omniscient
Perhaps it’s artificial to create a list like this, but not nearly as artificial as telling students there is only one way to write: to pass a test. By introducing my students to this list, it gives us new ways to look at things we read, but more importantly it gives them options when they write. When students write in their writer’s notebooks, I am asking them to choose topics and then write about them in different modes. How would an argument about which way the toilet paper should go (over or under?), sound like written formally? (Hysterical, I suspect. I may need to write it.) What would it sound like informally? Is an argument about immigration (on either side) strengthened by having more details from news-articles and experts, or by having first-hand stories?
Writing is about using tools, and making choices, not about following a set of strict rules. And if you take any single topic, you can literally find hundreds of different ways to write about it.
Our first day back in class after six schools days out due to Hurricane Irma, I had students brainstorm different ways they could write about their experience of the hurricane, in any genre, tone, or perspective. I kept track of many of their suggestions throughout the day, and here’s what my board looked like:
Students then got to choose how they wanted to write. There were non-fiction accounts, reports about the fact of Irma, descriptions of Irma as an Emo teen, and science fiction stories – just to name a few.
My students had fun decompressing and writing their first day back after a stressful week. And you know what? I don’t think allowing them to write in other modes and have choice will hurt their test scores. I think making them stronger writers is an absolute good. And if their test scores come along for the ride, so be it.
What I am not willing to do is sacrifice their love of writing and their flexibility as writers to get scores.