What is writing? What does it mean to be a person?
The two questions may seem unrelated, but I would like to submit that they are not.
Writing changes us. The way we write, what we write, and how we write it shapes our thinking, and our thinking shapes our identities.
For the past twenty-five years or so, states and school systems have been pressuring teachers to pressure students to write for tests. This has often resulted in writing instruction that focuses on, at best easy writing formulas like the five paragraph essay and, at worst, cheap writing tricks like including the sentence “I was as nervous as a marshmallow in a fire” in every narrative or starting every essay, no matter the topic, with the word “Poof!” These particular essays were so prevalent in Florida that the state dubbed them Poof Essays.
Now we have the instructional shifts that came along with the Common Core Standards – shifts inspired by an underlying philosophy that, as Common Core architect David Coleman so memorably stated, “nobody gives a $#!+ about your personal opinion or your story.” These instructional shifts favor “writing to text” – writing about texts that you have read and synthesizing the information into an informative essay of your own. Because this kind of writing is what’s on nearly all standardized writing tests around the country now, it tends to be the only kind being taught. It is less an instructional shift and more of an instructional invasion. No other genre need apply.
It is bad enough that this kind of writing often represents a shallow kind of thinking, and that it makes students hate the act of writing, but I think it runs deeper.
First, writing as test-practice is coerced – writing because you have to say something as John Dewey said. It is writing that comes not out of a deep impulse to express something, but out of a need to get some reward (a grade) or avoid a punishment (not graduating in some states).
Second, as Coleman openly stated, this kind of writing does not care about your opinion. It cares about how well you can use “text evidence” to address a prefabricated prompt. Not only does your opinion not matter neither do your interests. If the articles and prompt say to write about fence posts, and you are not particularly interested in fence posts, you are out of luck. Write about them anyway.
Writing to text, which dominates schools at all levels, all the way down to elementary schools, usually promotes shallow, rote thinking. Because the rubric demands both arguments and a counter argument, students are instructed to write an introduction, two arguments, a counter-argument, and a conclusion. And the five paragraph essay is back from the grave.
The stated goal of the standards, college and career readiness, means that the purpose of writing is getting ahead and making money.
The writing done for the instructional shifts is almost invariably in a formal or at least semi-formal style, so a student’s voice and tone are silenced, replaced by the monotone detachment of supposed objectivity.
Here are the messages we are sending students:
Writing is something you do for someone else to meet their demands.
Your interests and opinions don’t matter. You have nothing to say. Other people’s opinions matter more than yours. Your lived experience counts for nothing. Your own insights and imagination count for nothing. Your thinking should be formulaic: think the way we tell you to think. Your writing should not have too much voice or personality – it should not sound like you.
It doesn’t have to be this way. There are other approaches that, for lack of a better term, I’ll call real writing.
When real writing is taught, students are given autonomy. They are able to write about their interests in a wide variety of genres. Their opinions, insights, personal experiences, and imaginations matter. Writing is both exposition and exploration, argument and reflection. Writing isn’t one monolithic “thing” that you always do the same way to meet the demands of a rubric. You don’t want to make real writing good in order to get a score or a grade. You want to make real writing good because you care about what you’re saying, and you want to make it good for your reader. You want to change minds, or entertain, or… well, accomplish whatever your own, personal goals are for that piece of writing. Writing is something a little bit new every time, depending on what you have to say.
At its very heart, writing to the test kills a student’s impulse to have something to say, kills the desire to want to communicate well for its own sake. But it also dehumanizes students by negation – by what it fails to do.
Real writing as I have defined it above doesn’t just help students become better writers. It helps develop them as human beings. It makes you understand that your story and your opinion matter, and one of the benefits of asking students to explore their own opinions is that they get the opportunity to reflect on their own opinions and question them. If your opinions are kept out of your school life, you may never be taught how to hold them up to scrutiny.
Real writing honors the impulse to have something to say. It honors students’ real, human voices and need to communicate with the world around them.
Real writing not only gives you the opportunity to express your interests, it gives you the chance to explore and expand your interests. Take any one interest you have and see how it connects to everything else. How does baseball relate to Math, to Physics, to History, to national culture and race relations? Take an interest and dive deep into it – learn its history, the people involved in that history, its evolution. Where did the idea of animation first come from? Who were the first animators? How did animation develop as an art form, and change as technology changed?
Real writing asks you to think. What do you have to say? Who are you saying it to? What effect do you want to have on your audience? What is the best genre for what you have to say? What is the best way to organize your ideas? What kind of details should you use? What level of formality and what kind of tone should you use. Real writing is problem solving in its most basic form.
Real writing asks you to be observant about the world around you, to pay good attention, to be aware.
Real writing asks you to be a thinking, observant, original, involved, caring, interested and interesting human being. Real writing encourages teachers to have a rich vision of their students: they are not just future college students and employees. They are synthesizers, creators, artists, thinkers, influencers, and citizens of their city, their state, their country, and the world,
Writing tests are often scored, at least in part, by algorithms these days. That’s part of why such constraints are put on student writing: an algorithm can’t score something that doesn’t have a tightly focused prompt and a very specific set of “text evidence” to look for.
What this machine scoring means, though, is that we end up teaching our students to write like robots to please robots. I’d rather encourage my students to write like people to reach people.
Our writing instruction can dehumanize or humanize our students, deaden them or bring them to life, take away their senses of self or help them develop their senses of self.
It can silence their voices, or help them find their voices.
The choice seems obvious, but the system is forcing too many teachers to side with the machines rather than the students.