What is passing for writing instruction at many, if not most, schools is no longer actual writing. Our district literacy coaches admit it, telling us that the standardized writing test isn’t really a writing test but a reading test that takes the form of a written response to reading selections. But it’s worse than that. You can write in response to what you read, and it can still be writing. It’s called being a critic or a literary scholar.
The reason what is happening in schools is no longer writing is that it no longer involves any of the activities real writers engage in. Instead, it replaces real writing activities with pale shadows of those activities, and in the name of rigor reduces them to thoughtless acts of compliance.
Real writers write about what they care about. What they love, what they hate, what they worry about, what they wonder about. The Writing Test (which includes, hereafter, the exercises that prepare students for it) simply hands students a topic and says “write about this whether you care about it or not.”
Real writers, because they write about what they care about, engage in actual research, led by curiosity and a need to know about a topic that matters. The Writing Test simply hands you three texts about something you were never curious about and asks you to read them and select text evidence.
Real writers think hard about audience, about organization, about choosing an organizational style that will convey the nuance and many-sided complexity of their chosen topic. The Writing Test is best written as a formula: introduction + claim/thesis + supporting claim + another supporting claim + a counterclaim and refutation of said claim + a conclusion.
Real writers use a variety of details from real life, their imaginations, and from their own personal insights. The Writing Test only cares about quoting text evidence and explaining it in an objective way.
This past Saturday I taught a creative non-fiction class for gifted students – elementary, middle, and high school combined. One student told me they no longer write on regular paper. Every time they write it is on a worksheet, with a format like this:
Grabber ________________. Main Claim ________________. Transition ________.
Introduction to first supporting claim ________________. Introduction to text evidence ________________. Analysis of text evidence ___________________. Transition to second supporting claim ________________________________.
I won’t go on. It’s all too horrible. These students, from several different central Florida schools, all agreed that when they are at school, they do not write things that aren’t practice for the writing test. They have not written personal narratives, or fiction, or poetry, or even personal opinion essays based on personal experience, in years. Many had grown to hate writing, at least in school.
I gave them the chance to write maps of their enthusiasms, frustrations, worries, and wonders. I let them think about how they should organize some of their self selected topics. I let them play with voice, and with using vivid, real-life details.
I let them act like writers. They loved it.
What we are doing in schools in the name of preparing them for “college and careers” and in the name of rigor, is taking away any real thought from writing. No thinking about topic, about focus, about organization, about details, about voice. That’s all been done for you. All you have to do is fill in the blanks. Well, I’m sorry, but filling in the blanks is not rigor. It is not thinking. It is not writing.
Are we so afraid that we will not please the almighty testing algorithm which scores their writing tests that we cannot allow them to experience any other kind of writing? Or is the real fear that students who are allowed the freedom to choose their own topics, the freedom to organize their writing their own way and actually chose their own details and have an opinion will someday grow into thinking, questioning adults who might just question this kind of nonsense?
We could help kids write well in all modes, and love every minute of it. Instead, we limit them to one artificial mode of drudgery and make them hate every minute they have to spend writing.
We could be doing so much better. I try to every day. But I feel increasingly counter-cultural in my own profession. Because let’s face it – we have tried to make teaching into filling in the blanks as well.