Writers or test takers?

Early this year, after giving the first major writing assignment, I noticed that my 8th grade students were having trouble expressing their thoughts in writing.  In discussions, they showed unusual thoughtfulness and an ability to respond critically to one another’s ideas.  When it came to writing, they were not afraid to put pen to paper and get started, as some of my former students have been.  Most were surprisingly comfortable banging out a paragraph (or three) on a topic.  At first I was pleased.  They appeared to have greater fluency in writing than some of my former classes of students.

Then I read the work.  My students’ voices were completely different in writing than they were in class discussions.  The thoughtfulness I’d come to expect and enjoy from their spoken words seemed to fade behind muddled sentences that did not flow, contradicted one another, and ultimately communicated very little substance.  I felt like a doctor who’d just opened up a healthy-looking patient for a routine surgery and found something completely unexpected.  What was going on?

After careful assessment of my students’ writing and some interesting conversations with them about it, I think I know what’s been ailing them.  They had not thought of writing as something that starts in the mind and is an extension of their thoughts and spoken voices, a tool to communicate ideas to others.  Instead, writing for most of my students had felt more like some alien language that comes out of a pen when the teacher asks for it!

I needed to help the students connect what they think and say with the act of writing.  I applied a method I call Writing Outloud, in which students in speaking in front of the class on a topic, off the cuff, and then write about what they say, or respond in writing to what another student says.  They turn these ideas into paragraphs, and elaborate on them, both through speaking and in subsequent paragraphs.  Then we identify the big idea that each student has focused on and thinks is significant; we shape essays around these big ideas.

I now have complete drafts in front of me, and I am happy because they are substantive.  Students are writing from real thoughts, experiences, and beliefs about important, relevant topics.

But there is still much work to be done, and I’m not comfortable simply commenting on the drafts, correcting errors, and asking students to rewrite, (though they expect this).  I need to teach them to revise.  To do this authentically, students and I are going to need to think a little more carefully about audience and purpose.  I want them to stop thinking of me as the audience.  Who would they really like to reach in this piece, and how might they adjust their writing to do it better?

The problem with authentic revision is that it’s going to take us away from formulaic writing.  What’s wrong with that, you might ask?  Nothing, except that everything I’ve learned over the years about the standardized test my students will take in mid-January tells me they need to be able to follow a strict, dry, five paragraph essay formula to do well on it.

Who is the audience for the essays my students must write on the statewide ELA test?  What is the message they need to communicate to that audience?  The message is a superficial one that has nothing to do with the content of what they are writing, and everything to do with proving they can answer a question in a prescribed format.

This sounds startlingly similar to the initial problem I had with my students’ writing.  Their words were superficial and lacked voice and substance.  They were constantly looking for a right answer from the teacher, and if one wasn’t presented, they were trained to make it up and package it neatly in paragraphs. It was very hard for them to write clearly and compellingly,because they were not actually writing to communicate.

I’m stuck at that familiar crossroads where I’m sure many other teachers in this country find themselves throughout the year.  Teach for the child or teach for the test?  If I dismiss my own professional judgment of what my students need and simply teach the test’s formulas, are they really guaranteed to perform better?  What exactly do they gain from the difference?

It’s November 11, and I’m going to invest some time in developing my students as real writers because I just can’t see the logic in anything else. Some people have said good teaching is good teaching, and the scores will follow.  I’m not so sure, but I’m willing to take the risk.  Will let you know how it works out.

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