The last few months I have been thinking about writing a LOT! I’ve been doing that partially because I’ve been having problems myself blogging the past year (time, motivation, hesitations, whatever) and I have been watching kids through a different lens. You see, I have a 5th grade literacy group this year, but early on, the 5th grade teachers made writing a separate time in their schedule. I can’t teach anything without writing, so it’s been integrated as I would have done anyway. I believe kids need to be reflective in writing as they read, discuss and think about literacy. I don’t believe writing and reading are separate entities, and so my kids write in math and in my literacy time with them. I regularly share my kids’ writing online, and last year, when these kids were fourth graders and I shared a particular blog, one response from my Superintendent was, “She sure doesn’t need “Being a Writer” lessons (our adopted program), does she?”
Did that mean she didn’t need teaching? Of course not. Did that mean she didn’t need to work with grammar and spelling and punctuation or work with literary conventions and learn new vocabulary and be exposed to new ways of writing? Of course not. But I believe she certainly didn’t need to spend the amount of time she has this year writing a weekly prompt to practice for the state writing test–which is what most of her writing has consisted of this year.
It’s consisted of that because she’s quit blogging. She’s quit writing for herself and is quite vocal about being angry that the only feedback she gets on the writing she does at someone else’s demands is about her grammar or her spelling. She says she gets no comments about her content or her thinking. She gets no questions about her stories or thoughts, as she is choosing not to share those–she writes a formulaic five paragraph essay to a predetermined prompt. Her passionate, funny, creative storytelling has been squelched. And that makes me incredibly sad. The fact that she’s not the only one angry at the incessant prompt writing makes me even sadder. Kids have had to do a prompt a week for several months, according to them.
When given the opportunity, kids WILL write.
When they know what they write is not just for a grade, they write.
When they know that someone cares to listen and respond, they write.
When they know they are respected as writers and people believe they have something worthy to share, they write.
When they know their writing is for a real audience, they write.
So why do we keep the scaffold of writing prompts when kids no longer need them? Why do we prompt real writers to the point they won’t write for themselves any more? Why do we think kids need practice writing to a prompt well after they have shown they can do that kind of writing?
In a writing workshop I did at VSTE in December, I heard this story from many teachers–“We don’t have time for real writing because we have to practice the prompts.” “We can’t access wikis and blogs like you can in your county– and besides, our students have required prompts from our school system.” Well, so do we in my system–at the end of each quarter, I believe. But we, as professionals, need to remember what’s really required and what we perceive to be required. Often, we make ourselves do things when we don’t have to, because we think it’s the required thing to do–but in my system, at least, teachers have a lot of latitude to use their professional judgement.
When I had an octagonal window put in my house, the scaffold was there until the carpenter no longer needed it. He had clearly shown his skill–he could cut an appropriate hole in my wall, put in a window, and caulk and seal up the edges so that it looked beautiful.Once he no longer needed the scaffold, it went away. If he had left the scaffold there, I might have grown to hate that window–having to climb around the scaffold to do what I needed to do, having to go around it the way HE had determined was best for me to climb around it, having to move through the area HIS way.
But he took it away when the job was done, and I love my window. I love the light it lets in and the sun shining through it in the daytime. I love the moon sparkling on the steps at night. I love seeing the top of my pine tree through it in all seasons.
I believe our state does kids a great disservice when they require kids to show they can write to a prompt year after year after year. While our kids are only tested on it in 5th and 8th grades (and maybe 11th?), every grade before and between requires kids to practice that–over and over and over again. The scaffold isn’t removed when proficiency is shown–instead, the state provides more practice prompts and we teachers use them. Our adopted program has prompt after prompt after prompt in them. When kids study persuasive writing, they have a persuasive writing prompt. When they study fictional writing, they have a fictional writing prompt. When they study personal narratives, they have to write to that prompt.
One of my kids asked the other day, “Why can’t the state just look at what we do?”
I couldn’t answer that. My kids have blogs. My kids have wikis. My kids respond to other kids’ blogs. My kids create wikis to address environmental concerns. They write and summarize on Today’s Meet during classroom discussions. They add book reviews to their blogs and wikis and sometimes even web 2.0 sites like LibraryThing and Shelfari. They respond to each other’s blog posts and wiki polls. They write blogs to persuade others to join them in a cause. They review each other’s blogs and wikis and post those online. They write stories and poems and reflective pieces…ALL ON THEIR OWN. My kids use web 2.0 tools all the time for real purposes…so why can’t the state just look at what they do?
They become writers and have faith in their ability to write…until our state writing prompt and many of us, as well-intentioned teachers, create “write-icide” and kill their enjoyment of it. We, too, could look at their wikis and blogs and say, “yep, that’s persuasive writing,” or “Well, that’s a personal narrative, but I see you could use some help with word choice, or the conclusion” (or whatever skill is actually needed.) We could all do a better job of integrating these tools into instruction instead of seeing those writing prompts as the only way to show the skills. We should model to the state that indeed, there are other, more realistic ways to help kids become better writers than keeping a scaffold in place longer than necessary. And then we could ask with conviction,
Why can’t the state just look at what they do?