When Kids Write Because They Want To…

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.

When they know they can write to learn, to figure something out, to remember,  to connect, to persuade, to reflect, to question, to share, to think, to have fun, 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?

THE State Writing Test

Our state writing test is coming up in early March and the tension around it is beginning to rise. Our fifth grades departmentalize, so one teacher teaches writing every day, and the others integrate it into Science and Social Studies some, as well as address it in Literacy and Math as they can, so these kids have gotten lots of practice with writing.

What I see, though, from many of the kids, is quite a bit of this:


In spring of 2013, our writing test will be online, so that all students will do it on the computer. Our teachers have questions about this decision:

Is it best for all kids? Don’t some of us prefer the actual act of writing–pen to paper-to feel that flow of thoughts?  Are we handicapping those kids by forcing them to tell their story through a keyboard?

Will this decision force keyboarding lessons? How fast should kids be able to type?

What about all of those articles that talk about how fast kids can text?  Is this even something we have to worry about?

What about the kids who do NOT text?  Is there an equity issue we need to address?

Will they be allowed, or not, to use a spellchecker? (If integrating contemporary tools, why not utilize the full functionality–is the test on writing or spelling?)

Will the font be fixed, or will they be allowed to use text features as part of their composition (such as bold, underline, italics, etc.)?  They can do that with their handwritten texts, so why not with ones using technology?  They will probably be allowed to use spacing and indenting, so why not the full menu of text features we teach?

But, in the bigger scheme of things, why are we even considering these mechanical kinds of questions about the tools of the word processor?

We have access to the features our state will test through a program called Perspective (formerly NCS Mentor).  Here we can learn about scoring, access anchor papers to show our kids, understand the scoring domains and rubrics, and actually practice scoring actual compositions submitted by real fifth graders.

We can spend a ton of time helping kids understand the process, the scoring domains, rubrics and anchor papers.  Would our time be better spent with kids writing? Some say yes.

I think that our third graders ought to be exploring the access we have to this kind of information.  I believe that when kids clearly understand the expectations and have seen examples–both good and bad–and know the rubrics by which they will be judged, they can more clearly write for the prescribed audience–in this particular case, the test scorers. In this case, the state has provided a reasonable tool by which we can do this kind of teaching. Why not use it–and not just right before the test? Why not make it an integral part of our instruction as one more tool in our arsenal?

However, isn’t the real question this:

Wouldn’t it be better if the state just allowed us to police ourselves and examine our student writing portfolios to see if they can construct a well-organized composition?

What a Hullabaloo!

Recently I posted this to the Cooperative Catalyst Blog, where I find myself blogging more often these days–I have no time to do both right here at the end of the school year. It generated a ton more conversation and controversy than I ever would have possibly envisioned.  See the comments at Joy in Standardized Tests.

Much of the conversation in response to this weeks’ blog posts has centered around joy in learning and joy in school. Here’s my story of this past week.

I am my school’s testing coordinator.  This is my first year doing it and we are doing all of our state tests online.  I am coordinating 10 tests–4 for 3rd and 5th grade and 2 for fourth grade. I decided we were going to take  them in ways that MADE SENSE and that took as little time as possible. I decided I wasn’t going to scare teachers to death about talking to kids, answering questions and supporting them. (Our central office coordinator has good sense–she told us early that what the state requires is that every child has the opportunity to “test well” in an environment that supports that and that folks don’t cheat.  I repeated that to my teachers and told them I trusted them to follow the rules they already know from past years–they are all experienced at this state testing rigamarole!)  I was NOT going to model this testing as a “do or die” situation.  I was going to be calm and assure kids they were going to be fine.

I set up a schedule and approved it with teachers, so they had control and some time to work on the subjects over which they felt less secure.  We started with subjects with which the kids would feel really successful. If kids hadn’t been taking tests in small groups all year, we didn’t set up those artificial situations this time.  Most kids are taking the tests in the lab with their class, as they have been working all year.

I started several weeks ago telling kids about brain gym exercises they could do, sharing success stories from my own experiences. I gave them strategies for relaxing, for narrowing down choices on a multiple choice test, and answered their questions as to what would happen if they didn’t pass. I kept reassuring them this test was simply for the state to let them show what they knew, so it wasn’t going to decide their classes next year, or whether they would “pass their grade.”  I work with kids in all grades 3-5, so I know what I was telling the kids I work with was spreading among most of the kids in those tested grades.

I shared with kids a story of last year.  I was proctoring in a 3rd grade online testing situation, and the computers went down. The teacher and I made eye contact–not knowing how long we’d have to stall. The testing coordinator came in and calmly told us they would get the computers back up as soon as possible and we just needed to be patient. So, knowing we couldn’t let the kids talk to each other, or leave the room as a group, I started teaching them brain exercises–a couple of tricks I had learned form a great PE teacher, Pam Walker. We spent a few minute doing these, with me talking about how it calms them down, gets their brain working to the max, and within a few minutes, the computers were ready for them to log back in and continue.  Those kids did GREAT on that test, and kids heard me when I told them these exercises really work!

(This year, when that teacher came to the lab with her kids, she handed me a copy of some brain gym exercises she had gotten from the web.  Knowing she wouldn’t have me in there this year, she came prepared to do her own version of pumping up those kids with brain gym work!)

So, I’ve had the joy each day of testing to see each child go into the labs, to smile at them to tell them how great I know they are going to do, and I have been the one, in the middle of the test, when they ask to take a break or get a drink of water, or go to the bathroom, to be able to smile at them and say how proud I am of them for being such a good learner, or how well I just know they are going to do, or how smart I know they are.  I get to touch their shoulder and give them a friendly “You can do it” smile. I get to reassure them someone believes in them and  I see their taller stance as they re-enter the testing room. I get to be another person (besides their teacher) who says in many ways, “I believe in you.”

It’s been an awesome week.  I have felt so great being able to pump kids up and see their smiles as they re-enter a testing room.  Teachers AND kids are talking about how they are not feeling the stress this year as in years past.  Our scores are coming back and they are good–we have LOTS of advanced passes, and high pass rates.

Are our scores perfect?  No.  Do we still have work to do?  Yes. But, kids and teachers are saying it doesn’t feel like they are taking an SOL test. They have had practice doing this, they know their stuff, and they are doing it in familiar surroundings with knowledge and comfort.

Kids are smiling and feeling okay about their testing. Teachers are feeling proud of their work this year, as their kids ARE showing what they know. Our tech folks have done a GREAT job setting this up for success and tech glitches have been few and far between.  One of them sits with me each day to support me, just in case, and those folks, too, smile at the kids and ooze calmness.

Do I think multiple choice tests are the best way for kids to show what they know?  Of course not.  Do I think they need to take over our lives?  Of course not.  Do I think they can be one piece of what we do?  Sure. Do I think kids can handle them?  Of course–it all depends on the adults around them.

While this may sound like it’s all about what I do with the kids, it’s really all of my teachers–they model belief in their kids.  They teach well.  They work hard all year and reward hard work in their classrooms.  They are simply reaping the rewards of their dedication and care. . .and I get  to help!

I have had fun this past week helping teachers be calm and helping kids be calm. I have had several kids walk out of the testing room to go to the bathroom and give ME a thumbs up sign!

And I’m not kidding, I have seen MOST kids smile beginning the test AND ending it.

Joy is often in how you approach a task.