Sunday, August 28, 2016

Are Rules Useful?

It seems that a lot of people in education think that the way to improve our schools is through more emphasis on adult control and student compliance. That is certainly the theory at a lot of charters, where students are told how to sit in class, how to walk down the hall, among other things. 

The district where I teach moved to school "uniforms" this year, despite many, many protests on the part of parents, students, and some teachers. 

The message students hear: You are not responsible enough to dress yourself. We will tell you how to dress. Don't think: Obey. 

But even without uniforms, schools tend to place a great emphasis on rules and compliance. Many, if not most, teachers start the year with them, from day one. Students tell me all they hear for the first week of school is an endless litany of rules in nearly every class. 

The message students hear: We can't trust you know how to behave; we are so sure you are all here to be disruptive, we must begin with the rules right away, so you know who's the boss.

I used to start with the litany of rules myself, because it was what I was told to do. 

The message teachers hear: Don't smile until after Winter Break. You must be in control. It is your job to get unquestioning obedience from your students. Control your class through bribes and punishments. Don't think about running your classroom differently. Don't think: Obey. 

My sense that something didn't seem right about all of this compliance kept nagging at me throughout the years. I guess it is teaching students how to write that made me really begin to think about how we teach students to behave. I had a few too many students tell me I was teaching them wrong, because their other teacher in their last grade or at their last school told them what the rules of writing were, and you had to follow them. 

Here are some of the rules my students have told me they follow, because a teacher told them it was a rule:
  • You do not ever use any contractions when you are writing for school.
  • You must never use the personal pronoun "I" in any form in any school writing - including personal essays. 
  • Every essay must have five paragraphs. 
  • Every paragraph must have at least five sentences.
  • Every sentence must have exactly five words.
  • Every word must have exactly five letters. 
Okay, I made the last two up. But the rest are actually no less absurd. 

Many people complain that students don't follow instructions and don't follow rules. In my experience, students who follow misguided rules too faithfully are actually more of a problem. Writing is less about following a set of set-in-stone rules and more about knowing some general principles of good writing, being familiar with the kinds of choices and tools writers have to work with, and then making choices appropriate to your current writing project and audience. What if, by making writing about following rules (some of them fake) to hoop-jump for the teacher, we are actually teaching them how not to write? What if teaching students to write entirely to please their teacher means they don't really know now to write at all? Instead, they know how to follow instructions whether they make sense or not.

What if behavior in class and school- and society - should be less about obeying a set of rules and more about following a guiding sense of principles? What if, by making school about following rules to hoop jump for the adults for the building, we give students the impression that school is a performance for someone else rather than something they are doing for themselves? What if being forced to be a student means they don't really know how to be students at all?

Since my own thinking has shifted, and since I always want my students to be thinking, I have begun starting the school year differently. Instead of having rules posted in my class, I begin by having my students write about the best class they've ever been in, and the most unpleasant class. I ask them to write about, in both cases, the behavior of the teacher and the students. (I ask them to not use real names for the "unpleasant class" teachers.)

The results are remarkably consistent. A great class has a focused, attentive, enthusiastic teacher who likes students and explains things well, and students who are there to learn, are willing to work, and have manners and respect. An unpleasant class has students who are unmotivated and rude, and a teacher who exhibits any of the following traits in some combination: assigning and assessing instead of actually teaching, yelling a lot, not caring, making lots of threats, and testing students on things they never taught.

So my students and I talk about what kind of class that we want to have. It's pretty simple. There are some rules, but our class isn't built on rules. It's built on purpose. A great class exists to learn.

This year I took the activity a step further. I asked students to do the following activity in small groups: 
When are rules useful?
Some situations are clearly rule-based: without rules they simply won’t work, or in some cases, even exist. Some situations require no specific rules, but instead a set of principles, values, or shared vision. In some situations, rules may actually be destructive. Some situations are ambiguous: rules may or may not be useful. In some situations, the necessity of rules may depend on a number of factors (social structure, the purpose of the activity, the amount of flexibility required, etc.). In some places rules are unspoken, but breaking them may still cause you trouble.

Look at the list of activities below. Categorize them into groups of whether rules are
Essential (E) to the activity (without the rules, the activity wouldn’t exist), Important (I)
Optional (O), Unspoken, Depends (D) on the situation Non-existent/Not Needed (N).
     Attending a theme park
     Asking someone on a date
     Basic military training
     Being an audience member at a concert
     Being in court in any role, from defendant to lawyer
     Being part of a class discussion
     Class changes
     Dressing yourself
     Eating in a restaurant
     Football - playing it
     Football - watching it
     Going through a drive-through at a fast food place
     Going to the movies
     Having a conversation with a friend
     Interacting with people on social media
     Performing in a play
     Reading for school
     Reading for your own enjoyment
     Playing a video game alone
     Playing a multi-player RPG
     Taking a class
     Using silverware
     Using a public restroom
     Virtual school
     Working out in a gym
     Writing and sending an email
     Writing for school
     Writing for your own enjoyment
     Writing fiction
     Writing poetry

The results were interesting. We discovered that activities where rules were absolutely essential were things like being in the military or driving, but also things we do for fun - sports and games. We discovered that a lot of rules are unspoken in many, many situations. And we discovered that in many situations, rules are not needed - or may even get in the way.

This activity got students (and their teacher) thinking. Rules are paradoxical. Sometimes essential, especially for "fun" activities. Sometimes rules should step aside when they obscure the purpose of the activity rather than create or reveal it.

I followed up this activity with a simple journal for my ninth graders. What have you learned about writing and reading? I am at a new school, teaching ninth grade for the first time in over 20 years, and my students are coming from many different places: public, private, charter, and home schooling. Many students focused on writing rules they'd been taught, and those rules were nearly all "surface features" of writing. Use periods and commas. Capitalize. Indent. Spell correctly.

One type of rule many students brought up was the "X sentences per paragraph" rule. We debated it. Answers from the various schools and teachers rang out. Ten sentences! Eight to twelve sentences! Five sentences!

Finally one person in each class usually said something like this: "You stop adding sentences to a paragraph when you've said what needed saying." And I gave that person an Amen. In writing, thinking about what you are doing is more important than following rules. There are rules, but following them blindly doesn't lead to good writing. Thinking does. Making writing about rules obscures its purpose.

The same goes for school itself. Making school all about rules obscures its purpose. It should be about thinking. It should be about being there to learn. My Big Inquiry Question for this year is one that I hope will get students thinking. It's one I think more adults should think about. What is the purpose of education? 

To introduce this topic, after our discussions of about rules, I have students do the following activity:

Power of Education Pre-Unit Survey
Name ______________________________________________Date __________ Period _______

It is the first day of high school, and you are hearing “opening day” speeches from your teachers. Each speech reveals something about the philosophy of education held by that teacher. First, label each speech for what model of education it represents. For instance, there might be a “Bribery Model” or a “Testing Model.”   Rank these speeches from Most Agree With (1)  to Least Agree With (8).

_____ Mr. Gradgrind – “Welcome class. As soon as humanly possible, we will be getting our textbooks from the book room. In this class, we are all about the textbook and the facts it contains. My job is to expose you to facts and your job is to get those facts into your heads. In today’s world of internet memes and free-floating opinions based on personal bias, facts are all that matter. We won’t be discussing your ideas, your opinions, your questions. Most of all we will not be discussing your feelings. Feelings and emotions have no place in education. We will be learning about solid, set-in-stone facts. Your brains are essentially big flash drives, and we are going to download a lot of data on them.”
Philosophy of Education: _____________________________________________________________

_____ Ms. Bennett – “Good morning, class. How many of you have a cellphone? A computer? How many of you would like a better cellphone and computer? I see. How many of you would like a sports car some day?  Would you like to live in a big, beautiful house someday? Well, I’ll tell you how: earn lots of money! To do that, you will need good grades so that you can get into college and get a degree in a field that makes lots of money! By the way, check that out when you go to college: don’t major in something that doesn’t pay much when you get out of school. Some of students ask me why students don’t get paid to go to school. Here’s what I tell them: you do get paid, but in future money! A college graduate earns a lot more than a high school graduate, and everybody earns more than people who drop out of high school! So work hard! It pays off later in money, and stuff!”
Philosophy of Education: _____________________________________________________________

_____ Ms. Pollan - “Good morning, students. Before we get started, do any of you have any questions? No? That’s too bad, because you should. Why do we have a seven period day and the subjects we have? Does anyone know why we have standardized testing, or who started it and why? Does anyone know, or is that just the way it’s always been, so we don’t question it? Many students think they are here to learn inert facts, dead pieces of information. But you can look up facts on your cellphone. I am here to get you asking questions, not just answering them. The best way to learn is to always be questioning. And the best way to be sure what you are learning is real is to question it. I don’t want you to just fit in to society. I want you be able to stand back and observe it… and question it. How do we know what to question? Good question.”
Philosophy of Education: _____________________________________________________________

_____ Mrs. Paquetts – “Greetings. As I am speaking, I want you to copy down in your notes the 55 rules for my classroom, and the list of escalating consequences should you break any of those rules. I run an orderly classroom. Society cannot function properly if people are not following the rules. If people drive opposite the arrows in the Publix parking lot, that is annoying. If they drive on the wrong side of the yellow lines on the highway, that can be deadly. You are here to learn information, yes. But mostly you are here to learn how to comply, how fit in, how to obey. Are there any questions? I don’t care. You are not here to question, but to do as you’re told!”
Philosophy of Education: _____________________________________________________________

_____ Mr. Dewey – “Good morning, class. I see you’re already working on your list of enthusiasms. That’s great. In my class this year, you are going to be exploring your enthusiasms and passions, and perhaps developing interests in new ones. People are happiest when they are doing something they enjoy, and they learn more when they relate the things they have to learn at school to topics that interest them. This year, you are going to explore different topics of your own choosing, dive deep and learn about their history, look wide to see how each topic connects to other subjects out there in the world. By exploring your passions, you may discover what you want to do with your life. You will spend a lot of time at work - you may as well spend that time doing something you love. It’s not about how much money you make, it’s about whether you love your life!
Philosophy of Education: _____________________________________________________________
_____ Mr. Pardee – “Heeeelllllooooo, class! Who’s ready for a great year! I can’t hear you! Who’s ready for a great year! Cool! We are going to have a great year! Do you see these boxes? They are full of cool prizes: pencils! Paper! Little gadgets. Candy! Gift cards! As you learn things in here, I will be rewarding you for your hard work. And as we learn, we are going to have a great time! We will be doing cooking projects, art projects, working in small groups, and playing games of Jeopardy! to review for tests! Who’s ready for a great year?!”
Philosophy of Education: _____________________________________________________________

_____ Mrs. Merritt – “Good morning, class! My name is Mrs. Merritt, and I want you to know that I already know all of you! I have looked at your data, so I know all about you. I know what specific reading skills you are good at, and I know which ones you have a deficit in! I know who is a level 5 on the state test, and who is a level 1. I have used this data to individualize the practice tests you will take each week, so each of you will have the correct skills targeted! My goal this year is make sure you score well on the state tests! Your goal should be to get good grades! If you don’t get good grades, you aren’t getting smarter, and you won’t do well on the tests! I’m giving each of you a chart where you can track your data on our in-class tests!”
Philosophy of Education: _____________________________________________________________

_____ Mr. Compton – “Good morning. I need you to look at the person behind you, if there is one. Now look at the person ahead of you. Look to your left. Look to your right. You have now looked at least two and as many as four people. Now look around the room. All of these people you are seated with are in competition with you. Competition for grades. Competition for Scholarships. Competition for a better future – for a job you love and a comfortable income level! This is an advanced section, and therefore you are at the top of your class. Most of the people who aren’t in these advanced sections are not your competition. They are losers. They are unambitious. Many will drop out. The people in here are the ones you need to worry about. Education is a game of winners and losers, a struggle to get the highest GPA! Who’s ready to play?”

Philosophy of Education: _____________________________________________________________

I have students explain their top choice and their lowest choice in writing, and to each other. I then survey the class on their top and bottom choices and tally the results on the board. The results were very consistent across the board (literally - they were on the board!).

Mrs. Paquetts, with her model of unquestioning obedience and rule-following was the least popular educational philosophy by far in all five classes. Students also felt that her model is the one schools generally promote, though perhaps in a less cartoonish fashion.

Mr. Dewey, with his philosophy of tapping into students' own enthusiasms, and running an educational system based on enthusiasm, had the most popular educational model - by far. I know some people will object to his model as being too "touchy feely." David Coleman would look at my class and tell them he doesn't give a $#!+ about their enthusiasms. But I think there's something there.
Linking what I have to teach to students' enthusiasms, frustrations, and interests has been a big part of my philosophy for many years, and it seems to work.

(If you'd like to try either of those activities with your classes, feel free. And please, let me know how it goes. I think you, and your students, might find them... thought provoking.)

There is a place for rules. I happen to agree with Mrs. Paquetts about not driving on the wrong side of the road or against the arrow at the supermarket. The reasons for those rules are clear-cut, and have obvious benefits for everyone who drives.

But in many situations, rules take on a life of their own and become the only thing anyone sees. Rule-based writing becomes an exercise in unthinking rule following, and it usually results in bad writing. Rule-based education becomes an exercise in unthinking obedience.

If that is our highest good, we are in trouble.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

A Classroom

When I stepped into the room
Last century
The paint was beige, I think, and peeling
And the coat underneath was puke green.

I spent some time in room 007
(the coolest room number ever)
Seventeen years.
About 2 years in, frustrated by the puke green and the peeling,
I painted the walls
Two tones of blue, light and a little darker,
Textured together.
That sort of thing was encouraged then.
It stood out when you walked past the other beige rooms
And then looked in my windows.

One room
Four walls
Varying numbers of
Books, desks, students
And an entire forest of paper, I suspect.
Chalk boards gave way to whiteboards
Overhead transparencies gave way to a projector.
A big desktop computer gave way to… a big laptop.

What happened in this room?
What did it witness?

Lessons, like
The teacher was angry.
Versus -
The teacher slammed a dictionary to the floor, tipped over a stool, threw an eraser,
And yelled “I’m not going to take this any more!”
After their shock wore off,
They always remembered that showing
Is better than telling.
Genre Jumpers:
Proofreading taught through the tale
Of Ben Blast and Tracy Tracker
Riding through books
To stop the Grammar-nator
Who wreaks havoc with mistakes
That kill people.

Students reading.
The rise of Harry Potter,
The fleeting fad of Twilight,
The miserable reign of Lemony Snickett.
Students reading their own books,
Happy in the silence and immersed in words so far
They forgot they were words at all.
Shared stories:
The girl with the lost slipper, the girl with the red cape,
The boy and the cow, the girl with the really long hair.
Laurie and that lost sneaker
Anvil and Tucker and the apple tree
And that white circle I thought was yellow
Charlie and Algernon
And Jonas and Montag, both looking around, waking up,
And hitting the road.
Making My Escape,
And the teacher explaining the story of how he came to write it.
Students asking their own questions about all of them
Rather than answer mine
Or the textbook’s.

Students writing:
Their enthusiasms and frustrations
Their real stories and the stories they dreamed up
I made a mad dash to get to class on time
The room was a mess
Ben Bunny and Fred Fox
Describe this suspect for the police artist across the room
The Mysteries of Harris Burdick.
The Right Words at the Right Time
This I Believe
Group novels
Mocking the five paragraph essay
And formulas of all kinds
“A paragraph has five sentences!”

Whatever you want to write about is fine!
Stop asking “Can I…?”

Strange goings on:
Playing a murder mystery game
Called Killer,
My students winking at each other
And laying on the floor after their dramatic death scenes.
Leaving the room with planks of wood and logs
To play a survival game outside
And coming back in to write about it
Any way you want
A spy mission to building 8
To steal the laptop cart back from Mr. Copes
Darting from column to column
Dashing around corners.

And sitting at my desk at planning
To hear an announcement that a plane had hit
A building in New York.

Despite events like
Finally landing on the comics page
Publishing a novel
Winning Teacher of the Year
Or perhaps because of them
When workbooks and maps and fidelity came to town
And I spoke up
Only to have my hand slapped
I went into a tailspin
Had a heart attack scare at my desk over lunch
But kept teaching till the end of the day.
And then I figured out
That being the good kid isn’t all it’s cracked up to be
That there are times to speak up
As the bumper sticker says
Even if your voice shakes.

I learned to think bigger
Step back further
Collaborate with my students
Rather than setting us up as adversaries from day one.

When I entered the room, my kids were 3 and 4.
They both passed through my class for three years.
As I am leaving this room,
They are now in college.
And I’ve had grand-students in this class.

But now I’ve packed up my 27 boxes
Of books and posters and knickknacks
A shelf, roley chair, and a table, and emptied the room.

And I packed them up to drive away,
I took one last look in the window.
A guy was in there
Painting it beige.

Probably for the best,
I suppose.
But I can’t help feeling
That they want to paint us all beige
In the name of Fidelity

Time to create a new space.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Ruining Writing: The Florida Standards Assessment and Writing To Text

As an English teacher in Volusia County Schools, I read with some interest today’s Daytona Beach News-Journal article by Dustin Wyatt, “What’s so wrong with writing?”  about high rates of students avoiding the FSA Writing.
School board member Linda Cuthbert nailed it when she said students don’t want to take this test because they have no interest in the topics. I was once giving a makeup district writing assessment, and when I showed the student the three essays she’d have to read, and the writing prompt she’d use to write about them, she said, “Why would I want to do that?”

Many people might say, “Tough luck! You just need to do it anyway!” This compliance-based, education-as-force-feeding approach may work for some subjects, I suppose (though I doubt it), but it will never work for writing. That is one of the reasons students are avoiding the FSA.
To understand how we got into this situation with writing instruction and testing, we need to go back a bit… to the creation of the Common Core Standards (and make no mistake, our Florida Standards are still Common Core, no matter what they renamed them to fool people).
One of the major “instructional shifts” the Common Core touts is more “writing to text,” which means students will do more writing about what they read, synthesizing ideas, and building arguments from things they have read.
Common Core architect (now College Board president) David Coleman seems to have had an agenda in mind when this “shift” was initiated. He once told a group of New York State teachers that students need to write less about their own interests and lives and more about assigned readings, because in real life “nobody gives a [crap] about your personal opinion or your story.”
Like all great lies, the “writing to text” instructional shift, and the philosophy behind it, has a kernel of truth to it. But the approach to writing, and the philosophy behind it, are really parodies of more nuanced, more complicated truths.
The parody of the truth Coleman is promoting is this: Students have only been writing personal narratives. This has left them unable to write more sophisticated types of writing, like analysis of things you have read.
Also implied in Coleman's statement, and his "shift," is the idea that a focus on personal narratives also makes children narcissistic, interested only themselves. The truth is more complicated.
Most of us who teach English/Language Arts do not limit our students to an endless string of personal narratives, but vary their writing with a number of genres and purposes. The best writing instructors get their students to write about what they care about. This is because writing about what you care about makes writing more engaging, yes.
But there’s more to it than that. Writing about what you care about is not necessarily self-centered: it means you are interested in something outside yourself. Writing about what you care about is also, quite simply, what real writers do. Real writers in any genre, fiction or nonfiction, write about the things that interest them. Of course, David Coleman would say that not all students are going to be professional writers. No, but they are almost all going to be professionals who write, and one can hope our students will find jobs that match their personal interests and skills, so they will care about what they are writing on the job. In fact, one of the not-so-fringe benefits of good writing instruction is that it can help students discover, explore, and reflect on their own interests and figure out what field they might want to go into some day. It can help them write their own “future stories.”

Writing to text has been touted as more rigorous, more academically challenging, by its proponents. This, again, is a parody of the truth. If by rigorous you mean mind-numbingly dull, then yes, writing to text on the FSA is rigorous. If by rigorous you mean “involving a high level of thought and engagement,” then, no, the FSA is not rigorous.
Over the past decade I have made a case, in my books for teachers, and in my comic strip, against formulaic writing, including the five paragraph essay. Formulaic writing is a crutch many teachers fall back on because they think their students are not capable of anything else. The FSA promotes formulaic writing. Because students are encouraged argue for their side and then to address counterarguments, it’s easy to tell them to write an introduction, two paragraphs of argument, one paragraph of counter-argument, and a conclusion. They have limited time in which to write their test essay, and the five paragraph formula fulfills the requirements quickly and efficiently. And within paragraphs we end up using formulaic writing structures as well. Introduction sentence, introduce, cite, and explain your text evidence. “_____ is one reason we should _____. In the essay _______, the author, _____ says _______. This supports my claim because _____.” Repeat. Use transition words into the next paragraph. The type of writing FSA writing promotes is a step back in rigor, and it is teaching students not how to write, but how to be compliant to a lot of bad writing advice.

Of course, the real reason behind the supposed rigor of writing tests like the FSA is the fact that writing to text makes it easier to use computer scorers rather than human scorers to evaluate the tests. If everyone can take a topic and write about it using different details, as students could on the FCAT writing, then it becomes difficult for a robo-grader to score them. But if everyone is writing about the same three essays, using all the same details, the computer program has a much easier time figuring out whether students wrote well, at least according to the rubric.
Keep in mind that if your student takes the writing test on a computer, he/she is scored by one human scorer and by a computer, and the scores are verified against each other. In the end, writing to text has become a big instructional shift and is taking over our schools’ writing programs, simply because it makes the testing cheaper. Your student now hates writing so the state can save money.

Of course, the standards don’t really address the testing. They merely say that students will engage in research and write about it. That, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. If students were allowed to pick their topics and dig in deep, no subject is unworthy of some research writing. If you dig deep into the history of any subject - how it works, its influences, its connections to other areas of knowledge - you will learn a lot very rapidly, and you will write better about what you learned because you actually care. But that is not what I see happening in schools. Because everything (school grades, teacher evaluations, retention and graduation decisions) is based on test performance, schools are teaching to the test, which means they are giving students three short essays on some random subject and asking them to write about them. Some topics are better than others, but no topic could ever be as engaging as writing about what what interests you. In the end, our obsession with testing results in us not even teaching the standards as well as we might be teaching them.
Because writing instruction is now focused mainly on test scores, we have a situation where our Volusia County middle school curriculum maps, as of last year, have middle school students writing, over the course of three years, 9 practice FSA district tests, 3 narrative essays, 2 short stories, 1 expository essay, and no argumentative essays at all, outside of test prep and a couple of speeches. Is there any doubt what our priorities are?
Here is what good writing instruction looks like. Let students choose topics. Let them play with ideas. Give them opportunities to write from life, from their imaginations, and from things they read. Let them learn how to write well from life and from their imaginations before teaching them to write about what they read. You learn about organization, using details, and creating fluent sentences better when you are not burdened with citing text. Teach students how to write well in general, and then let them apply real writing techniques to writing about what they read. And let them chose what they read.
Great writing, or even good writing, never comes from compliance. Compliance to simple writing tricks like formulas, fill-in-the-blank sentences, and silly rules only creates mediocre, formulaic writing habits that can’t really transferred into real-life writing situations. Worse, students believe that the formulas and silly rules are real and continue to follow them into college, where their professors must be like Yoda and tell them to “unlearn what you have learned.” College readiness indeed.
A great writing program won’t teach to the test, and won’t hold “writing to text” as a superior form of writing. A great writing program will teach students what real writers do instead of teaching formulas. A great writing program will give students freedom write about what they love and about what frustrates them.
Here’s what real writing instruction can do for students. Reading like writers to observe what writers do makes them stronger, more observant readers. Choosing and refining their own topics gives them the ability to have insight in any writing situation, including on a test. Organizing ideas in a non-formulaic way means they know how to really think about how an essay is organized rather than simply filling in blanks. Writing using vivid real life and imaginary details means they will know how to use details well, and will use them well when writing about what they’ve read, instead of just plugging bits of what they read into their essay at random.

Real writing instruction can make them more creative, and more logical (the two actually go hand in hand). It can help them develop and find interests. It can help them consider their own and others’ points of view and reflect on their lives and issues in the world around them. It can help them develop future stories that lead to real futures. It can make them more thoughtful citizens and possibly better people.
You can have it all - but an obsession with testing actually keeps our scores down. Disengaged students don’t write as well - or even, apparently, show up on testing day.
You can’t have great, unengaged writers. Great writing comes only out of engagement. And engaged writers will do well on any test, and probably have fun doing it. When our son took the SAT and got a perfect score, we wondered about his essay. He had always been a really good writer, so we were interested in seeing his "perfect" piece of writing. When the essay arrived via email, we read it. We were expecting his usual great writing, but instead we saw that this “perfect” essay was a piece of drivel. We asked him why he’d written it the way he did. He had looked up what the SAT scorers wanted: many words, and many of those words big words. He had given them that, using words like multifarious, and scored well. He knew how to play the testing game because he had been taught to write for real in the first place. But he never mistook the writing he did for the test to get a score as either real, or quality, writing.
The News-Journal article about students not wanting to write appeared after I had just spent a week writing with students in grades 5 through 12 at Stetson University’s HATS Program. For eight summers now, I have been teaching a week-long fiction writing class where we write a novel in a week. We do research. We brainstorm ideas. We come up with a backstory and plot-synopsis, trying to think logically every step of the way. We divide the outline into chapters, and each student writes two of them. My students spent all of Thursday afternoon and all of Friday simply sitting and writing. They didn’t ask for breaks, and they all wanted to come back next year. Nothing was wrong with writing.
We could be engaging our young writers and making them successful at every type of writing. By instructionally-shifting students into one dull mode of writing and robbing them of the chance to write about what matters to them, we may be ruining a generation of students as writers.
And that’s a bigger problem than not showing up for the test.

What’s so wrong with writing?
The way we’re teaching and testing it.