Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Standardized Writing

Lately, when I ask my fifth grade students to get out their materials for writing class, I hear terrible sounds. Groaning. Sighing. Slumping. (And if you don’t think slumping has a noise, then you haven’t been in a fifth grade classroom.)

It didn’t use to be that way. My students used to enjoy writing. Fifth grade is a fantastic grade to explore creative and stimulating writing projects. In the past, my students have written clever mysteries, ghoulish ghost stories, and fantasies modeled after their favorite novels. They have written fictional letters to relatives, pretending to be survivors of the Johnstown Flood in 1889. They have written journal entries in which they imagined themselves aboard ship with Columbus or Magellan. And they have written magazine articles in which their future selves were proclaimed Person of the Year for Time Magazine.

But that was before No Child Left Behind. That was in the heyday of imaginative cross-curricular projects, when a teacher could allow students to follow their interests and choose their own topics in an atmosphere of collaboration. That was before states enacted standardized testing models and determined exactly what students should be taught to write. After all, in this great nation, we wouldn’t want some students to learn one thing while others were learning something completely different.

On our state test, students are required to produce writing samples in two out of three eligible genres: a personal narrative, an expository essay, and a persuasive essay. This year, my school decided to combat mediocre writing scores with intensive instruction in these three types of composition. We began the year with six weeks of instruction on writing personal narratives. That was followed by six weeks of instruction on expository essays. The next six weeks? Persuasive essays, of course. What else could we do? This is what our state government says the students should be learning, and our school’s funding partly depends on good scores.
It doesn’t sound that bad, until you find yourself going into the third or fourth week of writing nothing but expository essays: Write an essay about your favorite season. Write an essay about your favorite sport. Write an essay about your favorite essay topic. Along about the fifth week of this—as I listened to the groans, the sighs, and the slumps—I realized I was killing any love of writing my students might have had. And there were seven or eight weeks of test preparation yet to go.

Since the standardized tests of NCLB have become the sole and unassailable assessment of all instruction in the nation, teachers have begun to lose their perspective. I admit it; we’ve gone a little crazy. I now hear colleagues talking about something called “the five paragraph story.” That’s right. Take your basic five paragraph essay, make a few adjustments, and train your students to write a story that fits right into this structure.
Paragraph one introduces the setting and the characters. The second paragraph reveals the problem. The third paragraph discusses various attempts to solve the problem, which is resolved in the fourth paragraph. The fifth paragraph sums everything up, possibly with a nice moral. Ready to teach voice and style? Just get the students to make one personal comment somewhere in the story, and add two similes and a metaphor. Ta-da! The standardized story. The Stepford Student story.

What about those fifth grade gems of the past with titles like The Beautiful Unicorn? The Alien Invasion? The Day I Woke Up and Switched Places With My Dog? I don’t know when I will get to read stories like those again.
I miss them.

And I wonder—who will be the writers of tomorrow after we have standardized the fledgling authors of today?


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