Saturday, May 05, 2007

Writing and State Assessments

We recently hosted a two-day session with Lois Easton on Powerful Designs for Professional Learning. She is one of my favorite consultants to bring in as she really adapts to meet the needs of the group and has so much knowledge that she can do it on the fly!!

We engaged in a protocol that I use pretty regularly - the Tuning Protocol. I was in a group where a very brave local teacher brought in student work to share. Specifically, reader response journals. She wanted feedback on how she could comments in their journals to promote deeper thinking and writing beyond retell. As an aside - she wondered whether she should do something differently to promote the skills that might be needed on the NYS English Language Arts assessment.

These journals were amazing!! Students were to reflect upon what they had read each night and mark how long they had read (20 minutes, 30 minutes, etc.). The teacher provided a list of open ended prompts in the beginning of the notebook and also asked for a drawing/quick sketch page as she believed that the pictures would help to generate details in the writing (I agree!). And in several of these journals - I could really see the growth of some reluctant readers/writers over time. Isn't that the best part of having kids keep journals?

As we started to give feedback, the members of our group who came from a local charter school began to hone in on the piece of her questions about state assessments. They made some suggestions that I think were really good: practice some timed writing so that students can gauge how long they write and the quality they produce, exchange journals with students to practice editing passages. But then, the conversation turned to prompts. "Provide the students with writing prompts that more closely mirror the state assessment" was the advice.

This was where I really began to struggle. I don't enjoy prompt writing but recognize the need (due to assessments) that we need to practice them. But as I listened to the teachers talk, I thought about all the creativity and voice we had seen in the student journals. And in my heart - I knew that we would lose that if we forced prompt writing at this juncture. The reading the students were doing and the reflection afterwards would become another routine in a class where assessment is a four-letter word and soon, it would no longer be enjoyable for anyone: student or teacher.

So I try to practice caution when it comes to writing - I love to write and I want students to love to write. It isn't punishment and they should always have an outlet to be creative and give their opinions - in short, stretch their wings. We can't always make it be prompt or assessment driven or the heart of the writing will disappear. As Susan Ohanian said (with apologies to Carl Sandberg):

"Ordering a child to write a CTB/McGraw-Hill writing prompt in the narrative, informative, or persuasive mode is like commanding a pregnant woman to give birth to a red-headed child."

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