The last few weeks have seen a furor over machine scoring—especially as people recognize that this is the method proposed by developers of the CCSS writing assessments. In my view, machine scoring will inevitably promote formulaic writing. Why? Because machines readily recognize (and can be programmed to reward) formula; they are far less capable of following (or rewarding) complex thinking.
Students may write pieces that are fascinating, compelling, original, logical, humorous, or highly original. But none of those things in and of themselves will ensure high scores with automated scoring systems. Unless students package their thinking into a Jell-O mold formula with intro, transitions, and wrap-up so blatantly hit-you-on-the-head obvious that even a machine can spot them, it is unlikely that any of these important features will be rewarded with high scores.
Of course, this objection begs the question, “What’s wrong with formulaic writing?” Several things. First of all—and this seems obvious, but maybe it’s not—students didn’t come up with this organizational design. We did. It’s not their thinking—it’s ours. If we mean to teach writing as thinking, formula is a poor place to begin. The only way to learn how to organize information is by doing it—not by having someone carve out the path for you.
Second, it’s inauthentic. Look at your own favorite books—the ones you’ve read twice, quoted, given as gifts. You won’t find formula anywhere. Saying that formula is a stepping stone to serious writing is like saying that applying for an Amazon account is the first step toward writing a novel.
Finally—and this is perhaps the most serious problem with formulaic writing—no one wants to read it. No one. Not even people who are paid to read it. And though we seldom admit it, no one wants to write it, either. It is glorious, engaging, and delightful (albeit difficult or frustrating at times) to write your heart out about something you care about deeply. It is tedious and fatiguing to fill in the blanks for an outline someone else came up with. Nothing kills motivation faster than formula. Oh sure, students will write this way if coerced. They might pick up a pen or sit down at the keyboard, but they’re not present in the writing. Mentally and emotionally, they’re somewhere else. And the very minute no assessment is hanging over their heads, they’ll resign from writing—perhaps forever. Is this what we want?
I know the counter-argument: Some students need formula. They’ll fail without it. On behalf of those students (who won’t, who can’t speak up for themselves) let me say, let’s take a chance. Formula writers feel no joy in writing anyway. What are we risking? I know some will argue that formula writers are at least composing something that makes sense on a basic level. I disagree. They aren’t composing anything. They’re filling in the blanks. Do we seriously have so little faith in our students that we think they have no thoughts of their own? We might be surprised what they could do if we were genuinely interested in what they had to say.
I am fortunate right now to be living (for a few precious days) on an ocean beach. People swim and snorkel here, and all day, I can see them heading out, putting on their gear, getting ready to glimpse that magical world beneath the surface that forever calls to anyone who has seen it even once. Some people plunge in without a second thought. Others are more hesitant, taking a second look at that ocean. It’s just so . . . big. So deep. So filled with things most of us have not seen before. Going out into the ocean gives us a little taste of how it probably felt once to be an explorer.
So here we have our hesitant snorkelers, standing on the beach, gazing out. They want to go out there, but it’s so scary. Their main fear is that they will sink. They won’t, of course. Salt water buoys you up like a cork. You don’t even have to do anything fancy or strenuous, such as kick or move your arms—though snorkelers do, of course (thus creating the illusion that snorkeling is mainly for skilled swimmers). So to make sure they won’t sink no matter what, the hesitant snorkelers strap bulky life belts around their waists. Then they prop floating noodles under their arms. All this gear makes it extremely hard to get into the water. It does give them a bit of confidence, of course (not much—they’re still certain Mother Nature will outwit them). But now they can’t move very fast, can’t follow a turtle if one shows up, or dive down for a closer look at an octopus. In short, they have almost no freedom.
Which brings me to the point. Hesitant writers, weighed down with bulky, non-helpful formulas, cannot “swim” either. They aren’t free to become the writers they could be because they’re held in check. They cannot say what they really think or feel because it doesn’t fit the mold. And without that incredibly important incentive, they lose interest in writing because it’s no longer joyful, satisfying, filled with discovery. Once that inner urge to write is gone, the game is over. People don’t write to get high scores; writing is way, way too demanding of time and energy for such a trivial pay-off. People write because someone, somewhere is waiting to read what they have to say. No grade, no score, no assurance of AYP has one one-thousandth the motivational power of seeing or hearing from a reader who couldn’t put your writing down.
Here’s another point to keep in mind. I know some people will say, Well, formula’s not forever. It’s just a support for a while—until kids begin to think on their own. Really? How old do you think those reluctant snorkelers will be before they toss their life belts onto the sand one day and declare boldly, “I’m just diving in this time!” The trouble with a formula is, it creates dependency. And the longer students cling to it, the more dependent they become—and soon they have lost whatever courage they had to think on their own. They will never unleash their own voices, discover topics they didn’t even know fascinated them, or write anything that moves another human soul. Do we have the right to take that away just because we’re nervous about how well they’ll do?
So what’s the answer? Here are four suggestions.
Talk. First, we have to talk to students—and get them to talk with one another, in purposeful ways—as writers. They need to talk about topics, about how to begin, about details they plan to include, about how and where to get information. We must teach them to ask one another prompting questions, real questions, the sort writers ask each other outside of classrooms: What kind(s) of research are you doing? Have you thought about trying [fill in the blank] ? How did you come up with that word/image/way of saying it? How did you think to include that detail? Do you feel like this is the end—or do you have more to say? What sort of readers are you picturing in your mind as you write this? How do you want them to feel? What was the hardest part of this for you? I told you my favorite part—so what’s your favorite part? Will you write more on this topic? Have you read [fill in the blank]? And we must make sure they have these conversations during the process of writing—not just after the fact.
Model. Second, we have to model. Model what? Everything. From topic selection to overcoming lethargy, to research, planning, writing that first line (second line, second paragraph, ending, whatever), reading your own writing both silently AND aloud, daring to project your own personal voice, revising and editing and sharing with a live audience—and yes, even deciding how to package the final piece. We have to put ourselves on the line.
Read. Third, we need to read aloud to students of all ages—and teach them to look to their favorite writers for lessons and ideas on writing well. William Steig (Amos and Boris, Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, The Toy Brother)shows me over and over how to search for the absolute right word. Laura Hillenbrand (Seabiscuit)teaches me to rely more on verbs than on adjectives if I want my writing to be lively. From Sy Montgomery (Birdology, The Good, Good Pig), I have learned amazing lessons about how to breathe life into informational writing—and the importance of remaining curious about my topic. Gary Paulsen (Hatchet, Winterdance)has shown me how powerful fragments can be, and how important it is to include sensory details that help readers feel the cold, taste the fish, smell the alluring scent of a campfire. You can think of many examples of your own, I’m sure. Share them with your students—and invite them to search for their own.
Motivate. Finally, we have to get kids excited about writing. How? It isn’t as hard as you might think. The answer lies right within us. We need to look carefully, listen thoughtfully, and speak from the heart about what touches us. In her inspiring book Hidden Gems, Katherine Bomer talks about “falling in love” with our students’ writing so we can find the strengths within it. And once we’ve found them, we have to tell students what we love, what we noticed, what made us pause or catch our breath. Our heartfelt responses are the best motivators we have. Computers will not do this for us. They are programmed to find errors, not strengths. Computers have no hearts. They don’t care one whit about building student confidence. Do we? If so, we’d better speak up before it is too late. Too many of our students have already ceased to believe they can write. We can’t leave any more of them stranded on the beach.
Assessing writing well is hard. It should be. Students’ writing is a form of literature, and demands the same attentive, deep reading you would give to any poem, story, or nonfiction essay you love. Such reading is time consuming, admittedly—and that’s where computers have us, hands down. They’re faster than we are, they don’t get tired, and they don’t need coffee breaks. Or . . . if saving time is more important to us than anything else, why not just have computers write the papers in the first place? Once formulaic instruction gets a foothold, we probably wouldn’t even notice the difference.
Coming up on Gurus . . .
Jeff takes us back to Mr. L’s class for a wrap-up of his lessons based on Paul Fleischman’s book The Matchbox Diary. And in two weeks, I’ll be reviewing Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s engaging little book exclamation mark. Though aimed at a primary audience, this book has a lot to say about punctuation (and conventions in general) to readers of all ages. Remember, for the best in writing workshops featuring traits, standards, process, and outstanding literature, phone 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.