Friday, July 29, 2005

Alternatives to teaching to the test

This article in the New York Times has created a lot of discussion on the Teachers and Writers listeserve. It illustrates how reliance on the five-paragraph essay, as mandated by testing, is leaving little time to work on other important aspects of writing, such as developing voice, and is in fact killing the creativity and sophisticated thinking that a good writing program encourages. Some on the listserve go so far as to call for teachers to take action and fight NCLB testing practices. They point to websites here and here that have gathered support to make changes.

Here's some excerpts from the ongoing listserve discussion:
Fostering individual creativity will do much more to move our society forward than any homogenization of the whole.
While I am not blind to the merits of a well conceived brief essay, it seems that the form has become prized out of all relationship with its actual function. In my mind, it has become an academic model, nothing more.
I feel the pain of my students EVERY DAY--it is really doing a lot of psychological damage.
The idea of prewriting on something I care nothing about, drafting on something I care nothing about, revising and editing ON MY OWN WITHOUT PEER INPUT, and then publishing a piece I care nothing about on a topic I care nothing about, with improvements I literally had no time to think about making (giving a writer minutes to edit and revise amounts to no time at all), etc. all this is mind boggling to gifted writers.

These are all excellent points, but I do believe it is possible for talented teachers to infuse real writing practices and techniques into the curriculum and then relate them to the five-paragraph essay. Writing with authentic voice, developing short scenes (including characters and dialogue), and using vivid details are all techniques that should contribute to an excellent essay. The problem of course is the time limit and formula kids have to work within. At my school we've done an excellent job teaching the essay, and now it's time we moved beyond it. I admit this can be difficult especially with everything else that must be covered Freshman and Sophomore years.

Here's one interesting approach (posted on the listserve) to writing and the essay that might have potential, especially for my interdisciplinary 10th grade course.
This year in my seventh-grade language arts classes, we took a conversational approach to literature and writing from a democratic perspective focusing on social justice. We began the year with conversations about life, who they were, how they are known, and what perpetuates this identity of groups and individuals. Discovering it was language that helps construct our identity, we began to look at how it does this. Conversations of students in small groups were taped and later analyzed using a conversational analysis. Students transcribed parts, identified key components of the conversations, noted patterns, and observed vocabulary.

In the meantime, our conversations and readings focused on topics such as freedom vs. equality, maturity, school issues, etc.... These were then related to the conversations to see if our class was democratic or not.

While analyzing transcripts, students observed how they sound in a conversation.Realizing they didn't speak in "formal" English, they transformed their conversations in to formal. This gave us ample opportunity to discuss grammar, word choice, etc... that spilled into their writing.

Overriding all of this was a focus on the language (vocabulary) of our trade. We needed to understand the meanings of the terms we used, not just memorize a definition and repeat it. We re-learned what a sentence was, what a verb was, what a subject was, and what characteristics made them that. Students were asked to analyze words and sentences, and explain the answer they gave.

We spent two weeks reviewing for the spring standardized tests. Only the county test for promotion has been scored and returned. Only one student out of 120 did not pass the LA section. Students in special ed., ESOL, and "regular" ed. classes all performed with phenomenal scores.

What do you think? Any other ideas or responses to the effects of testing on student writing?


Anonymous said...

Hi Tom,
Well, testing is the bane of our existence. As a writing teacher, I see dramatic (and discouraging) effects of testing on student writing and thinking. For example: The FIVE PARAGRAPH ESSAY!! Although the state test considers successful control of the five paragraph essay the height of literacy, it is in fact causing bad habits of thinking among literacy learners. Here's the problem: The five paragraph essay suggests that there is only one (or three??) right answer or solution to any problem. Along with not allowing the natural process of discovery that characterizes most thinking and writing, the five paragraph essay does not promote consideration of other points of view. Instead, it asks the writer to come up with an answer that can neatly fit into three body paragraphs. Our brightest and most creative students can usually tell that the five paragraph essay is only one type of writing for one type of audience; however, our struggling writers come away from the test thinking the formula is the best way to write. The results of formulaic writing have far-reaching consequences. Primarily, it hamstrings students' thinking.

Tom McHale said...

Thanks Lori. I agree, and yet I wonder if there's things we can do to open their minds a bit. The essay in students' minds has a very narrow conotation due to the way it's been used in schools and reinforced through testing. Yet, the essay has such a wonderful and creative tradition that goes back to Montaigne and others who demonstrate how it can illustrate very high order thnking. Of course, these type of essays would never translate to a timed writing situation on an random assigned topic, but I was wondering if exposing students to works that show the very best of the format (and having them emulate them in some way) might have any value.

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