I’m currently reading Boy Writers: Reclaiming Their Voices by Ralph Fletcher. It’s essentially a text about why boys tend to dislike writing and how to make writing instruction more effective for boys.
This is not a blog about boy writers, however. In Appendix A on page 169, Fletcher includes a table of student Writing Achievement Levels differentiated by gender and grade according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress 1998 and 2002 writing assessments. As expected, boys are less proficient and achievement declines as kids get older. What is more horrifying to me is that only 14% of males and 33% of females scored proficient or above in Grade 12 in 2002. That, my friends, is pathetic.
Now, I am not a great fan of testing and I do not generally place a lot of weight on results. However, despite the lackluster prompts of most writing assessments, these assessments carry more weight with me that the standard multiple-choice tests because they look at what kids can actually do in a more process-oriented manner. Kids had to write, and most of them failed to score proficient.
I believe our system sets teachers and kids up to fail. There is often the sense that we need only teach kids a form, give them feedback, teach grammar, punctuation and spelling, and that will result in quality writing. English teachers are blessed if they only have 100 students they are responsible for, and I know many of them have 200 students or more on their roles. Thoughtful feedback on student writing takes time, so the frequency of writing assignments decreases because it is impossible to score that many papers too many times during a quarter.
How do I improve my free throws? I practice. How do I get better at art? Hmm…practice? What about making my mom’s amazing macaroni and cheese? Yeah, practice.
But it’s not just extended time and practice writing. Having kids write frequently about topics they don’t care about or composing analytical essay after analytical essay won’t create amazing writers. It’s in the space where kids are engaged and pursuing their own pieces, sharing their own voices, that the magic happens. When kids write about what they care about, when they get clear on their intentions, take risks with their writing, and truly go for it, we witness Great Writing. Writing with life, with purpose, with oomph.
The only rules about writing in my classroom is that we do not use it to attack each other or any group. I am so fortunate that I teach at a school that is in opposition to censorship–we believe that’s the role of the parent. Therefore, my kids are free to write about whatever they choose, in whatever form makes sense for them. My kids write about love, war, hate, feeling left out, zombies, the British Invasion of the 1960′s, the bands they love, friendships gone wrong, and even the nature of reality. It is writing that gives us goosebumps, that leaves us exclaiming, “I wish I’d written THAT line!” And yes, sometimes my kids use profanity in their pieces, but we have had the best conversations together about what serves their writing and what does not. In fact, my favorite conversation took place this year during group critique while I was being observed by my principal. The boy who was sharing his writing pieces had used profanity twice in his piece; one of his requests of the group was feedback on whether the profanity was working for him or against him. It was amazing to hear the comments of his peers as they pointed out the one instance where it made sense and the other where it seemed gratuitous. The author confirmed he’d been thinking in the same direction, and the final piece cut the unnecessary swear word.
It is amazing what happens when we give kids the opportunity to write for real. I can say with 100% certainty that probably 95% of my 8th graders would test proficient or advanced, mostly advanced, in writing. That’s a far cry from the national average, and all I’ve done is given them time and the freedom to say what they want to say as powerfully as they can say it.
We need to get over ourselves, stop being scared of what others might think If we let kids write about scary topics. We need to trust our kids–and ourselves–to think critically about what’s working and what isn’t. Ultimately, if one of my kids wants to write about poop, I say Go For It. Just write the best, most descriptive, most meaningful poem/story/article/report about poop you possibly can. Don’t be ordinary, don’t bore us, don’t trot out the dumb jokes we already know. Write something special. In the end, it’s the writing that matters.