Sunday, March 8, 2015

Letting Go

I've been thinking a lot recently about the purpose of ELA specifically the purpose of writing. Why do we write? Why do I want my students to write? What do I hope that they will take away from my writing instruction? You'd assume I'd have a go-to answer for this; I am after all an English teacher. But the more I wrestle with this question, the
more complex and elusive the answer seems.

I want to say that the reason I teach writing is to empower students to express themselves in meaningful ways but if I'm honest that is not often what I find myself doing in the classroom. In reality much of my writing instruction centers around preparing my students to perform well on the myriad of standardized tests--MCAS/PARCC, PSATs, SATs, AP, etc.-- that they will be required to take before they receive a diploma. Now I know that one could argue that I don't really have to prepare my students for these tests, that good teaching should prepare them by default, but that would be to trivialize the very real consequences of my students' failure to perform on these aforementioned assessments.

Is it not my responsibility to make sure that by the time my sophomores sit down to take the ELA MCAS that they know how to dissect an MCAS-style prompt, have seen models of high scoring MCAS essays, are aware of the little tricks and pitfalls that can boost or reduce their overall score? And if our school's overall writing scores plateau somewhere in the middle of the long composition rubric, is it not my responsibility to figure out what's keeping our students' writing from reaching the top tier of that rubric, to crunch numbers and analyze writing samples in order to craft more effective writing instruction?

The rebel in me wants to shout: No! It is not my job to pander to the absent overlords of high-stakes assessment. My job is to make students see the value/power in writing, to help make their voices heard. But the realist in me, isn't so sure.

What I am sure of is that my students don't get excited about writing MCAS essays. And not because the prompts themselves are without possibility. It's just that they don't offer students the opportunity to connect with the material or to write for a purpose other than a grade. You give them a prompt about overcoming hardship, something that far too many of our students know about first hand, and then tell them they aren't allowed to write about what really matters to them (their lives). Rather than capitalize on their initial enthusiasm, I tell them no--No, you can't write about your own experiences. No, you can't write about that movie/video game you love. And without fail, the assignment goes from possibility to obligation taking the students enthusiasm with it.

Gregory Shafer (2000) writes of how “students lose their will to write when their words are controlled and limited by the whims of their teachers” (p. 30). Essentially by prescribing what students can/cannot write about, by making students passive recipients of their learning, we are hobbling their sense of agency which in turn lowers their motivation and engagement. If students are to engage in the writing process, they need “ownership of topics, choice, extended opportunities to write, freedom to rewrite with a focus on sharpening and reseeding their content, engrossing models of writing, provocative pre-writing stimulation and productive timely feedback” (Thomas, 2000, p. 41).

At the high school level, ELA instruction forces almost exclusively on argumentative writing. Much of our writing PD is focused on how to help the students craft better arguments. The problem isn't really about argumentation, as I think most people would agree that critical thinking and argumentation are at the foundation of "college readiness," but rather with our refusal to relinquish control of our content. Instead of allowing students to choose issues they feel passionate about, we force them to write about prescribed topics. And we wonder why so many students hate to write.

One way educators can help increase student engagement is by providing them with more authentic, relevant writing experiences. Student desire for choice and relevance in their assignments is essentially a demand for agency (Lenters 2006). Authentic writing increases students agency because it allows for students to use their personal experiences and knowledge in a meaningful way. When students are given the opportunity to write about what they know, it increases their confidence and thus their engagement.

In his book Holding on to Good Ideas in a Time of Bad Ones, Thomas Newkirk (2009) emphasizes the importance of validating student interest arguing that "the surest way to alienate any group is to indicate that their allegiances and interest are not respected." (109). Just because you could care less about Assassins Creed or Asking Alexandria (ugh) doesn't mean that your students' interests aren't worth exploring. Interest fosters engagement.

 If we forget this, we alienate students from their own learning.