I teach Writing in elementary schools. I’ve also taught every other basic subject and I’m considered a specialist in Math. But this is not about those, this is about Writing. I teach that.
I am, by nature, a writer. (You can read my earlier post https://tabathashipleybooks.com/2015/07/27/writing/ if that’s what you want to read about). So when I sit down to teach a writing class there is a lot of finding your voice, putting emotion in the writing, and developing character. There’s a little formatting a five paragraph essay, but I wouldn’t call it my focus.
Then there’s that *wonderful* time of year when standardized testing becomes our lives. I’ve actually been a grader more than once. You sit at a table full of teachers you’ve never met with a stack of papers written by kids you don’t know. You make the introductions. “Hi, I’m Tabatha. I’m a fifth grade teacher. What is your background with writing?”
“What do you mean, background? I teach it.”
“Oh, okay. I’m a writer and a poet.”
See, we already hate each other. We already know we have different approaches to writing which means we will disagree on this process and it will take longer. Groan, grab a paper, proceed.
You read each paper. You score it on the six traits of writing rubric. Seriously, all six. That usually means reading it more than once. Then you hand it to the other guy, who does the same thing. Then you have to look at what you both wrote, analyze it, and average the scores. It takes forever.
Alright, the first prompt. Tell the story of something you did this summer. Be sure to include at least three activities and detail. Okay they lead you right to that five paragraph essay with the “three activities” thing. I wonder how many kids will be thrown off by the use of the word “story” up-front. They don’t want a story. You have two pages and were asked to give three reasons. They want an essay.
First kid. Paper is well done. Five paragraph format. Topic sentence is obviously a canned sentence teacher taught him, but at least he remembered to use it. I end up scoring decent, so does the other guy. Meets for this kid.
Next five papers are pretty much the same idea.
Then the juicy one. This kid wrote a poem. It’s a good poem. The line breaks are perfect. There’s white space before some of her lines to give the poem shape. She nailed down the summertime rush of excitement in the pattern of the writing. She drew you into her summer. I was impressed. He was not. “She didn’t follow the format at all. There are no paragraphs.” He complained.
“It’s a poem. There are stanzas.”
“We’re supposed to score her on her use of paragraphs. There are none. Therefore I scored her low on that category. Now what about her conventions. You scored her high.”
“Everything is spelled correctly and her lack of punctuation is intentional. She’s writing about summer. She starts off by saying the rules of school don’t follow you here. I think it’s a choice.”
“You don’t know that. All we know is it’s not here.” He marks her low. We average our scores. She’s Approaching (that’s not a passing score). I sigh.
More five paragraphs pass without incident.
Then comes the story. It’s not perfect, but it’s good. There’s dialogue, punctuated like dialogue should be. Owing to the short amount of space, the kid didn’t do much of a falling action. It hits the climax and then rushes to the end. My guess, he was running out of space. I read it about six times. I end up scoring it rather high. At this point it shouldn’t surprise you that my partner didn’t.
“No full paragraphs again.” He points out.
“Oh come on.” I roll my eyes. “The kid followed the rules of paragraph breaks for dialogue.”
“But paragraphs are five to six sentences on a single topic. He should have five of those.”
“Seriously? The prompt says write a story. Here’s his story. He’s on topic, he followed the grammatical rules, and he used complete sentences.”
I can’t win this argument. That’s the point of more than one grader, to ensure the arguments are averaged in. We average our scores. The kid is Approaching.
What is my point with this story? I can teach your kids how to pass a standardized test (it’s about audience, kids) in Writing. More importantly I can teach them how to write with passion and interest. I’ve had kiddos who admit after the test that they wrote a poem. “You said not to, but the prompt was written for it. It’ll be okay.” I’ve glanced down at a kid’s writing and seen the familiar look of dialogue, have known they wrote a story. I’ve watched for those scores to come back over the summer and sighed in frustration when they’re Approaching.
Because here’s the deal. Those are the kids I want to read. Those are the future authors of the world. You don’t win writing contests by writing a five paragraph essay about your summer. You win a writing contest by taking that same prompt and weaving a poem that makes me feel something.
You have to learn the grammatical rules and then you can break them.
Kids from my class will tell you that. Kids from my classes will tell you that it’s about emotion and audience. It’s about creativity in different forms. What are your kids learning? Because if it’s not that then you’ll need to supplement. Writing is a passion.
Pass it on.