More on Failing Writing, and Students

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, I taught English in the rural South Carolina high school I attended as a student. Many of those years, I taught Advanced Placement courses as part of my load (I taught all levels of English and usually sophomores and seniors) and was department chair.

Over the years, I worked hard to create an English department that served our students well. We made bold moves to provide all students in each grade the same literature textbooks (not different texts for different levels, as was the tradition, thus labeling students publicly) and to stop issuing to students grammar texts and vocabulary books (teachers retained classroom sets to use as they chose).

And a significant part of our English classes was the teaching of writing—having students write often and to produce multiple-draft essays. I stressed the need to end isolated grammar instruction (worksheets and textbook exercises) and urged that grammar, mechanics, and usage be addressed directly in the writing process.

Even though the principal was supportive and a former English teacher, at one faculty meeting while the administrators were discussing recent standardized test scores for the school (yes, this test-mania was in full force during the 80s and 90s in SC), the principal prefaced his comments about the English test scores with, “Keep in mind that the English scores may not reflect what we are doing here since we don’t teach grammar.”*

In a nut shell, that sort of mischaracterization and misunderstanding about best practice is at the foundation of my previous post exploring Joan Brunetta’s writing about how standards- and test-based schooling had failed her.

A few comments on the post and a follow up discussion in the comments with Robert Pondiscio—as well as a subsequent post by Pondiscio at Bridging Differences—have prompted me to continue to address not only how we still fail the teaching of writing but also how that failure is a subset of the larger failure of students by traditional approaches to teaching that are teacher-centered and committed to core knowledge.

Revisiting “The Good Student Trap” in the Accountability Era

Adele Scheele has coined the term “the good student trap,” which perfectly captures how schools create a template for what counts as being a good student and then how that template for success fails students once they attend college and step into the real world beyond school. My one caveat to Scheele’s ideas is that especially during the accountability era—a ramping up of traditional practices and norms for education—this trap affects all students, not just the good ones.

And the trap goes something like this, according to Scheele:

Most of us learned as early as junior high that we would pass, even excel if we did the work assigned to us by our teachers. We learned to ask whether the test covered all of chapter five or only a part of it, whether the assigned paper should be ten pages long or thirty, whether “extra credit” was two book reports on two books by the same author or two books written in the same period. Remember?

We were learning the Formula.

• Find out what’s expected.
• Do it.
• Wait for a response.

And it worked. We always made the grade. Here’s what that process means: You took tests and wrote papers, got passing grades, and then were automatically promoted from one year to the next. That is not only in elementary, junior, and senior high school, but even in undergraduate and graduate school. You never had to compete for promotions, write résumés, or rehearse yourself or even know anyone for this promotion. It happened automatically. And we got used to it….

What we were really learning is System Dependency! If you did your work, you’d be taken care of. We experienced it over and over; it’s now written in our mind’s eye. But nothing like this happens outside of school. Still, we remain the same passive good students that we were at ten or fourteen or twenty or even at forty-four. The truth is, once learned, system dependency stays with most of us throughout our careers, hurting us badly. We keep reinforcing the same teacher-student dichotomy until it is ingrained. Then we transfer it to the employers and organizations for whom we’ll work.

This model of traditional schooling includes a teacher who makes almost all the decisions and students who are rewarded for being compliant—and that compliance is identified as “achievement.”

In English classes, a subset of this process is reflected in how we teach, and fail, writing. As I noted in my earlier post, Hillocks and others have noted that traditional commitments to the five-paragraph essay (and cousin template-models of essays) and a return to isolated grammar exercises have resulted from the rise of high-stakes testing of writing. As well, the accountability era has included the central place of rubrics driving what students write, how teachers respond to student writing, and how students revise their essays.

So what is wrong with five-paragraph essays, grammar exercises, and rubrics?

Let’s focus on rubrics to examine why all of these are ways in which we fail writing and students. Alfie Kohn explains:

Mindy Nathan, a Michigan teacher and former school board member told me that she began “resisting the rubric temptation” the day “one particularly uninterested student raised his hand and asked if I was going to give the class a rubric for this assignment.”  She realized that her students, presumably grown accustomed to rubrics in other classrooms, now seemed “unable to function [emphasis added] unless every required item is spelled out for them in a grid and assigned a point value.  Worse than that,” she added, “they do not have confidence in their thinking or writing skills and seem unwilling to really take risks.”

Rubric-based writing and assessment, then, reflect the exact problem I highlighted earlier, one noted by Applebee and Langer: teachers know more today than ever about how to teach writing, but commitments to accountability and testing prevent that awareness from being applied in class; as Kohn explains:

What all this means is that improving the design of rubrics, or inventing our own, won’t solve the problem because the problem is inherent to the very idea of rubrics and the goals they serve.   This is a theme sounded by Maja Wilson in her extraordinary new book, Rethinking Rubrics in Writing Assessment. In boiling “a messy process down to 4-6 rows of nice, neat, organized little boxes,” she argues, assessment is “stripped of the complexity that breathes life into good writing.”  High scores on a list of criteria for excellence in essay writing do not mean that the essay is any good because quality is more than the sum of its rubricized parts.  To think about quality, Wilson argues, “we need to look to the piece of writing itself to suggest its own evaluative criteria” – a truly radical and provocative suggestion.

Wilson also makes the devastating observation that a relatively recent “shift in writing pedagogy has not translated into a shift in writing assessment.”  Teachers are given much more sophisticated and progressive guidance nowadays about how to teach writing but are still told to pigeonhole the results, to quantify what can’t really be quantified.  Thus, the dilemma:  Either our instruction and our assessment remain “out of synch” or the instruction gets worse in order that students’ writing can be easily judged with the help of rubrics.

Once fulfilling the expectations of the rubric becomes the primary if not exclusive goal for the student, we have the SAT writing section and the unintended consequences, as Newkirk explains (English Journal, November 2005) about students writing to prompts and rubrics for high-stakes testing:

George Hillocks Jr. has shown that another persistent problem with these types of prompts concerns evidence—the writer must instantly develop instances or examples to be used for support. In a sample of the released papers from the Texas state assessment, some of this evidence looks, well, manufactured….When I first read this essay, I imagined some free spirit, some rebel, flaunting the ethics of composition and inventing evidence to the point of parody. But when I shared this letter with a teacher from Texas, she assured me that students were coached to invent evidence if they were stuck [emphasis added]. In my most cynical moment, I hadn’t expected that cause. And what is to stop these coached students from doing the same on the SAT writing prompt? Who would know?

As but one example above, “the good student trap” is replicated day after day in the ways in which students are prompted to write and then how teachers respond to and grade that writing. The failure lies in who makes almost all of the decisions, the teacher, and who is rewarded for being mostly compliant, students.

While core knowledge advocates and proponents of rubric-driven assessment tend to misrepresent critical and progressive educators who seek authentic learning experiences for students with charges of “not teaching X” or “So what shall we teach?” (with the implication that core knowledge educators want demanding content but critical and progressive educators don’t), the real question we must confront is not what content we teach and students learn, but who decides and why.

If we return to rubrics, well designed rubrics do everything for students (see Education Done To, For, or With Students? for a full discussion of this failure), everything writers need to do in both college and the real world beyond school.

Rubric-driven writing is asking less of students than authentic writing in a writing workshop.

Traditional core knowledge classrooms are also deciding for students what knowledge matters, and again, asking less of students than challenging students to identify what knowledge matters in order to critique that knowledge as valuable (or not) for each student as well as the larger society. The tension of this debate is about mere knowledge acquisition versus confronting the norms of knowledge in the pursuit of individual autonomy and social justice—making students aware of the power implications of knowledge so that they live their lives with purpose and dignity instead of having life happen to them.

My call is not for ignoring the teaching of grammar, but for confronting the norms of conventional language so that students gain power over language instead of language having power over them. Why do we feel compelled not to end a sentence with a preposition? Where did that claim come from and who benefits from such a convention?

Why does academic writing tend to erase the writer from the writing (“No ‘I’!”) and who benefits from that convention?

You see, critical approaches to teaching go beyond the mere acquisition of knowledge that some authority has deemed worthy (what Freire labels the “banking concept” of teaching). Yes, knowledge matters, but not in the fixed ways core knowledge advocates claim and pursue. Critical approaches to knowledge honor the dignity of human autonomy in children, something that many adults seem at least leery if not fearful of allowing in their classrooms.

Core knowledge, rubrics, templates, prescriptions, and prompts are all tools of control, ways to trap students in the pursuit of compliance. They aren’t challenging (or “rigorous” as advocates like to say), and they aren’t learning.

As Scheele explains:

System dependency is not the only damaging thing we learned in the context of school: We learned our place….

Yet most of us were falsely lulled into a false self labeled “good” by fulfilling the expected curriculum. The alternative was being “bad” by feeling alienated and losing interest or dropping out….

So what’s the problem? The problem is the danger. The danger lies in thinking about life as a test that we’ll pass or fail, one or the other, tested and branded by an Authority. So, we slide into feeling afraid we’ll fail even before we do-if we do. Mostly we don’t even fail; we’re just mortally afraid that we’re going to. We get used to labeling ourselves failures even when we’re not failing. If we don’t do as well as we wish, we don’t get a second chance to improve ourselves, or raise our grades. If we do perform well, we think that we got away with something this time. But wait until next time, we think; then they’ll find out what frauds we are. We let this fear ruin our lives. And it does. When we’re afraid, we lose our curiosity and originality, our spirit and our talent-our life.

Beyond Rigor, Templates, and Compliance

In my position at a small and selective liberal arts university, I now teach mostly good students in my writing-intensive first year seminars. Students are asked to read and discuss Style, a descriptive look at grammar, mechanics, and usage that raises students’ awareness and skepticism about conventional uses of language, but rejects seeing conventions as fixed rules. (We ask why teachers in high school tend to teach students that fragments are incorrect when many published works contain fragments, leading to a discussion of purposeful language use.)

Throughout the course, students are asked to plan and then write four original essays that must be drafted several times with peer and my feedback. The focus, topic, and type of essay must be chosen by the student. To help them in those choices, we discuss what they have been required to do in high school for essays, we explore what different fields expect in college writing, and we read and analyze real-world essays in order to establish the context for the choices, and consequences of those choices, that writers make—specifically when those writers are students.

I offer this here in case you think somehow I am advocating “fluffy thinking” or a “do-your-own-thing philosophy” of teaching, as some have charged. And I invite you to ask my students which they prefer, which is easier—the template, prompt-based writing of high school that created their good student trap or my class. [HINT: Students recognize that five-paragraph essays and rubrics are easier, and they often directly ask me to just tell them what to write and how. As Mindy Nathan noted above, good students are “unable to function [emphasis added] unless every required item is spelled out for them in a grid and assigned a point value.”]

My students reinforce for me every class session that we have failed the teaching of writing and those students by doing everything for them in school. They are nearly intellectually paralyzed with fear about the consequences of their own decisions.

When challenged and supported to be agents of their own learning, their own coming to understand the world, and their own decisions about what knowledge matters and why, however, they are more than capable of the tasks.

And with them in mind, I must ask, who benefits from compliant, fearful students as intellectual zombies, always doing as they are told?


* Although he phrased his comment poorly, my principal was, in fact, making a valid point that a multiple-choice English (grammar) test was unlikely to fairly represent what our students had learned about composing original essays. He intended to make a swipe at the quality of the test, although he did so gracelessly.


16 thoughts on “More on Failing Writing, and Students”

  1. Many years ago, as a freelancer working under contract, I created what I believe was the first anchor-papers-and-rubrics-based assessment system to appear in a basal grammar and composition program–for one of the large textbook publishers (I won’t say which for contractual reasons). I based that approach that I took–which was very similar to what is being done ubiquitously today–on the research being done by the college board to figure out a way to score, efficiently, the essay components that they were considering adding to the SAT.

    I have often, since then, regretted having been part of introducing this approach to grading writing to the country at large. I agree, entirely, that this approach distorts a process of evaluation that should involve very specific reaction to very specific parts of unique work to a few blithering generalizations and tends to encourage awful, formulaic non-writing of the five-paragraph theme variety.

    The introduction of the rubrics system was well intentioned. At the time, most English teachers around the country thought that they had to edit, line by line, every piece of writing submitted to them, and as a result, they didn’t assign as much writing as they needed to assign, and their kids weren’t getting much practice. However, the rubrics system is no improvement. Particularly egregious is the now common practice of having a single rubric that is used for ALL writing done in a given program, for a given test, etc., for the more generalized the rubric, the less meaningful it is and the more it encourages writing to formulas–the equivalent, in composition–of paint by numbers. That’s precisely the sort of thing that writing teachers should be DISCOURAGING. But look at the new national tests being developed–they will also use general rubrics for scoring. It’s a lousy practice that should be discontinued.

    Thank you for raising this issue.

  2. I always received high grades and compliments from my college and graduate school professors when I wrote papers, and I appreciate all the hard work you did when correcting all those rewrites we completed!

  3. And with regard to the “do-it-yourself” approach to teaching and learning–that is PRECISELY what we should be encouraging. Our job, as teachers, is to nurture intrinsically motivated learning. Our students should come to think of learning as something that THEY DO, for the joy and value of it, not something that is DONE TO THEM. Real learning and teaching tends to be unique to the individual. My greatest teachers, and all the great teachers I’ve ever known, were, to a person, folks who communicated their singular, passionate interests, and students got the windfall of that. So, we need a lot more “do-it-yourself” teaching and learning, and what we do not need is an approach that reduces learning to someone’s bullet list (e.g., the Common [sic] Core [sic] State [sic] Standards [sic].

  4. My problem with standardized assessments of writing is that they are so inauthentic. What good writer sits down without a thesaurus or a dictionary? What good writer submits a final draft without another pair of eyes going over it? We are teaching kids to not use tools which help them to polish their writing. Another thing is that often times they are given a topic in which they have almost zero background knowledge. It’s like saying, “I know you don’t know anything about this subject, but I want you to use evidence to write a five paragraph essay of canned information that sounds like every other students’ writing so that a person with no writing experience can grade it based on a rubric that they will ignore and give you whatever score they think you should get.” It goes against any lesson we have taught them about good using good resources to understand a topic. Our state has had to throw out the last two years of writing test scores because of the utter incompetence of the test vendor. The scores were inconsistent and biased depending on the stance the student took. We worked so hard all year and then I had to tell my students that the state called a mulligan except we aren’t getting a do-over.

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