My wife recently left the middle school we’d both taught in for 8 years and went to high school. Interestingly, we are still sometimes having parallel experiences.
She recently had her 9th graders write about their rooms at home. It was a way to see how they wrote and to learn something about them. She gave them very little guidelines and no rubric whatsoever. Just the prompt. If she’d been following the “best practices” of PLC protocol, this assignment would have been a department-wide “common assessment” and a rubric would have been required and students would have been shown the rubric and told exactly how to jump through the hoop for the sake of ranking and measuring.
As it turned out, one prompt yielded a lot of different kinds of writing. Some wrote physical descriptions. Some wrote about family resentments, like sharing a room with siblings. Some wrote about having ghosts in their room. They were individual, specific, weird… and real. A rubric could have killed that. Isn’t the point of writing to be real?
Today I handed out a short article about different types of students in a typical classroom. We’re talking about classroom culture here at the start of year, and about what it means to be a student. I hadn’t quite decided what the students would “do” until I handed it out. There was some blank space at the bottom of page 2, so I simply said, “Write a reaction. Write down what you thought about while you read it. That’s what real readers do. They react.”
One student asked if he should $(@# the article ($(@# is hiding the name of a popular “writing to text” acronym that circulated the school last year). I told him not to. I told him I actually wanted him to think, not go through the motions with something he thought I wanted. He was baffled.
Some students wrote about which type of student they were. Some wrote about how they knew those types of students. Some wrote about the article being full of stereotypes. Some asked a lot of questions. Some related it to movies they’d seen. Letting them look at it through different lenses was more real and led to a more interesting discussion.
If I’d told them to $(@# the article, I would have gotten 21 identical papers.
I have two Creative Writing classes this year (that’s a story for another day) and I began the class by asking them to write about what they knew about Creative Writing.
Some had some great answers. Some wrote about using good spelling, capitalization, and punctuation, transitional words like therefore, and writing things with five paragraphs. Oh, children. What have we done to you? I have come to set you free.
School should not be a place to limit your thinking. Challenge your thinking, yes. Present you with new ways to think, by all means. Teach you about different lenses you can use to view the things you read and the world around you, and help you decide which lenses are useful when, absolutely. But to simply fence thinking in as a matter of course, as a way of life, is a terrible crime against human minds.
We have institutionalized the fences. We need to make space for free-range thinking.