What Really Matters ISN’T Data (from 6-16-10)

It’s been a while since I posted. The last month or so of school I was heavily involved in working with my 8th grade classes on creating and publishing novellas on Lulu.com. Between three advanced/Gifted classes, we published– I think– about 13 or 14 short novels. Most students worked in groups of their own choosing; some worked alone. What was consistent was their level of engagement. Every group spent days on end planning and hammering out  the details of their characters, back-stories, settings, and plots. None of them are great literature, but they are all attempts to tell a longer story and make all the pieces fit together– something most of them had never done before.

This account of my busy-ness is more than an excuse for not having blogged for awhile – it is a segue into the blog itself. I’ll circle back around to the novellas shortly, but first I’d like to leap back a bit earlier in my year with my 8th graders. As part of a unit about the media and its effects upon us, its users, we read an essay this fall entitled “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” by Nicholas Carr. This evening I finished Carr’s book-length expansion of that essay, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. The irony is not lost on me that I am blogging, on the internet, about a book that suggests the internet has the capacity to turn our brains to mush. The book expands on and gives more evidence for the ideas expressed in the original essay: the Internet alters our brains with repeated use by turning us into skimmers and skippers instead of deep readers; the people who have developed the technology of the web often see the web as superior to the human brain. There are other ideas as well – it is well worth reading. But what I found most satisfying, most telling, is his epilogue. 

He talks about reading a small story about a British educational testing firm that is introducing an automated, computer-based writing assessment program. The company is a “subsidiary of the media conglomerate Pearson”-  the same company responsible for he current tardy FCAT scores debacle in Florida. According to Carr, the computer scoring program eliminates “human elements” like fatigue and subjectivity in the scoring of student writing.

As I said in my post “In Defense of School,” we are heading toward a program of “reading and writing like substances” that bear very little resemblance to real literacy. The computer grading of writing has been for me the very epitome of the bottom-line, data-driven thinking that is dominating education. It is fake writing on a fake topic for a fake audience to get fake feedback. There is no human element at all, except perhaps the human frustration of the students forced to sit through such a “writing” test. It makes me want to scream, but that is where we are headed. In my district, some schools already use a computer-graded program, sometimes more than once a week. When I criticized the program in my local newspaper in an op-ed piece, I was afraid I had offended a friend whose school uses the program. But her response was, “You didn’t say anything that wasn’t true.” She knows the program isn’t the best thing they can offer their students, but they feel it brings those writing scores up – and that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?

Well, no. Real writing is not and never will be about fulfilling the requirements of a rubric. Real writing is not and never will be something a computer can grade. ReLeah Cossett Lent, who did the forward for my new book, told me a story about a school using a computer scoring program for writing. One student wrote about time travel, and the computer marked her down for having poor organization because the events weren’t in chronological order. Real writing is about people having something to say, saying it well, reaching an audience, and having an effect on people.

Nicholas Carr, in addressing the issue, wonders, “would the Edexcel software discern those rare students who break from the conventions of writing not because they’re incompetent but because they have a special spark of brilliance?” He then answers his own question: It wouldn’t. My only disagreement with Carr here is that he assumes that students who can break from conventions to do something brilliant are “rare.” They don’t have to be. But when close-minded adults grade students according to a five paragraph, cookie-cutter formula, they get rarer. When computer programs score students’ essays, and we start tailoring our instruction to meet the demands of the machine, those brilliant students may become extinct. Humans should be running our writing programs, not machines. Is that so difficult to understand?

Every time my students write I see signs of that brilliance, because I let them actually express themselves. When my students wrote their novellas, the the creativity in the room was palpable. One group wrote a thriller set in a toy store. Another wrote about a murderous pizza delivery boy. There was a civil war romance, a murder mystery on a space station, a fantasy about stars that fell to Earth, and a thriller about a boy who discovers he’s in witness protection . . . and the list goes on. They were not writing to please the demands of a machine, but to please themselves and their real, human readers.

We are in a dangerous place right now, I fear. We have become reductionist about everything. Reading is a way to get a score. Writing is a way to get another score. When reading and writing become mere scores, they no longer have the power to change our lives, to change our minds, to change the world. Turning writing into a piece of data robs it of its power, which I think may be what the powers-that-be want. People who don’t think for themselves, who have had their brilliance beaten out of them by machines and the people who program them, are easy to . . . control.

My own children will be beyond school age when Florida rolls out its computerized end-of-course exams in a few years, exams that will no doubt include computerized writing scores. I wonder if I would even let them take a computer-scored writing test. I think I might have to pull them out of school first. And in the meantime, within the next five years, I could find myself in the position of getting my students ready for the computer writing test. Who knows better what good writing is – me, or a computer program? Apparently, we are preparing to opt for the computer, and that may be when I have to opt out myself.