The Devolution of Writing

I am nearing the end of my 30th year of teaching – seven more days with students.

In looking back, and preparing to go beyond 30, into the realm of being… Old Teacher (fortunately, Mr. Fitz stays young!), I have been thinking about writing and how it gets taught.

I have just finished Liz Prather’s book Project Based Writing – I read it in just four days, perhaps a record for a teacher book for me – and reading it confirmed things I knew, but also challenged my thinking, encouraged me to lean in to practices I had only dabbled in, and gave me a ton of new ideas.

Here’s the rub. Nothing from her book would be useable if I were following my curriculum maps’ proscribed writing assignments. I’m going to circle back around to that map shortly, but first I want to back up to over 32 years ago when I began teaching.

As I have mentioned before, when I began teaching, it was the wild west. There were no maps, no high stakes standardized testing, no micromanagement and lockstep teaching. I had student-interned in a Nancy Atwell-style reading/writing workshop classroom in upstate New York, and my first year in my district we were encouraged to use her approach. I did – with some success, overall, although I was a rookie teacher and obviously made some rookie misteps.

After getting laid off after my first year of teaching and a two year gap in service where no one would hire me, I started teaching again as the first rumors of the Sunshine State Standard and the Florida Comprehensive Achievement test were beginning to circulate. Before long, the FCAT Writing Test arrived, complete with its 6-point rubric. No problem. I kept teaching my students to write about what they cared about, non-formulaically, and they generally succeeded on the test. I was proud of my test scores – but only because I was getting them my way, without pandering to the test.

Back then, there were two kinds of prompts for middle school: expository and persuasive. There were no sources, no essays to read, no “simulated research” elements. Students had to elaborate, using details from real life and from their imagination. The prompts were generally mind-numbingly dull (“Explain why a friend is your special friend” sounded a little bit dicey to me), but students could, if they chose, actually be creative to bring them to life. Meanwhile, I was also teaching them to write research papers as well – research papers where students actually generated their own questions, did their own research, and synthesized their own ideas and others’ to explore a topic that actually interested them.

Then came the Common Core State Standards – rebranded the Florida Standards here in Florida. Ahead of their arrival, we had the Sunshine State Standards 2.0 to get ready for them, and an “upgrade” to the writing test. The same rubric was used to score student essays, but they were scored more harshly – a change that sort of undermined the validity of the rubric, if a rubric can actually have validity. Then came the Florida Standards Assessment with its writing test. Writing was redefined to make it more “rigorous”. The new test was a “research simulation” that gave students 3 articles or texts on a topic and a prompt that asked them to synthesize ideas as either an argument or an informative essay. All our writing assignments became “research simulations.” Actual research went out the window.

Writing was redefined as, essentially, stringing quotes together about a topic you did not generate and did not care about. It has dominated writing instruction for the past 10 years, unless you as a teacher actively tried to subvert that domination by giving students freedom to write in other modes. (For the record, I have.)

But then, our governor, Ron DeSantis, announced the end of Common Core (the Florida Standards) in Florida. They were being replaced by the BEST Standards (Benchmarks of Excellent Student Thinking). The Common Core and all its trappings were to be swept away like last year’s trash. The standards were written, and were supposed to role out next year for secondary schools. My district elected to start teaching them this year, even though this year’s students would be taking the FSA – the old test aligned to the Common Core. With some fanfare, we we adopted new textbooks this year and new curriculum maps were developed.

But despite the grand pronouncements that Common Core was no more, guess what kind of writing is featured throughout our new BEST textbooks and exclusively on our curriculum maps? You guessed it. Research simulations. Read the texts in this unit, and then write an essay about them. Everyone write to the same prompt. Everyone write the same essay.

Observe the teacher drinking copious amounts of caffeine to stay awake while reading the repetitious dreck.

Meanwhile, in a parallel universe where teachers are allowed to actually think and teach, the teaching of writing has been developing and changing – handing more power over to students and allowing them to (gasp!) actually make choices about what they write and how they write it. News arrives from this parallel universe in the form of teacher books by Liz Prather, Maja Wilson, Thomas Newkirk, Kelly Gallagher, and Penny Kittle. I even contributed a couple books of my own – but that was back before Common Core. They are no longer in print – probably because of the Common Core. Those teacher authors, like me, have had to buck the system to make writing real and engaging.

It shouldn’t be this way. We could be getting writing… well, right.

Students could be choosing and focusing their own topics. Students would be writing in multiple genres and formats, not simply writing the same essay over and over with different text evidence. They could be playing with organization patterns. They could be figuring out if their writing actually works instead of checking off boxes on a rubric. They could be developing their interests, interrogating their own points of view, discovering who they are and what they believe in. They could be finding their voices.

But instead, the system wants them to write like robots so that robots can score them. It wants to dehumanize them, to turn them into compliant writing drones. It often just turns them off to writing completely. I actually think the system is okay with that, too.

Writing is a human endeavor. No textbook or system can restore the humanity.

Only teachers can. It’s up to us.