Common Core State Standards and the state assessments designed to measure them demand increased critical reading and analytical writing from students, and I have noticed a shift from teachers and products designed to help teachers: i.e. the tendency to focus on development or adopt more complex writing prompts. While I understand the intent here – to push students to produce more rigorous writing – I fear that focusing on the prompts represents an attempt to take a shortcut to get there, often leaving students lost and frustrated. Teachers end up doing pedagogical gymnastics to help students cope; but for students, not many sticks. (I doubt there’s a teacher who hasn’t found themselves in the above scenario at some point.)
Of course, it’s important to prepare students for the kinds of questions they’ll encounter on standardized assessments, but we don’t need and shouldn’t base much of our writing instruction on those kinds of Questions. One of the reasons why teaching writing using increasingly complex teacher-created prompts fails is that in doing so, we tend to leave the actual thoughts and voices of students out of the process.
To become strong writers who can meet demanding standards, students need a lot of experience to think for themselves, ask questions, connect ideas, and develop something they really want to communicate. Then comes the work of putting their complex thoughts into words. That’s what real writers do. It is very stimulating and also stimulating. So, instead of writing fancy questions, I work to create situations that will get students thinking and allow them to generate their own ideas and questions.. I want them to come to the writing process with a strong sense of purpose and both the interest and the patience to develop the complexity of their ideas.
There are many ways to connect students to their own thinking and lead them naturally to writing. One of my favorite methods is to have the students speak first. (I get a lot of my own writing ideas through conversations.) My students read and annotate texts with minimal interruptions and questions from me.then I facilitate student-led discussion. The students, not me, decide what to talk about in the text. I invite them to find evidence for their assertions and to rely on the thinking of their classmates, and I take notes. Constantly, I am amazed by what the students are able to discover in the text. We end sessions with students generating questions for further investigation, which lead to essay topics. Each student chooses something interesting before engaging in the work of argument.
Given some freedom in a supportive setting, students can move into complex writing tasks, well geared for the challenge. Later, armed with authentic analytical writing experience, students are in a good position to learn how to answer complicated questions that they did not create. Teachers can focus explicitly on teaching the skill “to attack a prompt», without educational gymnastics.
Ariel Sacks teaches English and language arts to 8th and 9th graders in New York City. She is the author of Whole Novels for the Whole Class: A Student-Centered Approach (Jossey-Bass, 2013) and is a member of the Center for Teaching Quality Collaboratory, where she writes the blog On the Shoulders of Giants..