Thursday, February 4, 2010

A Voice Questioning Writing Standards

Since I bemoan the lack of attention given to developing imaginations in our students, an article in Education Week, "The Core Standards for Writing: Another Failure of Imagination?" by Edgar H. Schuster, caught my interest. His thesis is stated early on in the article. "Imagination, defined by one dictionary as 'the ability to confront and deal with reality by using the creative power of the mind,' is a critical faculty in our world. And where better for it to be nurtured and to flower forth than in the writing classroom?" He follows this with a comprehensive understanding of the national writing standards, and then provides several examples of great literature that would not meet these standards.

Unfortunately, national standards (and the state-mandated testing that have developed as a result) are squeezing students' imaginations right out of the classroom. When I speak to teachers at educational conferences about my book, Teaching the Story: Fiction Writing in Grades 4-8, they sigh and say, "I wish I could teach my students how to write a short story. I know they'd love it and would learn a lot about writing. But I'm so busy getting them ready for the writing test, I don't have time for anything else."

What's wrong with this picture?

As Schuster writes, "Who would quarrel with students’ need to establish a topic, sustain focus, represent data accurately, revise their own writing ‘when necessary,’ or use technology as a tool?"

Like Schuster, I agree that standards are necessary. But the education system's slavish adherence to testing may end up shooting itself in the foot. We may end up producing a nation of writers who perform well on tests but can't think beyond answering a writing prompt.

After quoting the NCTE's call for "writing that matters" to be part of the National Day on Writing, Schuster concludes:

Writing that matters most to you—that’s the spirit that animates all good
writing, from William Manchester’s essay, to kids’ kindergarten attempts. I urge the core-standards-makers to reconsider the excessively narrow and unrealistic standards they have proposed. Were those standards to be implemented K through 12, they would kill that spirit and diminish the role of imagination, which the poet Wallace Stevens once aptly described as “one of the forces of nature” in the world of words.

Amen. I am sure that I couldn't have written this better myself.

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