Non-Standardized Testing

Sometimes there are no outcomes, no scaffolded learning objectives. Or they are secret and cannot be named. Or they can be named but the methods for tracking the outcomes have not been invented yet and should not be invented.

I had a conversation with a K-12 teacher last week in which she admitted that she had been aghast to find that the creative prompt side of her students’ writing notebooks was sparsely filled at the end of the year. She’s devoted to creative exploration and had to admit that so much more of her students’ notebooks were filled with explanations for how to access and complete the ten (10!) standardized tests they’d been required to take during the school year.

As a college teacher, I don’t have the pressure of standardized testing (yet), but I understand the drift away from pockets of free-form creative activity, even as a creative writing professor. I have so many goals and logistics for big assignments toward the end of my semester that my lesson plans become overly full. I forget that students sometimes mention that the 5-minute “free writes” we do at the beginning of class are the most important. I also lose sight of activities that don’t “go” somewhere, that don’t build toward a massive portfolio or a learning objective (these are some educational buzzwords it’s impossible to avoid).

IMG_5717I’m not against outcomes and objectives and goals. They help us to think big, sometimes, and to plan. But part of my job is to add to that list the objective and the goal and the space to play on the page with the goal of saving the wisp of the soul where no outcome has to be attained. Or where a new hidden goal can be discovered. That’s writing, after all, and the arts—discovering what you didn’t know was there.

I promised the teachers I met with in a Connecticut Writing Project seminar organized by Bryan Crandall that I’d list some of my favorite writing prompts, the kinds of sentences you can throw out to a classroom in the first five minutes, the prompts that don’t have to go anywhere, or that can go somewhere private, where no one is tracking your performance on a test or a spreadsheet. Because we need to preserve that space for ourselves and our students as a place for gaining sustenance for all the outcomes and productions and measurements, a place for the soul to breathe. And I committed to those teachers that I would try to do better, to do the writing prompts every class with my students instead of skipping them when the agenda seemed too packed.

The prompts themselves can be so simple. I think, after years of teaching creative writing, that it’s the prompt combined with the space to dream without a goal that is most important for students.

  1. What is your favorite word? What does it rhyme with? Use those 4 words in a paragraph or a poem.
  2. I wish ….
  3. Permission to imagine: Your mom, as you imagine her at the age you are now. “I imagine….” What would she be doing at this time in an average day?
  4. Write your five imaginary lives.
  5. Looking back, I could never understand…
  6. I am often right about…., I am often wrong about…
  7. I once …., Now I…
  8. Describe the kitchen in a place you grew up.
  9. What is a personal or family object that reflects or represents history?
  10. Write a personal reaction to a world event.
  11. Describe a big event at home.
  12. What were your quirks or obsessions as a young child? What were your favorite things?
  13. Write about a substance that cures an ailment.
  14. Recreate the scene on the day your driver’s license photo was taken.
  15. Describe what you’re wearing: just the facts, but with extreme detail.
  16. Make a list of the specific nouns you’ve encountered so far today.
  17. Go on a rant about an obsession or pet peeve. (This is my favorite)
  18. What kind of food or drink are you? What kind of candy?
  19. Do a portrait of a person. Then describe in detail an object that they hold dear to them.
  20. Describe someone you have a difficult relationship with. Then describe them doing something that they love to do.
  21. Describe how someone close to you would see you.
  22. Describe the last time you saw someone.
  23. Who helped pull you through a rough time?
  24. Compare yourself to a character in a work of fiction.
  25. Describe your weekend. Describe the biggest challenge of this past weekend. Describe the happiest moment.
  26. Describe a place you felt at peace without using the word “peace” or “peaceful,” or a place you felt safe without using the word “safe.”
  27. Start, “But I would not trade it for the world.”
  28. Describe an object. Now describe how it would see you.
  29. Describe the environment inside your head right now. If it were a setting and we could see it, what would it look like?
  30. Write down a list of things you’d like to ask someone if you could.
  31. Who in your life would you research and why?
  32. Do a 5-minute autobiography using only nouns. Now do one using only verbs.
  33. Write about what you do when you’re angry in the present day, including behaviors, concrete details.
  34. Write about “a day in the life of you.”
  35. How would your friends and family describe you?
  36. Write about a time in which you spoke exactly what you wanted to say.
  37. What are you good at? What are your secret areas of expertise?
  38. Write memories of breakfasts.
  39. Come up with a metaphor for today. For yesterday. For the best day.
  40. What would you write if you weren’t afraid?
  41. What I don’t understand is….

The best thing, I think, is when you ask students to come up with their own prompts as an assignment. Have them write prompts on index cards and then you can pick one to start the day, and you can keep the cards for future classes.

Writing Process

I’ve been tagged by the fantastic Dinty W. Moore to participate in the Writing Process Blog Tour, in which writers talk briefly about their writing process and then pass the project on to three more writers like a chain letter. Dinty is editor of Brevity: A Journal of Concise Nonfiction, which you have to read. Have to. It’s the best brief nonfiction around. He’s the author of several excellent books, including Between Panic and Desire, a collection that I love and regularly teach from, as well as a forthcoming (yay!) collection that  includes cocktail napkins. He’s a photographer, an artist, a former dancer, and also a very excellent human being. And funny. Did I mention that?

from left to right: Pineapple, me, kielbasa, my husband Cliff. Photo by Bryan Crandall, and this will make sense by the end of the post.
from left to right: Pineapple, me, kielbasa, my husband Cliff. Photo by Bryan Crandall, and this will make sense by the end of the post.

I’ve done this once before, but it’s come around again, and I can’t say no to ANYTHING (not true, but working on it…but obviously…) so I thought I’d give it another shot to see if my answers had changed.

1) What are you working on?

Since April 2014, when I last participated in the blog tour, my answer has changed. I’m working on a bunch of things at the same time: a book on chronic pain, a project about boundaries and borders and income inequality, and a collection of stuff about teaching the literary essay. I also have “finished” a memoir about living in the presence of substance abuse. I put the word “finished” in quotes because the book has not found a home, has not really started even looking for a home, so a thousand things could happen before it sees the light of day. But I need a break from it, so I took a few weeks off and then started dabbling in all the other things I want to do.

2) How does your work differ from others of its genre?

I’m not sure. More swearing, maybe. If the genre is “memoir,” then I sometimes include have more research. If the genre is “essays,” then I am more memoirish. Between two playgrounds. I think I wrote that last time. But my genre–I guess that would be literary nonfiction–is very wide and broad, so there’ s lot of room to play.

3) Why do you write what you do?

I need containers for my questions, and each project ends up organizing itself around a central set of those questions–though the books and projects rarely answer them. They just provide targets for me to throw things at for a while and then I exhaust myself long enough to move on to other questions.

4) How does your writing process work?

In the previous writing process post, I wrote  about my need to protect at least an hour a day to write, and how much can sometimes happen in that hour. In the last month, I’ve experienced a little of the flipside: sometimes I go to my desk and I honestly don’t know what I’ll be working on.  I’m between big projects and coming off a period of intense work. I’ve had to relearn how to noodle in various different projects at once and to be comfortable with that. I still put in my hour, but sometimes I’m staring at multiple documents wondering what to work on and feeling a little lost.

That’s okay. It still counts as writing. It’s deep thinking about where to go next. Indecision is a close-up view of one point in the decision-making process.

I love the feeling of being deeply in love and obsessed with one book, but that inevitably turns to being sick of the project as it gets close to being done. And then I panic: was that it? Was that my last big obsession and my last hopefully-a-book? I always forget that I have several open folders in my Dropbox, each of which has been gathering links and thoughts for years. I go back and forth between questions. When I’m tired of working on my “big thing” at the time, I collect thoughts for the “next thing.” And then when a “big thing” is done, I see what I’ve collected in the “next things” folder.

Now, I’m passing the torch to three writers I admire, and one of them took the kielbasa and pineapple photo and gave us these things as gifts:

Robert Greene II, a former student of mine at Georgia Southern University who is currently a Ph.D. candidate in American History at the University of South Carolina. He is going places. We will all know his name one day. He blogs at the Society for U.S. Intellectual History (I know, right?) and you can also find him on Twitter.

Bryan Ripley Crandall is a great friend I met when I started at Fairfield University. Literally on the first day of school, at new faculty orientation, we sat next to each other and couldn’t shut up. He is one of those people that makes magic happen, that connects people, that allows other people to shine. He does incredible work with the Connecticut Writing Project and makes community happen. He really inspires me and has helped me connect with service projects in the Bridgeport Public School system. And as SOON as I told him about this, he went home and wrote a wacky yet thoughtful post about writing, the writing process, kielbasa, pineapple, and so on. He published his BEFORE I published this, so I think that means the blog tour has defied the space-time continuum. Or something.

(Tangent: where my husband is from, a small town in west-central PA, EVERYONE gets a nickname. Many of these are ridiculous. I can’t even begin to describe it. I am waiting for him to write a huge essay about it. But they have even nicknamed kielbasa. They call it “kobo.” You needed to know that.)

And the third person is a three-headed fantastic hydra, the collective writing blog It’s Just Brunch, made up of Colin Hosten, Zac Zander, and Kate Gorton.These three have and will continue to make us proud!They are Fairfield MFA alums; you can learn more about the Fairfield low-res program here if you like.