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.

Letter to an Almost- or Recent-College-Grad

Dear favorite student ever,

You don’t know what to do with the rest of your life. I know the place you are at because I have been there too.

I’ve been talking recently with other students who are either facing graduation or recently graduated, and like you, they are anxious. They don’t know what the right next thing is. They have student loans to pay off and they need a job and this pressure situation you all are under can make the leap out of college quite frightening.


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I have been thinking about and emailing with some of these students, and talking to others in my office, and I wanted to tell you what I have been thinking.

First, the job. The first job you get out of college might be ridiculous, wrong, or simply make you hopeless. It’s very likely that you won’t have the contacts or social connections to get the first job out of college that is the right job for you. That. Does. Not. Mean. You. Are. A. Failure.

Don’t do that to yourself. Don’t pronounce yourself a failure. I know it’s easy to do, because really, what else is Facebook for besides comparing our lives to others’ lives and feeling like crap as a result? (Actually, I love Facebook for other reasons. But you know what I mean.)

What is success for you? Don’t let commercials and Facebook determine what it means. Sit down for only five minutes, set the timer on your phone, and write: Success. What would it look like? Really? Don’t bullshit.

Post-college is a massive self-directed research project in determining what matters to you as a human being. Engage in that and you are a success based on your own terms of success. Treat it like research, which means to read. Instead of having your syllabi handed to you, you are going to have to go to the library and read voraciously on subjects that interest you. This, I’m sorry to say, doesn’t mean staying in your comfort zone and reading the same things you’ve always read (though that’s fine too, for a break). Instead, your larger project is to follow your curiosity, which will lead you to what is right for you to be doing in the world. This also saves your soul and your sanity if you are working a ridiculous job. You can definitely keep your intellect alive, and you owe that to yourself.

Maybe you will step out of college and right into the perfect job, and if that happens, I am happy for you. But I can’t speak to that experience because it isn’t mine.

Here’s my list of jobs before I became a professor: waitress, an artist’s model, a trash collector, gardener, nanny, dishwasher, video store clerk, researcher for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, canvassing staff for an environmental organization, coffeeshop barista, labor-community coalition organizer, organizer for a healthcare nonprofit, receptionist, mental health counselor, overnight security staff in a mental health center, nonprofit project manager, editor, associate publisher, reporter, medical proofreader, writing instructor for engineering students, adviser to a student newspaper.

I often want to print out my resume and my list of “failures” for students. I might start doing that. I have only in the past decade become a “professional.” Before that, I was just someone who someone hired to do a job. And that, too, was good, because I had the time to develop my sense of self in other ways besides through employment.

I built my sense of self on what I could make and write and how I could give to small community efforts. And I began to feel good about myself as an adult in the world. And that’s the secret.

If you get a job that doesn’t feel like you’ve “made it,” you have to build your self-esteem (especially in the United States, with the ethos of work=self) in other ways. So, how do you do that? If you make art or write, you have to keep doing that—not as a obligation but as a way to stay sane. If you are interested in a field and want to get into it someday, read and research about that field. Get on mailing lists, email people and ask for advice.

Another essential is to give your time. If you can’t find the great job, or any job, find an organization that does what you care about in the world and figure out how to get involved. This is research, and it might take time, but you have both time and the ability to research. Google an issue and the name of your city, send an email, offer your hands and your brain.

As a side note, you will be shocked at how often those connections lead to skills and employment and fulfillment. Your job is to figure out what to do with the rest of your life.

Graduation means that there’s suddenly so much potential, and at the same time there’s no structure–it can be quite scary because you feel like you have your whole life ahead of you and every decision means so much. But the truth is… it doesn’t.

The truth is that nothing you will do is a “mistake.” Your path will be wandering–it will have to be. I understand the pressure you can put on yourself because I have been there too and am actually–truth be told–just emerging from the other side of that pressure at age 42. You will make choices and not all of them will look logical or right, but you will get something important from each one if you are thoughtful and insightful–and you, my friend, are both those things.

You’ve been under incredible time pressure to do major projects in two or three weeks for your entire school career. Now the time frame shifts, and the deadlines are set by you, as are the assignments. Don’t forget to give yourself assignments that matter most to you, because that’s how you become who you were meant to be.

In your corner,

Sonya