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.

Teaching the Exploratory Essay

We want to know when essays first entered your life, which essays really speak to you, and how you as a teacher and a writer work with essays, for yourself and with your students. The essay–as you might know if you're interested in the form–is many things to many people. We (Ioanna Opidee and Sonya Huber) have been meeting for months to talk about the exploratory essay, which is what we're calling the Montaigne-influenced “wandering” mode in nonfiction writing. Wandering, yes, but also some pointed journeying. We believe the essay is a mutable form, maybe a mode more than a form, and we see “essaying” in many kinds of writing, and even in fiction and poetry. We have taught the traditional “persuasive” essay in our composition classes, and we have recently both been trying to teach the more “wandering” mode. At the same time, we think there's room in the essay for straight talk, and even for re-imagining and re-seeing what actually persuades or connects with a reader. We're especially interested in persuasion now, as the federal guidelines for teaching nonfiction in the Common Core State Standards Initiative will affect how so many students in K-12 public schools encounter the essay. Currently, we have a chapter on this topic appearing in a forthcoming anthology and an NCTE panel on the topic in November. Our larger project is a book in which we take on how we might teach the skills that lead to essaying, and how we might communicate the value of essaying in concrete terms, lined up with curriculum standards, for a wider audience, a way of bringing together essaying expertise in the literary community with the needs of public schools and everyone who teaches writing. We are interested in hearing from writers who love the essay form and teachers who teach the essay form. Take our survey to tell us all about it. Thank you!