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.

Setting the Bar Low

I haven’t been able to write lately due to disrupted mornings, which has thrown me off and made me rusty. I have spoken and written about the hour-a-day writing routine, and I want to admit here in the privacy of the Internet that the bar is super low for that hour. Here’s a chronicle of real writing as it just happened:


8:30 reply to 2 urgent emails.

8:31: Oh my god this morning pissed me off so much. The battle with my son over his iPod. The freaking diabetic cat. The illnesses. The …whatever. Arrrrrgggh. I haven’t had time to write in days and I think I have forgotten how. Arrrrrrgggghghg.

8:32: Send an essay to be read by one of my writing groups. Stare at my folder of stuff in progress and nothing looks interesting. Resign myself to starting this document. Hating everything including writing.

8:34: Move two folders from “in progress” to published to clean up a bit. Then move one more. Then add a pub to the file of my list of publications.

8:36: Stare again at the list of files, which looks like gibberish to me, like it’s written in another language. Consider working on a very convoluted and long philosophical essay and realize I don’t have the brain cells. Consider picking at another project that I’m waiting to hear back from an editor about and realize I can’t love that project anymore because it is breaking my heart.

8:39: I find a few hopeful interesting fragments in my folder of in-progress and realize it’s such a mess that I don’t know they’re there, and I need to clean it out, like I need to clean a lot of things, and I realize that—just for today—my brain cells can’t handle it.

8:40-8:43: Realize there’s a memory I need to log in one of my “in-progress” pre-essays in Evernote that is really just a collection of scraps waiting to be turned into something.

8:44: Move a few more pieces to the Published folder.

8:46: Make a folder to categorize the mess of the “in-progress.” Get bored with this. Realize I could make one new entry in a big project and that probably wouldn’t kill me.

8:47: As the file is opening make some disparaging remarks in my head about the hopelessness of this large project.

8:49: Open a page within this file (in Scrivener, so it’s in sections with titles) and realize it connects to a quote I just used in another essay from Susan Sontag. Look up the quote in Evernote, find that it’s incomplete with a page number, and go to the book to find the quote. Put it into the page in the file where it needs to go.

8:56: Thank the lord I’ve spent the last seven minutes writing. I polished up a paragraph in that section and finished it. It’s a tiny two-pager that was almost done, but then I got to change the icon to green, which in this project means “done.”

8:57: This project is working for me today and I haven’t worked on it in awhile, so I’m going to scroll through to find another file to work on.

8:59: Open another file, read three great quotes listed there from other authors, and realize that as I start to write I’m going use a cliché. My language is not great today. Then decide: just write and don’t worry about how much it sucks.

9:02: Realize that this file is hard to write because I have to feel hard things to figure something out. Complain in my head about that. Write a few more bad and totally obvious and unliterary sentences.

9:05: Basic writing. Trying to keep it simple. Doing sentences. Get up for a drink of water. Walk toward the stairs and bang my thigh hard against a corner of couch, which has been moved because I keep having to mop the floor over and over to try to clean up some scary sticky substance either being peed or puked by my diabetic cat. Mercy Retrograde will you please stop fucking with my shit?!?! My socks stick on the substance that I have not mopped up effectively but instead apparently spread EVERYWHERE.

9:09: Back with water and finished with rant about my poor cat.

9:14: Yay I wrote for five more minutes. My thigh hurts. The dog is roaming around upstairs, expecting a walk, and I have a ton of stuff to do before I go into work. But I’m writing until 9:30 because that’s the promise I always make.

9:17: Finish a second section. It’s not pretty; I’m not making lovely sentences today, I’m making drafts. But I turn another icon green. It will do for now. I open a third section.

9:17-9:32: Wrote something! It’s a win for the day. It’s messy, but it’s a win.

* * * *

It’s always slow to get into a routine. But the routine is worth it because it is how our brains function most effectively. It also doesn’t matter at all if it feels rusty. It’s the routine that matters to me.

I’m readying a fascinating book, How We Learn: The Surprising Truth about When, Where, and Why It Happens by Benedict Carey. A section about the effectiveness of quizzing one’s self at regular intervals in order to retain material made me think more and more about writing and routine.

Carey writes that the value of quizzes in language acquisition and many other subjects is that knowledge is put in play in an active rather than passive form. Active engagement–just like writing. And of course, at this point he includes a quote by Jorge Luis Borges: “Writing long books is a laborious and impoverishing act of foolishness: expanding in five hundred pages an idea that could be perfectly explained in a few minutes. A better procedure is to pretend that those books already exist and offer a summary, a commentary.” Carey then connects this to the general theory of learning he’s explaining: “Pretend you are already an expert and give a summary, a commentary–pretend and perform.”

This, to me, is the soul of writing practice. I write on a regular schedule not because I’m super-disciplined and because that’s the most challenging thing. I write this way because it’s the easiest. As my brain gets into the habit of making connections on documents in progress, it gets in a groove and does its own thing. When I’m rusty, writing is more of a struggle. And the bar is super low. All that matters is the container, not what’s in it. And if I build the container, it really doesn’t matter how little I get done. Some day in the future, it will all start working again, until something else throws it awry–but I can always go back and build it again.

A Wardrobe for Teachers

In honor of the new school year, I wanted to share my vision for the teachers of the world: a clothing store with tags that will, in advance, describe how our wardrobes will disrupt our classes and frustrate us. Most of these concerns, as you will see below, are for the women standing in front of the kids all day.

photo (21)BCI: Boob Containment Issues. We don’t want that, and the kind of tape J-Lo uses just doesn’t work in a parent-teacher meeting.

BAI: Boob Anxiety Issues. This won’t actually show your boobs, but you’ll be anxious about showing your boobs or revealing the shadow of a nipple through the fabric and you’ll spend the whole day pulling the back of it down to try to restore the neckline to the place it rested when you tried it on for two seconds in the dressing room.

Black Chalk Monster: This is nice and black, will go with anything and seems to be a wardrobe win. But somehow chalk dust adheres to this poly-blend fabric with such tenacity that it resists all attempts to brush it off, and you will look like you wiped the chalkboard with your butt, which is not a good image for your students to be contemplating.

CBS: Cute but sweaty. This product is 90% polyester, and although it is drapy and has a great colorful print, it will make you perspire like a hog when you are up in front of the classroom gesticulating and writing on the board.

CTHRU: Transparency Issues: This will reveal you wear a bra. A bra is mandatory for most women, and going without one is not okay, but apparently also acknowledging that you wear a bra by showing its ghostly outline through a shirt is not okay. These things on my chest? Oh those are just hovering ghost boobs.

Dog Hair Magnet: This is black, will go with anything, so it seems to be a win. But when you sit in your dog-hair-encrusted car, it will pick up dog hair in places you can’t reach with a lint roller before your first class. This matters unless you’re so far gone into the semester that this seems like a good thing, or unless you are wearing a CTHRU or HOT and the dog hair is your strategy for taking down the sexiness of your outfit.

HOT: Hot for teacher: This is not a boob issues or a transparency issue but may just have a little bit of cling or maybe just too much style. It just looks nice here on the rack, and it looks cute in the dressing room, but when you put it on in your bedroom, it looks too cute. Somehow. Crap. Or this is the outfit your wildest student will say is “cute,” which will make you lose all sense of authority in the classroom.

LOL: Learning Outcome Lag: This is either too weird, too noticeable, or too three-decades-ago, and it will get you on a list that kids will pass around to make fun of, and this is only important because it will distract them for their Learning Outcomes

PF: Pants Fail. Why do I not throw these pants away? I probably got them from Goodwill. The waistband is too low. I lean over to get something out of my bag, or GODFORBID I squat with my back to the class to plug in an AV cord, and practically flash the class with an asscrack or at least a vision of pale lower back skin. Or they’re too freaking loose and I spend all class surreptitiously trying to pull them up while looking like I’m… what? scratching at hives?

TENT: Sexless tent: This is teacher safe but will make you feel like a warehouse, and you’ll experience a dip in self-esteem and a rise in worthlessness that will happen to coincide with the request for heading up a committee or dead-end service project that you, in your sexless tent, will say yes to, which will lead to much suffering.

WAW: Wash and wear and winning! This is a Thursday outfit.

Wrinkly Mess: It’s nice, it’s linen-ish, and Mom always said linen was classy. It’s cool enough to provide ventilation, which alleviates CBS concerns. And yet when you get out of the car, you already look like you slept all weekend under your desk. This is a useful outfit to wear if you are part of salary negotiations.

And More!:

BOOTS: These knee-high boots, worn on the first day, let you know I will kick your late work to the curb. If you remember nothing else, remember these boots and know I mean business. I don’t care how much my calves sweat in the August heat, these boots are worth it.

U-Squared: (Thank you to Kelly Ferguson for this one!) The Square, a Menswear jackets with shoulder pads circa 1976 Power Suit. Useful for creating a hegemonic silhouette. You think you can out-Camille Paglia me? Pick up the course packet and we’ll see about that.