Free-Range Writing

I have been attending a conference on assessment at Drexel and consequently reflecting on my different ways of assessing and teaching writing.

I have in my career traced a trajectory, but I have found myself tracking back to my beginnings. I began teaching high school with an open attitude toward teaching writing. I simply wanted my students to enjoy writing and reading what their classmates had written. I became a bit sidetracked here and there by the imagined imperatives of preparing students for college, indoctrinating them into various versions of my interpretations of academic discourse, relying primarily on Lucille Payne’s The Lively Art of Writing–the best resource I have seen of the well-formed essay.

Along the way, I discovered Virginia Tuft’s book Grammar as Style, one of the other jewels in my struggle with writing. I have not met Virginia or Lucille, but I owe them.

I also owe Charles Cooper, who taught (and to some extent mis-taught) me about the relationship between genre and writing. I wrote a dissertation and a few articles on that subject and spent many years with large and small scale assessments using a focused-holistic scoring scheme. We didn’t like to call them rubrics, but that’s more or less what they were. I used my knowledge of assessment strategies to inform my teaching. I kind of bought in to the cliches of transparency, letting the students know the specifics of the criteria I would use to evaluate their essays in a specific genre. I wrote an electronic textbook for this. It wasn’t half-bad.

But I’ve been thinking a lot about assessment lately and juxtaposing some of the assessment cliches (like “bottom-up,” culture of assessment,” and so on) against my actual practice. Most of the cliches ring hollow when measured against what I really do–which to my mind is help students fall in love with writing. Or at least, in like. I am certain that if our students come out of our classes having a negative attitude toward writing, we haven’t succeeded as writing teachers. I’m 100% sure of that.

Here are a few things about assessment: When you create criteria and rubrics, you are being reductive–at least about writing. You may be in your structuring of assessment undermining what you purport to do (help students have a positive attitude toward writing)–and I will say right here, if you’re not doing that, you should perhaps be teaching something else.

When you create criteria and rubrics, you are fencing the writer and his or her writing in. You are reducing the writer as a writer.

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I think it’s better to leave open spaces such that you will be surprised by what the individuals in your class write. Don’t imagine what they will write; imagine yourself and you and your students as free.  Allow yourself to be surprised by what they write. I’m thinking of this as free-range writing.

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