“Only two questions,” I assured my students, during one of the last classes of the year. We were discussing the final exam which they would take during one of the ninety-minute test sessions during two half-days the following week.
“Only two?” a student repeated, evidently distrustful of this information. The other three finals, in math, social studies, and science, involved anywhere from 45 to 100 multiple choice questions.
“The first one is an essay about your best piece of writing this spring. The second one asks you to discuss some event or person or book that changed you this year.” The best piece reflection I had used on the final exam for at least ten years. The question about a major influence had come to me during discussions with the other eighth grade ELA teacher about end-of-the-year requirements. He had agreed that another reflective essay, this one about students’ personal lives, would be a good accompaniment to the essay about what they had done that good writers do. Little did we know how well our students would do with this question.
I wish there were additional time in the school year. Many students chose to write about a teacher or coach at school, and I would love to have had the honored teachers stop in at my room to read the tributes. One teacher did stop by, at my invitation, and he was moved, especially by the essay of a girl in his advisory group that he had especially tried to encourage all year. She had been depressed about problems in her family, so he made it a point to cheer her, and show her the value of choosing one’s own attitude. She wrote about exactly that – seldom does a teacher get to hear or read such praise. Many of his baseball players wrote about his efforts with their rather dysfunctional team. As Mr. B said, “You can’t tell whether it’s sinking in when you’re working with them,” but it obviously did for those three or four young people.
Sometimes students wrote about their own friends, or family members. Others reacted strongly to an injured veteran of
Iraq, a alumnus, who spoke to us in an assembly about his journey to overcome his inertia, pain, and depression after losing a leg and his boyish good looks. Our fall team-building event, a visit to the ropes course, was also the topic of many essays. The more papers I read, the more certain I was that the money spent for that field trip and for other character ed programs was money well spent. Our own professional development sessions in the past ten years had told us that middle school students remember affective experiences, that which appeals to their emotions, far more than any academic work done in these pre-teen years. These essays were proof of that, as our eighth graders wrote articulately, passionately, convincingly, about how they had been changed. Windsor
The more papers I read, the more sure I was that reflection like this is a good way to get the best writing out of our students during an end-of-the-year exercise like this final. Isn’t it easier for us, as adults, to write about things we care about? And if it is easier to write, then isn’t it more likely that we will care about saying it correctly, effectively? I know that it is much easier for my teaching to have an impact if I am working with a student on ideas he cares about. Research supports me in this classroom observation, research too voluminous to cite here. Nancie Atwell found it in the ‘80s, but it has been researched and written about even more since she asked about the power of student-centered writing to improve their formal writing.
Why, then, do teachers continue to fight this knowledge by working on student writing through assignment of formal essays and other heinous parallel tasks? Is it fear, when faced with classrooms filled with reluctant writers, that forces them to fall back to antiquated techniques? Is it lack of awareness, even after decades of research?