by Tricia Ebner
“The writing standards eliminate creativity.” This statement is something I’ve heard repeatedly throughout the last few years. This reveals a misconception about the writing standards, and that misconception falls along these lines: “A traditional essay is the only way to address the writing standards.”
That’s simply not true. There are a number of approaches that can be taken to writing which still address the writing standards, but do so in creative ways. Furthermore, as educators we have to remember that the standards are the foundation of our teaching, not the ceiling.
One of the biggest misconceptions is that the narrative writing we’ve used and loved for years is now gone; all narrative tasks we give must be an extension or change within an already-published text. However, the standards haven’t prohibited any other kinds of narrative writing tasks. For example, the classic “Tell me a story about yourself” or “Tell me about a problem you solved over your summer break” kinds of writing can still be part of what we do in our classrooms. Consider how a writing task like this can give us insight into our students’ words choices, sentence structures, and understanding of plot development, setting, character, and theme. I know some teachers who take this kind of idea and ask students to write a poem that reveals aspects of their lives, along with their selection of word choices and figurative language. Any of these allow for some creativity, show teachers what students know and can do in various aspects of writing, and also provides some insight into each student’s personality. It’s a good starting point for the year’s work. It is important balance the open-ended “Tell me a story about” kinds of prompts, which elicit personal stories from students’ lives, with the text-dependent kinds of narrative tasks students also need to practice.
We also restrict our view of narrative writing when we focus on text as printed words alone. As language arts teachers, that is where we tend to go with our definitions of text, but we limit ourselves and our students when we don’t remember that text takes other forms as well. For example, images can be used as text. Consider the power of art and photography. When we ask students to write the story of what is going on within a picture, we are encouraging them to tell a story and incorporate details from the image. For several years, I have utilized Chris Van Allsburg’s The Mysteries of Harris Burdick as a springboard for writing, and the pieces my students craft always amaze me. My students study their selected pictures, noting tiny details and using those as clues to the story captured in the drawing. In fact, I’ve had to put a maximum page limit on the stories because more often than not, students will eagerly write 10, 15 and even 20 pages for their stories. Remembering that text includes visuals such as drawings, paintings, photography, and video can help us foster creativity while still addressing the narrative standards in writing.
Another misconception is that there is no place for writing poetry in the standards. This also isn’t true. For example, the final performance task within this seventh grade unit from EngageNY.org is the writing and speaking of a two-voice poem based on the characters in the novel A Long Walk to Water. This incorporates specific evidence from texts, including parenthetical citations. I love that this writing tasks incorporates text evidence along with the opportunity to use literary and language devices such as repetition, figurative language, and alliteration. The students enjoy working with classmates to polish their presentations of the two-voice poems.
Admittedly, it is challenging to craft the kinds of writing tasks that allow for creativity and still address the reading and writing standards. Looking at writing tasks such as the seventh grade two-voice poem can help me see how to structure these kinds of tasks. I’m also finding that as I continue to craft writing tasks aligned to the standards, I get to use some of my creativity as well. There is nothing anywhere that says creativity is not allowed.
It is important for us as teachers to look at the kinds of writing we are assigning our students and make changes where changes are needed. It’s not something we’re going to complete overnight or even over a single summer. However, If we revise one writing task each year, within a few years we’ll have a broad range of options that can continue fostering our students’ creativity and help develop enjoyment in writing.