Making the Case for TRUE Writing In the Classroom

I love to write. I have loved to write from the time I was young and had the wonderful opportunity of taking a summer course in which we worked on writing and illustrating a book for a few weeks. This, of course, was years ago, so I mean we used ACTUAL pencils and markers and paper; few of today’s students would understand such a thing when they are creating books on their iPads… which brings me to my point.

Today’s students are storytellers. They are creating and curating with technology tools as never before. Ask a kid about the latest Youtube craze or blog, and there’s an excellent chance you will Writing by marinlearn more in two minutes than you ever knew before about technology. They’re not just using Snapchat and Instagram for inappropriate purposes, as the media would have you believe. Many of them are telling stories through their words and images.

And, young children still have that spark for wanting to write and taking ownership of their work. My five year old is a beginning reader and writer, and he is fascinated by how letters and words string together. Lately, he prefers writing “in the sky” with his fingers instead of answering me verbally; his favorite words to write are no, yes, and ok. He asks me to write down words that he has not seen before, so he can “see how they look.” Small children especially are fascinated by the mystery of writing and letters.

The problem is, once they enter the public school testing machine, they lose that fascination and spark that is inherent to their curiosity. Writing becomes something they “have to do for the test” instead of something they want to do for themselves. I have been in elementary schools and seen students’ writing work proudly displayed in the halls, and I’ve been completely dismayed by what I’ve read.  All of the kids’ work started with the exact same sentence. Then, they all used the same transition words (and I had to stifle a scream when I saw all of the -ly suffixes: firstly, secondly, lastly, most importantly) and closing sentences. Talk about a cookie-cutter education!

The worst part was, I could almost hear the kids counting their sentences and paragraphs; most elementary students are taught a basic three-paragraph structure, with 3 sentences in the opening, 5 sentences in the body, and 3 sentences in the closing. Why is writing about numbers? Why is writing about everybody doing it the same way? The teachers see what it takes to be “proficient in writing,” and they crank the formulas out to their kids.

The absolute travesty is seeing kids who don’t understand what a paragraph (or sometimes, even a sentence) is by the time they are freshmen and sophomores in high school. These kids don’t realize that they start with a main idea in a topic sentence because they are writing about an idea in a cohesive unit of text: a paragraph. They just think they are reading a prompt, restating it, giving 3 details for support, and slapping on a closing sentence.

second thoughts by Laura BillingsThey’ve been trained to do this, because we’ve been trained to teach it that way. This idea of formula writing caught on years ago, and everybody is terrified of breaking the mold because we are told in data team meetings and in-service days that the writing scores are the pits and we need to do something to change it. We also are told that kids lose too many points on reading and math assessments because they skip the written response questions, and that we have to model how to score well on that portion of the assessment with whole-group, small-group, and independent writing activities in our classrooms that involve a scaffolded plan for support.

Because the scoring guides are written in a way that value a restated prompt, a certain number of details from the text, and explanation for support, that’s all kids are being shown how to do when it comes to writing. It has gotten to the point where we see high school students writing a topic sentence that is not indented, including a bulleted list of evidence from the text, and rewriting the topic sentence after the bulleted list as an attempt at a conclusion. Sometimes, we are lucky to see a transition word at the beginning of the closing sentence.

We need to STOP! This is exactly what opponents of standardized tests are talking about when we say that kids are being taught to be test takers instead of being taught how to be thinkers. And, while I am not in the business of blaming teachers, I definitely take issue with any teacher who instructs a student to write this way. However, I certainly understand the pressures that teachers face from administrators, parents, and community members when the test scores are published and the district is labeled as “failing.”

So, what is a teacher to do? Well, we advocate for standing up for kids. We want you to stand up for your own profession. If you know that what you are doing is not helping kids to be better thinkers, change your practice. Talk with other teachers in your building and see what they are doing. You may just be surprised by how many people appear to be doing the test prep BS but actually are “breaking out” and doing something that is good for kids.

The funny thing about all of this is, I was asked by a principal a few years ago to speak at our local Intermediate Unit about my writing instruction, because my students had some of the highest scores on our state writing assessments. I told him that I would be happy to speak, but I wanted to let him know that I did not use a writing program or a published set of writing strategy books or test prep items; I just had my kids write every day to prompts that related to our lessons and learning. Writing was a learning tool in my classroom. Most times, I did not formally grade the students’ writing, because I wanted them to see writing as another learning tool instead of as a chore or a huge graded project. And, it apparently worked, because their scores made my administrators happy; but, more important to me, I was seeing the kids write more analytical pieces and getting far fewer questions like, “How many sentences should this be?’ He did not follow through with his invitation for me to speak, after I told him all of this. I guess I didn’t fit his idea of a “good writing instructor” after all. That’s the only time I can recall that he didn’t listen to his data; I suppose it’s hard to reconcile the data with a teacher who doesn’t play by the rules.

students hard at work by Susan SermonetaThe TRUTH is, I was getting better writing results because I had the kids write every day. I was giving them prompts that made them think and connect and reflect. I was giving them immediate feedback on their writing and ideas by making our Bell Ringers and Tickets Out the Door (Do Nows) short writing assignments. I was walking around the room, reading over kids’ shoulders while they wrote; I was writing positive comments, drawing smiley faces, or putting stickers on good responses to encourage them to keep going. I was asking for volunteers to share their writing with the class. I was assigning larger writing assignments and providing kids with scoring guides and due dates from Day 1. I also was assigning peer editors, modeling the peer editing process, and giving them time to collaborate from brainstorming to final draft editing. I was scheduling writing conferences with students. And, I was giving choice in assignments so kids could choose their topics, prompts, or assignments.

If we want better thinkers, we need better writers. Writing is, hands down, the number one way to get kids to think about the lessons, concepts, connections, and everything else we want them to be doing if they are going to leave our rooms as learners instead of test takers. So, we need to give kids opportunities – several opportunities – to TRULY write in our classrooms. Drop the formulas. Drop the numbers. Let kids tell their stories. Let them write about what matters to them. Once they find their voice and see value in writing, their “academic writing” will become so much better and so much less of a process for them, and for you.

Not sure how to get started? Our writing tips, strategies, graphic organizers, and more are coming soon to our Resources. For now, sign up for our Newsletter and get access to the graphic organizers Bailey already has shared from her classroom, or email Bailey at There’s nothing better than tried-and-true resources!

Writing image via Flickr by marin
Second Thoughts image via Flickr by Laura Billings
Students Hard at Work image via Flickr by Susan Sermoneta

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