A Defense of Creative Writing in the Age of Standardized Testing

*note:  This article originally appeared in Teachers & Writers Magazine

Ask any English teacher what he or she could use more of, and chances are you’ll get the same answer.  Classroom resources are great, more money would be nice, but what we really need is more time.  Just like in any other discipline, English teachers have way more curriculum than we can cover in a year.  Time constraints force educators to prioritize by order of what feels most important, and all too often that importance is determined by what’s going to be on the test.    Our students pay the price as activities that cultivate essential real-world skills such as collaboration and creativity and provide them with a much more engaging and well-rounded education are eliminated from their classes.

Educators are under enormous pressures stemming from a data-driven culture most recently rooted in No Child Left Behind and its successor, the Every Student Succeeds Act, in which the ultimate measure of professional and academic success is a standardized test score.  As a result of this standardized testing culture, many of our English students spend way too much time reading random passages which are completely detached from their lives and answering multiple choice questions in an attempt to improve test results.  In many classrooms, writing has become little more than an afterthought.  Creative writing, in particular, is seen by some as a frivolous waste of time because its value is so difficult to justify with data.

Two decades before the advent of No Child Left Behind, the research of influential literacy professor Gail Tompkins identified seven compelling reasons why children should spend time writing creatively in class: 

  • to entertain
  • to foster artistic expression
  • to explore the functions and values of writing
  • to stimulate imagination
  • to clarify thinking
  • to search for identity
  • to learn to read and write 

The majority of Tompkins’s outcomes of creative writing could never be measured on today’s standardized tests.  Indeed, over the same period that standardized reading tests have pushed writing in English classes to the sidelines, efforts to evaluate student writing on a broad, systematic scale have dwindled.  Measuring student writing is expensive, and accurately assessing abstract thinking requires human resources most states aren’t willing to pony up.  It’s much cheaper to score a bubble sheet.

Measurement and assessment aside, the soft skills that we cultivate through regular creative writing with our students have tremendous real-world application as well as helping to promote the kind of atmosphere we want in our classrooms.  After many years as an English teacher, I’ve found that carving out regular time for creative writing in class provides benefits for me and my students that we simply don’t get from other activities.

One of the benefits of creative writing in the classroom is how engaging it is for our students.  In general, much of our curriculum follows a one-size-fits-all design and allows little room for freedom of exploration. For young people who are at a time in life when many of their decisions are made for them, this lack of power can be very demotivating and can negatively impact their interest and effort.  To do their best work, students need to feel that school is about them, and they need to feel connected to the content on a personal level.   When students are given opportunities to experiment with their voices and create through their own original work, they feel a sense of place and they are able to feel in charge.  That’s when they shine.

A former student and talented writer told me the following about her relationship with creative writing in the classroom: 

Creative writing is important to me because it gives me a way to express myself. There are not a lot of ways, as a young teenager, to be able to freely express ideas and emotions. Many are personal feelings you wouldn’t really want to share with others. But in writing you can put all of those mixed emotions into words. Next thing you know, you’ve created an entirely different universe, with characters close to your heart. Everything is under your complete control. That is not something that you can experience in reality, even reading a book. The feeling that you have created something, something that you can call your own, is what makes it incredible.

When we empower our students to create something that is only theirs, to make big choices in their writing, it can transform attitudes toward learning and school in general.  Having students who are motivated to work to their full potential is a dream scenario for any teacher.  Regular creative writing can help us to move in that direction.

Another very real benefit of creative writing in the classroom is that it can help to develop a sense of community among our students.  In our bitterly polarized society, any activity that fosters empathy and collaboration is well worth our time.  Students can share writing with each other at the drafting phase, working together to hone their individual stories.  This teamwork allows our students to support each other and work to understand each other’s perspectives.  In addition to peer editing, having students co-author creative pieces, whether as an informal ‘chain story’ type activity or a longer, more polished product, can go a long way in nurturing the skills required for effective partnership.  Sharing responsibility in the creative process serves as a powerful motivator for our students, often leading to better quality writing.

It’s unlikely that our English teachers are going to get the additional time they so desperately need.  What we’re left with is the task of prioritizing class content in such a way that we’re truly meeting all the needs of our students.  Data is an important tool in helping us to measure how well we’re meeting those needs, but our definition of data must be broad enough to include outcomes that can’t be captured with a standardized test.  We must trust our English teachers to plan instruction that is in the best interests of their students and to know when they’ve succeeded.  As a regular part of that instruction, creative writing can empower our students and give them ownership so critical to their motivation.  It can provide them essential practice at partnering with their peers in a world where more effective collaboration is sorely needed.  At its most powerful, creative writing can help turn our English courses into the life-changing experience that all educators want their classes to be.

Why I stopped assigning homework

Note:  this article originally appeared on EducationNC.

Recently I was hurrying down the hall at 7:58 when I saw one of my 7th grade Language Arts students in a side hall, crouched next to a sobbing little boy. I stopped and asked Sonia (not her real name) what was going on. With tears welling up in her eyes, Sonia told me this was her brother’s third day of kindergarten, and he was scared to go to class.

I fetched our elementary counselor to calm the child down and get both students on their way, but for the rest of the day I was thinking about the position Sonia was forced into — part sister, part mother, part student. The image of Sonia’s tears welling up led me to think in a much broader way about the many needs my students have that are not connected to reading and writing.

Soon after, at a district Instructional Leadership Team meeting, I found myself in a conversation with a colleague from another school around the book Academic Conversations. We discussed the loss of “social capital” that can result from our educational practices, driving wedges between schools and the communities they serve and even taking away time family members need to spend time with each other. This teacher explained that her whole school had made a decision to stop assigning homework. I began to think about how many of my own practices are of the “teach how you were taught” variety rather than those made with the whole child’s needs in mind.

Teachers are under a tremendous amount of pressure to raise reading scores. Our test results are projected on screens in front of our colleagues and included in school report card grades for the world to see. For years now I have required weekly independent reading with a metacognitive literary response component. My belief has always been that more practice leads to stronger reading skills for all students. I have given students regular take-home practice assignments, individualized as best I can for 150 kids, and at-home projects designed to hone their critical thinking skills and writing ability. Depending on the child, these homework assignments probably average 3-4 hours per week. And mine is not the only class they have.

But when I reflected on the actual results of this homework approach, I had to admit that the students most likely to complete assignments were those who needed it least: high-functioning students who were afraid of getting a bad grade. My readers who needed the most support often didn’t do the assignments at all. Then I was left trying to carve out time during class for them to do the work, which  meant them missing a lesson about something else. In many cases, those students needed a lot of face-to-face support to understand assignments and do them correctly, so the homework was more suited to the classroom anyway.

I also began to listen more carefully to my students’ other needs. Many of them had their bus ride home this year extended by an hour or more due to transportation changes. Many have other responsibilities in the home such as taking care of younger siblings while parents work. Many are involved in extracurricular activities that keep them busy for hours after school. For all of these students, it seemed that my expectations might be adversely impacting their lives with negligible benefits.

I decided then and there that I would try abandoning homework for the year — despite the fact that I had just spent the first couple weeks of the school year explaining my homework requirements and trying to develop student buy in.

My new message to parents explained that I would require students to keep up with novel reading at home when we didn’t have time to read everything in class, and that assignments they didn’t complete during class would also need to be finished at home. But I told them I wanted my students to be able to rest and recharge their minds as well as spend time together with family and just be kids.

Parent feedback was overwhelmingly positive. One told me, “Thank you for your consideration and kindness with respect to the other, non-academic aspects of your students’ lives… I look forward to the day when all teachers share your perspective of nurturing the whole child and kids can run around outside for hours every evening instead of sitting and doing more schoolwork!” Another said, “This email, seriously, almost made me cry with delight… A friend and I were just discussing THIS MORNING how checklist oriented we’ve become; you’re on the cutting edge of something.”

It was clear that, at least from the parent perspective, this was the right move to make. I am still concerned about getting my students to master all the content I want them to learn in the very limited amount of time that I have with them. It’s possible that my end-of-year reading test results in the spring that cause me to reevaluate my thinking. But for now, what I am mostly thinking about is Sonia being able to spend time with her brother after school, talking to him about how his day was and helping him to feel excited about coming back again tomorrow. Not doing Language Arts for an hour when she gets home will allow her to be the best student, sister, and mother that she can be.

Unfunded class-size mandate bodes catastrophe for students, teachers

photo by Elyse Dashew


*this article originally appeared on WRAL.com

When the General Assembly convenes today, public school parents and teachers across North Carolina will anxiously wait to see whether legislators address the looming class size crisis.

Language in the 2016 state budget included a mandate to reduce class sizes in grades K-3.Despite the obvious costs associated with this move, the General Assembly provided no additional funding to cover the teaching positions or construction of classrooms required to meet the new smaller class sizes. After the House passed a bill (HB13) intended to give school districts more flexibility, the Senate revised it last spring. Unless our lawmakers choose to act, the original mandate set to kick-in in the new school year (fall 2018) brings with it many harmful repercussions for our teachers and students. The impact of the unfunded reduction of class sizes will be catastrophic.

School districts are on their own with a tough choice. Either come up with local funds to hire additional teachers or make cuts in other areas to free up money. Unfortunately, positions that are often on the chopping block during lean times are art, music, and physical education, even though these classes are so critical to helping our children develop healthy bodies and creative minds. Foreign language and computer classes may be eliminated as well, despite being such important parts helping students function effectively in the 21st century and providing a well-rounded educational experience.

In addition to cutting teaching positions, some schools may be forced to swell class sizes to 35-40 students at fourth and fifth grade to comply with the law. Increasing class sizes at those grade levels will reduce one-on-one teacher-student contact, make it difficult for teachers to communicate regularly with parents, and create potential classroom management nightmares (ever been in a small room with 40 ten-year-olds?).

Class sizes in middle and high schools — where they are already bursting at the seams — could be increased as well to make more teachers available to teach early elementary grades. This is not an ideal solution that benefits anyone.

Should the Senate choose not to take up class sizes during the January session, there are also serious implications for schools when it comes to the need to expand current schools or build new ones. The vast majority of school districts in North Carolina are required by statute to submit their budgets to county commissions by May 15. Backed into a corner by the looming mandate, districts will be forced to budget for the additional capital needs so they’ll be able to purchase and set up costly mobile classrooms before the next school year begins.

Should the Senate agree to pass some sort of fix to the class size conundrum later this spring, it’s quite possible that it could come after districts have already begun installing the additional classrooms current legislation demands. Such uncertainty is unfair and places unnecessary pressure on school boards and county commissions seeking to be responsible stewards of tax dollars.

Nobody is arguing for larger class sizes at grades K-3. My experience as a teacher has showed me that more individual attention for our students at any grade level makes a big difference in their lives. But it seems very unlikely that our current General Assembly can find the will to fully fund the class size mandate, both teaching positions and decent classrooms.

Emblazoned on the wall of the State Board of Education’s meeting chamber is a line from North Carolina’s constitution: “The people have a right to the privilege of education, and it is the duty of the State to guard and maintain that right.” The people are watching the Senate today. We expect our leaders to do their part to provide our children with the public education they deserve and is promised by our State Constitution.

It’s time for them to repeal the class size mandate before it’s too late.

NC’s elected officials must fix the class size crisis they created

(Comments from the January 6 Class Size Chaos rally at the NC State Legislative Building in Raleigh)

Great to see you all turn out despite the freezing cold to support our children and teachers!  My name is Justin Parmenter.  I’m a middle school teacher at Waddell Language Academy in Charlotte and the father of a kindergartener and a 2nd grader.  It’s such an exciting and rewarding job being their dad and watching them discover new things about this world every day.  I have no idea where they will be or what they’ll be doing 12 years from now when their K-12 public educations are complete.  To help them on their journeys of self discovery I’m counting on our state to provide them with a well rounded education to nurture their creative minds and healthy bodies.  We need strong arts, physical education, and foreign language departments to make those things happen for our kids in North Carolina.  I believe it’s our state’s responsibility to ensure it. 

I’m also depending on our state to give my kids and their classmates classes when they get to 4th and 5th grade where their teachers can get to know them and show that they care about them as individuals.  That doesn’t happen as often as it should when there are 35-40 students in the class.  And we could see numbers like that if our school districts are forced to comply with this mandate but not provided with the funds to do it.  Our class sizes at middle school and high school, where they are already much bigger than they should be, could swell to impossible sizes as well.

A little bit about the numbers where I’m from.

In Mecklenburg County we’re going to need more than 350 additional teachers and more than 200 additional mobile classrooms to comply with this law.  Our school district’s budget is due to our county commission on May 15.  We’ll need to budget for the worst case scenario in advance of that May deadline so that we’ll be able to begin installing trailers as soon as this school year ends to have them ready for class on August 27.  We simply cannot wait until May for the Senate to begin discussing this issue.

I would love to see smaller class sizes.  My experience as a teacher has showed me that more one-on-one time with students can make a big difference in the lives of our children.  But it seems very unlikely to me that our current General Assembly can find the will to fully fund the class size mandate, both teaching positions and decent classrooms.  We must not rob Peter to pay Paul.  We can’t make sacrifices that harm our children’s futures just to provide somebody with a talking point for their political campaign.  

When it comes to the class size mandate and to other education reforms, we keep hearing our legislators refer to ‘unintended consequences.’  I think that phrase ‘unintended consequences’ speaks to a fundamental problem with our General Assembly in North Carolina.  Deliberately involving all stakeholders to get a clear view of exactly how impacts of legislation will play out should be an automatic part of the process.  Our leaders need to stop putting major education initiatives in the budget and then passing them with no transparency, committee process, or public debate.  That’s not what doing the will of your constituents looks like.  The public has had enough of this practice of ramming through legislation that is so poorly conceived it already needs to be overhauled before it’s even implemented.  

To the Senators who hold the keys to solving this crisis, Senator Berger, Education committee chairs Barefoot, Curtis, and Lee, our school districts’ budgets are due in May and we can’t wait until then for you to begin talking about class sizes.  We need you to repeal this unrealistic mandate next week.  There’s a line from North Carolina’s constitution that reads “The people have a right to the privilege of education, and it is the duty of the State to guard and maintain that right.”  The people are watching as the Senate begins its January session, and we’re going to hold you accountable for doing your part to guard and maintain our children’s right to a quality public education.  Thank you.

My student’s cat was dying. She needed more than a teacher

*Note:  This article originally appeared in the Charlotte Observer, then was republished by the Washington Post.

Recently, before class started, I noticed one of my students sitting silently in her desk with tears rolling down her cheeks.  When I asked her what was the matter, she told me that her cat had a tumor and today was his last day.  I did my best to comfort her by talking with her about pets I’d had that had been like family to me.  I offered to let her go for a walk in the halls to clear her mind and went out of my way to treat her with kindness and empathy for the rest of the day.  She had more pressing matters on her mind than grammar.

I wondered how many other ways that scenario was playing out in other places at exactly the same time–a teacher stepping seamlessly out of the role of content instructor and into the role of counselor, coach, or parent.  How many teachers were comforting a child struggling with loss, counseling an angry student bent on revenge, or working to develop confidence in a child who needed it?  How much value were those teachers adding to the lives of the children they were helping?

Common sense tells us there is no way of measuring the occurrence of those scenarios or of quantifying that value.  Switching hats is something that most teachers don’t even notice themselves doing.  It comes with the territory that for 8-10 hours a day educators are constantly identifying needs of all types and devising creative ways of meeting them.  Those interactions are what make being a teacher so meaningful and remind us of the tremendous impact we’re having on the lives of others.

Just because it’s common sense that the value of a teacher who doubles as nurse, counselor, coach, and parent can’t be precisely determined doesn’t mean that some won’t try to do so.  Several years ago, CMS Superintendent Pete Gorman made a splash by suggesting that teachers should be paid based on their effectiveness, measured in some degree by test scores.  His initiative was scuttled by outcry from teachers concerned their pay might be negatively impacted by factors outside their control.

Now we’re seeing a resurgence of the idea that the worth of educators can be quantified, this time with principals as the target.  With intense lobbying from pro-business education reform organization Best NC, the General Assembly recently passed a new statewide principal pay plan billed as rewarding ‘exceptional school leadership’ which compensates principals in part based on student test results.

While many will see pay increases, members of the state board of education say the plan will reduce some principals’ salaries by up to 30% unless it is overhauled.  It will also discourage principals from working at high-poverty schools where lagging test scores might lower their pay.  At the classroom level, pressure to raise scores will lead to more teaching for standardized test mastery, reducing opportunities to hone the creativity, collaboration, and critical thinking skills so essential to success in the modern workplace.  These consequences of performance pay do not make our schools better.

There is currently a lot of uncertainty about where education is headed in NC. We have a new superintendent without a track record in education.  We have a legislature that has stripped decision-making power from the state board and governor and met behind closed doors at Best NC’s behest with controversial performance pay advocate Michelle Rhee.  As we chart the course forward, we need to remember that our work as educators is a complex human endeavor, not a series of business transactions.  It is simply not possible to measure all the important ways educators touch the lives of the people they serve.

N.C. Senate ignores the class-size crisis

*Note:  this article first appeared in the Raleigh News and Observer

With the North Carolina General Assembly just days away from its January session, a growing number of public school parents and teachers are calling on the Senate to use the session to fix a looming class size crisis which is poised to plunge schools into chaos for the 2018-19 school year.  In defense of their failure to act, state senators are offering a variety of excuses, none of which pass the smell test.

Some parents have been told by legislative assistants or by senators themselves that the January session is a special session and, as such, cannot address issues not already on the agenda.  However, the session scheduled to begin on January 10 is not a special session–it is an extension of the long session.  In addition, the Adjournment Resolution that calls for the January session allows certain bills for consideration. That list is almost all encompassing, as nearly any legislation can be tweaked to fit the criteria listed on the resolution.  Section 3.1C. (10) specifically states that bills making technical changes to the budget bill which originally reduced class sizes are eligible.

Another argument being made to defend the lack of action on class sizes is the claim that the General Assembly has already funded K-3 class size reductions.  During the October session, when the Senate declined to take up class sizes, Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger said “those reductions have already been fully funded.”  Yet the technical corrections bill introduced at that same session admits the additional teaching positions have not been funded, stating the GA intends to “fund a new allotment for program enhancement teachers … beginning with the 2018-2019 fiscal year.”  Local school districts are still waiting for the $293 million needed to avoid the slashing of arts and physical education programs that may be required to adhere to the unfunded mandate.

Finally, despite failing to provide one specific example, a number of senators have contended they are reluctant to move on class size because school districts have misspent funds that were intended to reduce class sizes in the past.  Senate majority leader Harry Brown said “It’s obvious to us that money has been spent on something other than class size reduction,” while education committee chair Chad Barefoot asked, “What did they do with the money?”  Using data readily available from the Department of Public Instruction, former NCGA fiscal analyst Kris Nordstrom determined that school districts spent more than 99.97 percent of their classroom teacher allotments on teachers for school year 2016-2017.  The claim that districts have mishandled funds is simply a smokescreen.

The vast majority of school districts in North Carolina are required by statute to submit budgets to their county commissions by May 15.  If the Senate is unwilling to repeal the unfunded class size mandate well in advance of that date, districts will be forced to take drastic action in order to comply with the law–including purchasing expensive mobile classrooms to provide the necessary additional space, cutting arts and physical education course offerings, and swelling class sizes at grades beyond 3rd.  Concerned parents will gather at Halifax Mall, adjacent to the North Carolina State Legislative Building, on January 6 to ask that the Senate stop making excuses and deal with the class size crisis before it’s too late.