Teaching Writing or Teaching to the Test?

Writing Territories

from Nancy Atwell’s “Lessons that Change Writers”

Curtis Sittenfild’s confessional article “Those Who Can’t Teach” in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine made me think about what it means to teach writing.

Sittenfild, author of the novel Sisterland, describes an experience she had as a volunteer tutor when she tried–unsuccessfully–to help someone pass the English section of the G.E.D. Exam. When Sittenfild moved away, a new tutor tried a different strategy comprised of the following: Build a vaguely worded essay together, memorize it, and change the language slightly to meet the demands of the prompt. This method proved successful, and her former “tutee” finally passed the test.

I relate to this story because I know what it is like to teach to a test. I feel the same unworthiness when students don’t receive passing scores. I have tried teaching various formats–what are essentially test taking tricks-to help my struggling writers pass. However, every time I do this I feel like I am cheating. Learning to pass a writing test is not the same as learning to write. While I am happy that Sittenfild’s “tutee” finally earned her G.E.D., I am not convinced she learned how to write.

As a writing teacher, I have a responsibility to do more than test preparation. Clearly, I want my students to pass the required on-demand writing tests, but there are so many other reasons to write. Writing to pass a test is just the bare minimum.  A rich writing program should ask students to–

  • write for various purposes and audiences,
  • experiment with different forms and ideas,
  • see writing as a process that varies according to the writer’s needs,
  • study mentor texts to better understand different genres as well as the intricacies of the writer’s craft,
  • use teacher and peer feedback to make revisions,
  • and, yes, edit for correctness.

Students need to be allowed to write about topics they find important. So much depends upon them having real reasons to communicate.

I imagine that Sittenfild’s “tutee” never had the opportunity to participate in a rich and rigorous writing program. Students who are unsuccessful or chronically absent from school are frequently placed in remedial courses which focus more on formulaic writing. Ironically,these students are often expected to write less than in higher level courses. Students in remedial classes are given fewer options about what to write and read and, of course, they have fewer models of what it means to be a successful reader and writer.

At the time of her tutoring experience, Sittenfild was already an accomplished writer. She knew how to write, but not how to teach writing. I argue the so-called successful replacement tutor wasn’t teaching writing either. She was teaching a means to an end. as a writing teacher, I want to do more. My students deserve it.

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