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That's Not How Students Write

I spend most of Thursday pulling staples out of the wall, trying my hardest to keep the student work intact. Art work and thought-provoking writing are replaced by emptiness. Whitewashed walls extract the color, vitality and voice of our classroom space. The desks are in tidy rows, too. It's the only configuration I know of designed specifically to keep kids away from one another.

I place the Chromebooks in the mobile cart (where they will be anything but mobile). Students take the writing test in a space where art is hidden and technology is locked-down and communication, collaboration and connectedness is explicitly forbidden.

I read the prompt aloud to my ELL students.

"Wait, are we really going to send this letter?"

I can't answer.

"Can't we just look up the business letter format online?"

I can't answer.

"What if the person we write it to is a neighbor. Wouldn't that be a friendly letter?"

I can't answer. Today, I'm not their teacher. I'm their test proctor and I have no control over how my students are assessed. Even though my students are used to using online dictionaries and thesaurai, revising on Google Docs and posting to WordPress, they will use a paper and pencil.

Though they are used to an authentic, global audience, they will write only for a test-grader. Though they are used to peer revision and teacher-student editing conferences, they will work in isolation. Though they are used to having a high level of autonomy, they will have no choice. Though they typically sit wherever they want during writing, often listening to instrumental music, they will sit up at their desks, in rows, within a naked-wall classroom. 

So, if you want to know how my students are doing in writing, please ignore the AIMS test. That's how they write when they lack agency, autonomy, choice and voice. If you want to assess their real writing, please check out their blogs. Chances are you'll be amazed. 

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John Spencer

John Spencer has been a teacher coach and a classroom teacher in Phoenix, Arizona, for several years. He has written five books, including: Pencil Me In, an alleg...