By Valerie Domenech
I’m guilty. Ok, maybe not in a court of law, but in a court of educational morality. I am guilty of succumbing to the pressure of standardized testing, of prepping my victims for the English Common Core Regents until they are numb. And now that I have confessed, I feel the need to explain, to justify my actions, so my peers can understand my motives and I can be rehabilitated.
A relatively new teacher, I participated in the LIWP’s Summer Invitational in the summer of 2006. As we ended our summer of writing, reading, sharing, teaching, inspiring, and (plenty of) crying, I left Nassau Community College a changed person—essentially, an enriched, much-improved educator. The LIWP changed my life in so many ways, but it especially resurrected my hunger to write and to teach writing. I took with me the power to reflect, the passion to write, and the desire to share my newly-discovered bag of tricks with my prospective students.
For many years after my participation in that first summer institute, I lived LIWP. Its strategies and approaches saturated my classes. I wrote with my students in class every time they wrote. We engaged in shared readings. Almost every lesson encompassed Long Island Writing Project ideals. I lived the life of a devout LIWP Fellow, breathing and loving everything LIWP both in and out of the classroom. Naturally, when I was first introduced to the Common Core Standards, I resisted them, as they conflicted with what I had learned about writing and teaching writing from the LIWP. As a result, I vowed to continue my current approach, infusing lessons with LIWP characteristics, as I knew they exemplified best practice. I promised to continue to write, and apply one of the LIWP’s foundational beliefs: that teachers improve their knowledge of teaching writing by actually engaging in writing themselves. I reiterated to my colleagues that no matter how much the standards had changed, LIWP could fit that bill, and its strategies should continue to be employed in our classrooms.
I believe(d) that. But, as the pressure mounted to teach to the standards, the pedagogy that I knew to be best faded. Slowly, year after year, I began to write less, my students began to write more for the test, and my classroom became more scripted. We no longer did shared readings. Why should we? Sure, it’s nice to be read to and to read aloud to students, but the educational value I had once assigned to it became more difficult to defend. After all, the English Regents no longer included a listening passage. There was no time for engaging, high-interest passages or texts. Why? Well, that would be doing my students a disservice, for we all know the passages on the Regents are anything but. Write with my students? How could I? There was no longer time to waste writing for ten minutes during a class period, then dedicate all that time sharing our writing with each other, listening to the writerly choices we had all made, and celebrating our writing. No. I needed to cover as many complex texts (fiction and non-fiction alike) as I possibly could and teach my students the best strategies for answering multiple choice questions. I mean, there is definitely more merit in teaching students how to answer the many multiple choice questions they will encounter in their daily lives than there is helping them flesh out, develop, organize, express, and communicate their ideas with others. Clearly, the latter has less relevance in the real world.
But this year, I fully acquiesced. I stopped writing, reading aloud, sharing, celebrating. I started drilling, lecturing, test-prepping. There was no more room for experimenting with placement of a thesis statement in an essay because the expectation of the Common Core Regents is for students to place that thesis statement at the end of the introductory paragraph. And, if I didn’t teach that way to my students, I would most likely be doing them harm. Scorers would have to search for their thesis thereby increasing their risk of losing points. I also stopped stressing voice in writing. There’s no category for that on the rubric, so why should I teach it? Common Core does not deem it worthy enough to be included on the rubric. So, format? Rigidity? Structure? Check. Creativity? Experimentation? Liveliness? Umm…no.
So, I am guilty. Do I regret what I have done? Yes. Can I blame it on the Common Core and the pressure I felt from being evaluated on my students’ performances on one test? Sure I can. But if there’s one thing I have learned throughout my life is we can only blame others for our actions for so long. As adults, we must, ultimately, take responsibility for our actions and stop blaming others. So this is where I am now. I will no longer blame Common Core and APPR for changing the way I taught my students for these past five months. I, as an experienced educator who is passionate about teaching, learning, reading, and writing, will revert to teaching my students the way I know best. I will teach them with a fervor that will ignite in them that spark that makes them want to write and read and share and learn. Because that is not only possible but rather likely when students are allowed the freedom to explore their own styles and interests.
I am grateful I have another five months with my current students, so I can instill in them a love for English, so I can show them that writing does not always have to follow a formula. That a strong voice is valued as much as the proper citation format for the argument documents they must include in their essays. That fragments are valued if included intentionally and stylistically and that they won’t lose points based on an unyielding rubric that assesses their control of the English language. I want them to view writing as reflective and analytical, creative and enjoyable, not simply as a regurgitation of material they have just read. I can teach organization, development, and supporting details without insisting my students adhere to the strictness and monotony that is Common Core. And, I can teach them that the thesis statement does not need to be the last sentence of the introductory paragraph. Blasphemy, I know.
I almost lost my true teaching self these past five months, and although all of my students passed the Common Core English Regents, I feel as though I failed them. Now that I see the error of my ways, I must face my sentence: to undo what I have done, to risk my students viewing me as a hypocrite, and to live with the rigidity I enforced and the potential loss of creativity, enjoyment, and originality. I will no longer teach them that writing is formulaic, the very thing I fought for so long to avoid. I will teach my students the way I know works, the way I know will truly prepare them for life beyond high school, not the way non-educators think I should teach them so they may be “successful” on a test that does not measure their intelligence or ability…or mine.
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