The beauty of being an English or language arts teacher is helping students develop the skill of writing. Next to learning how to read, learning how to express your ideas through writing is a valuable form of communication. And in today’s world, being able to communicate and relate to others is more critical than ever.
But if you want a taste of the future, with Common Core PARCC writing and assessment, an article by Les Perelman in The Boston Globe last April, told how Pearson is using student essays to train their “robo-grader” to replace human readers who grade test essays. There is no sign that this is anything positive…no research to indicate it works to improve writing. It sounds like it is being done for efficiency. The robo-graders are trying to match human scores, looking at the essay length and counting particular words.
There are problems the article identifies:
- Three MIT computer science students have shown this machine doesn’t measure “human communication.”
- There’s a lack of transparency of the private vendors and their resources.
- Using computers to score is not as effective as real teachers.
- Machines are involved in corporate secrecy.
This sadly reminds me of student journal writing which I first learned about through a teaching workshop with the National Writing Project. Students write their thoughts and ideas in a journal, usually at the beginning of class, and teachers can directly respond. Journal writing is more pointed and values the thoughts and ideas of the student. Journal writing, in general, is being criticized by the Common Core enthusiasts as not incorporating critical thinking skills. Really, it doesn’t tidily fit with having a robo-grader scorer.
College Board President and Common Core English Lang. Arts developer David Coleman’s disregard for this kind of writing (“no one gives an ‘expletive’ about narrative writing”), most of us saw as reprehensible, because it is indicative of the coldness behind Common Core and today’s standardized testing movement. They want students writing well, but they really don’t care what is behind the writing. They want the important words put into place and the punctuation done right and making it as standardized as possible.
Writing is nice and orderly to them but there is no heart behind it.
With this kind of writing instruction, teachers are turned into nothing more than robots, spitting out information that should be aligned to the Core, to students who are turned robotic-like themselves. CCSS enthusiasts swear that pushing students to read nonfiction and analyze and write about what they read will teach the necessary writing skills to students. A student writing about themselves, and a teacher reacting to this kind of writing, well it is just fluff to them.
I say doing just their kind of writing, however, misses something vitally important. Journal writing, caring deeply about the narrative written expression of students, goes to the heart of great critical writing and thinking! It is not an easy process, but it is a profound way to not only teach good writing, but to address a student’s ability to think creatively about who they are as individuals. And a real teacher’s response to this writing can validate the student’s writing and the students themselves!
When I taught language arts to middle and high school students with learning disabilities, journal writing was the foundation of my class. Many of my students were reluctant writers, but the heavy weight was removed when they could do free writing in their journals. Sometimes, if they couldn’t think what to write, I gave them topics or prompts. But mostly, they wrote about their thoughts and feelings. And it usually astounded me. They had big ideas! Elementary students have great dreams and opinions too!
Many of my students had what we call dysgraphia, serious writing difficulties, and it wasn’t always easy for me to decipher, through the motor problems, punctuation and spelling mistakes, what they were saying. But when I did, when I took the time to figure out their message, it was usually always well worth the time.
Real teachers beat any robo-scorer in a contest like this!
I would never correct punctuation or criticize in the journal per se. But often I would pull a piece of writing and correct it, and return it to be written with corrections as a formal paper. It was that good, I’d tell the student. And I meant it! I would write comments as I checked the journals, but they were never critical of content. They were reactions. This kind of respect resonates with students.
Sometimes, also, students wrote about their difficulties or personal problems and it allowed me to either listen more seriously, connect with the parents, provide suggestions, or set-up an appointment with the guidance counselor.
Journal writing—such a beautiful and creative teaching practice between teacher and student now seems lost. The fact is, to do journal writing well, it takes a great deal of time. When teachers have overcrowded classes and they must address Common Core aligned to standards, test focused, and when narrative writing is looked down upon (Coleman), how will journal writing fit into the class schedule?
The answer is it won’t.
This is typical of no nonsense reforms. Drive students to master skills, but ignore the meaning behind the student’s thoughts and ideas. It is what frightens many of us about Common Core and standardization, because we know that more than ever, in today’s world, we need to understand what young students think and what they feel.
In many ways, this loss of creative writing is similar to the loss of the arts.
Journal writing provided the teacher the opportunity to respond and connect with students, and in my case to lift students from their learning problems…to say I don’t care if you have a disability you still have important things to say!
No matter how Pearson tries to tweak its robo-grader they will never get it to understand the heart of both the student and the teacher in this process. And that is a real problem.
Perelman, Les. “Flunk the robo-graders.” The Boston Globe. April 30,2014.