While I did eventually produce a piece in response to the prompt and received some very generous comments (thank you readers), the difficulty I was experiencing made me think of all the school children who have ever been set a topic and told to write about it, sometimes without an opportunity for discussion, reflection or planning, and often without any consideration of interests or experiences. I was feeling particularly sympathetic that week as children in Australia were, at that time, sitting the NAPLAN (National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy) writing test.
This week, while again struggling with the flash fiction prompt but this time unsuccessfully, I happened across a post entitled The dangers of a single story shared on dangerously irrelevant. This post is an extract from a longer paper entitled Mitigating the Dangers of a Single Story by Nadia Behizadeh.
While I have not yet read the entire paper, the abstract itself is quite interesting.
Behizadeh begins by saying
“The dangers of a single story in current U.S. large-scale writing assessment are that assessment practice does not align with theory and this practice has negative effects on instruction and students.”
As shown in my previous article, large-scale writing assessment also occurs in Australian schools and, I believe, in the Education systems of many other countries as well.
It is interesting to see that the practice, while widely implemented, is not, according to Behizadeh, supported by theory. One would have to wonder why. Oftentimes teachers lament that those making decisions about educational practices are bureaucrats with little or no training or experience in education. (Pardon me, we all went to school didn’t we?)
In our data driven world where information can be collected on spreadsheets, compared in a wide variety of graphs and tables, and stored indefinitely, emphasis moves from qualitative to quantitative assessment. I believe that this trend towards valuing only that which can be scored numerically is having a negative effect upon children’s learning and their enjoyment of learning. It discourages creativity and imagination and forces everyone to squeeze into the same sized and shaped hole. Some manage to fit more easily and more comfortably than others, but I question the cost to all.
Behizadeh goes on to propose
“A new vision of large-scale sociocultural writing portfolios in K–12 education . . . that builds on the practices of past large-scale portfolio assessment … (and) also encourages students to write in multiple languages/dialects and modes for multiple purposes.”
I love the idea of portfolios for assessment, rather than a one-off test. I would think most professional writers have a portfolio consisting of work at various stages: some as ideas jotted on slips of paper, some in planning stages, others in draft form, others completed and waiting for the next step, and others in publication.
A portfolio allows a writer to work on different pieces at different times and at different rates. Rarely is it imperative for a piece to be completed in an hour or two. (Unless you’re a journalist I suppose.) You can dip in, leave to rest, go back, redraft, edit, start again, and not be required to churn something out for a reader, let alone assessment, more or less on the spot.
As a teacher, too, I loved my children having portfolios of work. They would write a draft of many different pieces and store them in a folder. They would edit and “publish” those only they wished (which was usually most!).
I would conference with them about their pieces, firstly about the content be it story, poem, letter or information discussing what they wanted to say, who they were writing it for and how they wanted the reader to think and feel. When they were happy with their message we might talk about choices of words and language structures. Finally, when they were ready to publish, we would look at the surface features of spelling and punctuation. No teacher’s red pen was ever used to mark their work. The children were engaged with the entire process of writing (we called it “process writing” back then) and had ownership of their work.
We published by sharing our work with classmates, other classes, teachers and parents. We displayed writing on classroom walls, in the hallways and in the school foyer. Each term I would print booklets of the children’s writing for them to take home and share with their families. Many took pride of place on the family bookshelves.
This type of portfolio clearly demonstrates a student’s ability to write in a variety of genres, to develop an idea, to express oneself grammatically, to use editing skills and to proofread for spelling and punctuation correctness. What better than that could be used to assess a child’s writing development?
The two main points I am making in this article are:
- a one-off writing assessment task does not give students an opportunity to show their best work and puts pressure on them to perform
- a portfolio of work collected over time provides a clear picture of student ability, development, and next steps for learning
While I began this article by expressing how I was feeling about responding to the flash fiction prompt, I am in no way suggesting that the flash fiction challenge has any similarity to the national writing assessment tasks that are set for children, for it does not.
With flash fiction:
- I choose whether to participate or not
- I choose the genre in which I will respond
- I hone my writing skills, paring away unimportant words to get to the heart of the story
- I share my writing with willing readers
- I receive lots of encouraging and supportive feedback on my writing
- I have a sense of belonging to a community of other writers.
This week’s prompt was:
I have spent a lot of time thinking about this one, making various starts and writing some drafts but the twist in this one is, I haven’t been able to come up with something I am happy with sharing. But that’s okay because, unlike the children sitting the one-off national assessment, I can choose not to contribute this time, a low-ranking score won’t be collected and placed against my name for all time, and I can get to participate next time, if I choose.
Although I am not contributing a piece this time, I have still learned a lot by the process of trying different things, even if I haven’t found a way to make them work, yet
… and it provided me an opportunity of sharing some of my thoughts about writing with children. There will be more to come!
I’d love to know what you think!
PS Make sure you pop over to the Carrot Ranch to see how others have responded to the prompt.