Writing to order – done in a flash!

In a recent post Writing woes – Flash fiction I wrote about the difficulty I experienced in responding to a flash fiction prompt posted by Charli Mills at Carrot Ranch Communications.

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:

In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that begins with a twist. 

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.

 

 

 

27 thoughts on “Writing to order – done in a flash!

  1. D. Avery

    Ah, such a twist. You made a great batch of lemonade from that lemon of a flash prompt.
    Bottom line, as we relate this to student writing, ample opportunities along with ample choice is a more reasonable way for them to hone their skills and for teachers to provide feedback that students might hone their skills. And maybe even enjoy the process!

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thank you for your comment. Yes, ample opportunities along with ample choice is a much better way for children to hone their skills. Enjoyment of the process would be a wonderful thing.

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  2. Pingback: Whose failure? | Norah Colvin

  3. Pingback: May 21: Flash Fiction Challenge « Carrot Ranch Communications

  4. lorilschafer

    I’ve always assumed that much of the reasoning behind these types of testing approaches comes down to cost. Sometimes I’m actually amazed that writing is evaluated on a national level at all, given how much more expensive it is to grade than multiple-choice tests. However, I agree that to effectively teach writing, more emphasis needs to be placed on rewriting. This is what writers do, right? The first draft is usually garbage; it’s the editing that makes it great. That’s what I love about your portfolio idea. It permits children to treat their stories not as single assignments, but rather as works-in-progress, always capable of being improved.

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thanks, Lori, for popping over and sharing your thoughts. I love how others, such as yourself, enrich the value of my post by adding their perspectives and ideas. You’re right too about the need for re-writing. If we were only allowed one opportunity of getting it right, writing would be a very scary activity. I’m not sure how many of us can ever complete a perfect draft first time. I can only wish. Even my comments receive many re-reads and edits!

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      1. Annecdotist

        This comment, along with others, makes me think that giving kids the opportunity to revise and rewrite is important not only for learning about writing, but about life in general. Okay, there are always deadlines to meet, points when we have to say this is the best I can do for the moment and let it go, but even when we get things wrong or do damage, we can often find and/or create opportunities for reparation. Seems to me this is more important lessons for kids than responding to a story prompt in a stereotyped way.

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        1. Bec

          Good point Anne! I wonder if a possible improvement to the current system of on-the-spot, one-go-only writing assessment for children could be an on-the-spot written assessment item, with a number of choices (e.g. a course I tutor for had four essay questions for which the student folk could choose the question which most interested them to address in their essay), then during the assessment phase rather than receiving a grade, they receive some form of constructive feedback. Then the children review the feedback and their writing and resubmit some work, including perhaps reflective remarks on the feedback, and how they incorporated that into their writing. Still imperfect, but perhaps the learning experience would be more valuable, and the assessment would be more “fair”…

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          1. Norah Post author

            Hi Bec, although your response was to Anne, I’m going to pop in anyway. I think the process of write, receive feedback, review, resubmit is very similar to the conference approach I mentioned in my article. I think it is an excellent way of clarifying one’s message and making sure it has the desired impact on a reader. It also provides an opportunity for improving surface structures such as grammar, punctuation, and even word choice. Thanks for sharing.

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        2. Norah Post author

          Thanks for sharing your thoughts Anne. I like the way you have widened the application to life in general. Those opportunities for reparation and do overs are always important. We don’t always get a second chance but having a series/sequence of opportunities helps prepare us for the bigger ones that come along. I can’t say I’ve ever liked the stereotyped anything!

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  5. Nanny Shecando

    “A one-off writing assessment task does not give students an opportunity to show their best work and puts pressure on them to perform” – I completely agree, and always hated when the one off assessment pieces would be dished out as it was never an accurate representation of my abilities.

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Hope. It is interesting that, although we have probably all shared these feelings at some time, this type of test is still being set. I appreciate your comment. 🙂

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  6. Charli Mills

    While this is not a flash fiction, it is a brilliant post. You make me think of two separate issues related to writing.

    First, the process writing with children is so holistic. I’d like to be able say, “I don’t know why more teachers don’t do this…” but one would have to be blind (in the USA) to not see the downward slide of our education system because of the skewed value placed on assessments. What is even scarier is that some states are even pushing to have teachers evaluated by their students’ assessment scores. Education itself gets lost in the irrelevancy of “learning” proven merely by test scores.

    My next comment is about writers writing. A portfolio is vital. It contains both possibilities and polished pieces ready for publication. Writers need practice just as piano players do. I invited a writer to stay with me this past winter and discovered that she spent little time writing. When she asked me, “How can you stand to write every day?” I knew she really didn’t have her heart in writing–she just wanted to “publish” a book. It’s like wanting to go on stage to perform without having to practice. And that’s what the challenge is–practice that also allows us to read and discuss. Like you realized, it’s a choice to participate although I believe this post is still a contribution to our process. Not all prompts will be inspiring! And this last one wasn’t very concrete. I hope our other flash writers will read your post, too, and be inspired to build a portfolio from their pieces. Thanks for the insights!

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thanks for your sharing your thoughts in this wonderful comment Charli. What you have said about education is so true. I love your statement, “Education gets lost in the irrelevancy of “learning” proven merely by test scores.” I am going to make a poster of that and post it on Twitter!!
      It is interesting too that you say about a portfolio being vital for writers. Why then would it be of any lesser importance for early/budding writers? The question, “How can you stand to write every day?” is interesting. It would take a long time to get a book to publication if you didn’t write every
      I appreciate your comment that my post still contributes to the process of sharing our writing; but there was nothing wrong with your prompt. Others have done a fantastic job of responding to it. I just chose to respond in a different way! Your prompt and the other articles prompted me to share these thoughts. Thank you.

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  7. Annecdotist

    Sorry you weren’t able to post to the challenge this week, Norah, but you’ve be the most diligent, and as Bec says, you have given us a twist at the end of this post! I love your description of “process” teaching, it makes perfect sense yet – in my limited knowledge – education seems to swing from being all about free expression to an insistence on the rules: you show how both can be integrated into an approach which is so respectful of the child’s endeavours.
    Thought you might be interested in this old post from the writer Claire King on her disappointment at how her daughters were being taught story structure (in France) http://www.claire-king.com/2013/09/25/how-stories-are-made/

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    1. Norah Post author

      Hi Anne, Thanks for your comment. I was disappointed too that I couldn’t get something I was satisfied with to meet the mark. I had a few different goes, but couldn’t get the word count down. I then thought that I’d write a story for children. Which I did. Unfortunately it didn’t work from a ‘being true to the facts’ point of view so thought I’d better ditch it as I have blogged about that issue before!! You are right about the swing of education. At the moment we have gone so far towards didactic pedagogy and quantitative assessment, that it can’t be too long before we start to swing back. It’s a pity the pendulum couldn’t just rest with the ‘un’commonsense approach which is respectful to the child’s individuality and learning endeavours.
      Thank you for recommending Claire King’s post. It is excellent. Is she still posting? I couldn’t see a follow button. I will be going back there to read more though. Thanks for referring her to me in your comment over there.

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  8. Karen

    Considering your portfolio thoughts I realised that my short story blog is a portfolio, Norah. I can see how I develop as a writer, how I deal with new approaches. So far, just one of my Flash Fiction Friday contributions ended there. This one time, the word and the picture appealed to me. The story was done in less than five minutes (150 words +/-10 are allowed). In other cases, it took me an hour to come up with something.
    A writer needs challenges to grow, sometimes the time/picture/etc. is just not right. This is not failure, it is just the opportunity to say ‘no’.

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thanks for sharing Karen. I love that you say “sometimes the time/picture/etc. is just not right . . . it is just the opportunity to say ‘no’.” I guess that is in part my point. If we as adult writers, with a good dose of both life and writing experience, are not always able to respond to a given prompt (and have the choice to decline the opportunity) how much more difficult it must be for children with their (usually) lesser experience with life and writing but without the opportunity to decline a prompt they find barren. Where can I read your Flash Fiction Friday? Interesting that you wrote it in a flash. When the prompt connects, the words take wing!

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      1. Karen

        This is the writer’s advantage: we write because we want to. Kids need to write because they have to. The concept of writing (in schools) should be changed. As I kid I felt too limited to have inspiration kick in. Most of the times the results were only average.
        You can find ‘Call of Duty’ on my blog inasmallcompass.wordpress… There is also a link to the Flash Fiction blog. The picture was awesome. I researched the artist as well. He collects driftwood and uses it for his sculptures.

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        1. Norah Post author

          Hi Karen, Thanks for popping back with the link to your story. I love the way you created the whole picture in so few words. You captured the ‘other-worldliness’ of it very well. I only looked at the picture prompt after reading your story and, I agree, the picture is awesome. The way he as made crafted the sculpture from driftwood is just amazing and I can see how the image inspired your story. Well done. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

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          1. Karen

            Hi Norah, thank you very much!
            I visited the artist’s website after writing the story. I once researched a picture beforehand – and my inspiration was AWOL.
            Being limited to a certain number of words is challenging. If the picture and/or keyword ‘fit’ – inspiration sparks and writing is fun. Thankfully we are not obliged to contribute every time. 😉
            It is always thrilling to receive the next call.

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            1. Norah Post author

              I agree! I always look forward to next challenge and thinking about what I can do in response. I look forward to reading more of your flash fiction. Thanks for sharing!

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  9. Bec

    Great post Nor – though getting to the end of this blog post I think you inadvertently did include a twist – no flash fiction!! I find my self in agreement with you about the portfolio idea for assessment, though it seems strange that – when it is explained here so clearly – it is not in place already. I suppose as you say – quantitative over qualitative. I feel this is perhaps linked to ideas you have discussed at other times about schools becoming training centres for young folk to become “Good economic units” – not real thinkers. A student leaving the school as a well oiled cog ready to take a place in the machine is the real aim for education in our society – nothing to do with compassionate, critical thinking, intellectual, broad-minded, adventurous, future-thinkers…

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thanks Bec, I appreciate your supportive comment. Yes, I suppose I was a bit deceptive having ‘flash’ in the title but not in the content. I’ll have to chastise myself over that one! I think the use of portfolios to substantiate assessment marks has come and gone over the years. I think it should be a keeper (pun intended). I like the description you have given at the end of your comment. It certainly should be the aim of education to produce ‘compassionate, critical thinking, intellectual, broad-minded, adventurous, future-thinkers”. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and extending the value of my post.

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  10. vma314

    The portfolio idea is wonderful. To get the full picture, to see the changes over time, to see the various moods/styles/approaches – I am not an educator, but as a parent I know a one time shot/snap judgment gives you only a glimpse into the abilities & possibilities a child possesses…we all are always changing/growing/learning.

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    1. Norah Post author

      Hi there, Thanks for your comment. I appreciate the way you have summed up the importance of a portfolio from a parent’s point of view. As your child’s first teacher the portfolio you have collected (photos, cards, awards and other memorabilia) provide that picture of how your child is changing, growing and learning.

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