Writing is a creative process, and anyone who is in the business of creating something knows it takes time to mold a polished finish product. First you must consider the idea, then let it percolate in your head awhile with various characters. You might begin with outlines or brainstorming or sketches. Then you draft and revise and revise and revise, each time making your work sing a little more. I have long encouraged students to work on an essay or story for days. Sometimes they will start two or three stories and select one to polish to completion. Sometimes after a day off the ideas begin to flow again and they are ready to revise. Sometimes they need to read it aloud a few times to see where it needs work.
Why, then, do district and state personnel require on-demand writing? In California, fourth graders take a state writing test. In our district this year, every grade will do an on-demand writing test. Officials claim they are trying to improve the teaching of writing in our schools; however, these tests are contrary to everything I know about writing. On-demand writing sets unrealistic expectations, it is a skill rarely used, and it kills the joy of writing.
Although some officials have admitted these on-demand writing samples are merely first drafts, it is still an amazing amount of work for one sitting. Students are taught to plan every type of writing they do. They outline essays and create roller coaster plans for stories. They plan topic sentences, reasons and details, or rising and falling action. From the plan, students write a draft. They choose the best words that come into their heads and try to vary sentence length, include sensory details, plan poignant dialogue for stories, and insert relevant details for essays. No one does it perfectly the first time around, but with on-demand writing there is no second time. Yet the scoring rubric sets the bar high and measures these first drafts against it.
While most of the skills taught in elementary school are critical for future success, on-demand writing is not. Students may need to write in one sitting for testing situations such as SAT college prep tests, but most of the writing they will do for school will be over a couple of days. As an adult, writing they do for business or pleasure will also be done in more than one day. No one ever wrote a quarterly report, business plan, or award-winning novel in an on-demand setting.
Proponents of on-demand writing claim they want to assess the level of writing our students can produce, but by doing so they are ruining any pleasure in the production of a finished work. Students enjoy mentally taunting their characters with a variety of situations before choosing what events will be included in their piece. Some wild ‘what ifs’ have led to some of the most exhilirating scenes I’ve ever seen students produce. Having the luxury of a few days to bounce ideas off classmates validates young authors as they ‘road test’ plots and endings. In my own novel, the ending has changed three times over the past year. That first rough draft ending was awful!
I am perfectly willing to supply my students’ writing samples to anyone who wants to see them, but I, like them, want those samples to be something I am proud of. First drafts dashed off in a single sitting cannot be their best work, and turning in something short of their best is disheartening. I want to start a new trend and advocate writing proficiency tests that span three days. School officials will get writing that better showcases what students are capable of and they’ll get pieces everyone can be proud of.
Written in one sitting…..yeah, I know…but do you recognize the format?
On my Kindle: A Breath of Snow and Ashes by Diana Gabaldon (one of my favorite authors)