Tuesday, March 9, 2010

A Writer's Work Is Never Finished

Last week I saw one of our school’s counselors headed down the hallway with a cash box in hand. Under the very serious pressure of budget cuts in our district, I used my standard coping mechanism—bad attempts at humor—and asked her if she was taking it upon herself to start collecting money directly from students. She assured me that her task was of a more official sort. She was collecting deposits for an early May ritual in many American high schools: the College Board’s Advanced Placement Exams.

I was immediately flooded with memories of my experiences as an AP Literature teacher. First among them, given the counselor’s activity that brought AP to mind, were instances of the awkward conversations around the “Should I? or Shouldn’t I?” question with borderline students from families without much expendable income. As much as I enjoyed and learned from my years teaching AP English, I was aware even then of some of the program’s inherent tensions and shortcomings, many of which are now thoughtfully debated in NCTE’s new edited volume College Credit for Writing in High School: The “Taking Care of” Business.

Awkwardness around individual students seeking advice on whether to pay to take the exam are, of course, overshadowed by the broader limitations of the Advanced Placement program. These include the focus on timed, unrevised writing; the privileging of “correct” interpretation; and the difficulty of integrating authentic research writing into a year crammed with response to literature. Even more problematic, though, is the idea that for some students who score well enough on the exam, the class might be the last they would take that would treat writing instruction as one of its main aims.

In an ideal world, we could rest assured that students are being challenged and supported as thinkers and writers in every course, in every discipline, at every level. Knowing we’re not in that ideal world, I suppose we’ll always be left with that uncomfortable feeling of students being “finished” with writing instruction, whether that terminal point is a 3 (or a 5) on an AP English class, or an A (or a C) in a required freshman rhetoric course.

I always tried to address that tension in a well-intentioned but likely ineffective way in the last days of my AP English classes. As students shared their plans for summer and fall, I would dispense sage advice about college, emphasizing that regardless of their scores on the exam, they should take every opportunity to enroll in courses that would ask them to read and write in ways that challenged them and made them better thinkers. We know writers are never “finished” developing, and any aspect of the educational system that suggests otherwise—whether it’s in the high schools or colleges and universities, the assessment industry or published programs of study—isn’t going to feel right to us.

Recognizing that each of us plays an important role in developing our students’ abilities and attitudes as writers, it’s crucial to heed this advice from NCTE’s Beliefs about the Teaching of Writing: “learning to teach well is a lifetime process, and lifetime professional development is the key to successful practice. Students deserve no less.” The better we are at supporting our writers, which includes fostering their understanding that there is more to learn no matter what a test or a transcript tells them, the better off they’ll be.


barry said...

As I near the completion of the "Chronicle of Frederick Douglass Day in Chicago May 15, 2009 I find myself adding, changing, tweaking, drafting endlessly. My draft stamp is in constant use and I have realized that this Chronicle may always be a work in progress. It has occurred to me that I, too, am a work in progress and for my 60th birthday I intend on doing something I never would have imagined before this weekend. As a show me teacher I have decided to tatoo the word DRAFT on some conspicuous part of my body.

Andilynne said...

As a future English teacher and past student of an AP Literature class, I see the values in encouraging students to pay for the test, but I firmly believe that if high schools begin offering these classes, funding for the tests should be provided. Unfortunately, this tends to only occur in an ideal world.

Still, the class does, as do all AP classes, allow students a cheaper option to filling general education requirements than completing post-secondary, but the test must be payed for in order for students to even have a chance to save on money. So it may be a gamble.

But from what I remember about the class and that test, a lot of work needs to go into test preparation, so students feel prepared to take the test. In my opinion, that is where the true dilemma lies because only students who feel prepared are going to be willing to consider paying for the test in the first place.

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