What Prompted This?

“It has been said that laughter is the best medicine. Think of a time when your ability to laugh helped you get through a difficult situation. Write about what happened. Support your response with details and examples.”

No sooner do I finish reading when the questions start: “What if we’ve never had something like that happen?” “What does this mean?” “How do I start this?” “How many paragraphs does this have to be?” “Can I go to the bathroom?” If you haven’t guessed already, that is the beginning of the most dreaded high school English class assignment of all: the essay.

And not just any essay, but the prompt-based essay, which is a form of torture so horrific for students that it flies in the face of the Geneva Conventions. Teachers suffer too, as having to grade 100 essays in a timely manner can send them to the edge of the abyss of insanity, teetering on it as they wonder which “alot” is going to send them careening over into the darkness emerging not with constructive comments but with “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” scrawled multiple times on each of those 100 essays.

But the thing is … I love essays as a literary form. There’s an art to them that I have appreciated for years ever since I read stuff by Dave Barry and E.B. White in high school and college. And I love writing them as much as I love reading them. So why is it that they are such hell? I want to, and it would be easy to put the blame squarely on standardized testing; more specifically, the writing prompt. After all, it’s been the standard model for essay writing in high school for decades and it doesn’t look that’s going to change anytime soon. We all know the drill: you set aside a couple of days of class time, present a prompt, and the students turn out a five-paragraph essay that consists of an introduction/main idea paragraph, three body paragraphs, and a conclusion. Sometimes, there is something in that pile of essays you wind up grading that blows your mind; unfortunately, most of them are passable at best, tepid displays of the basics of structure and style. And what drives you crazy–or at least what drives me crazy–is that the prompt and the test it is on has turned writing into an assembly line-like process instead of a craft.

Which is unfortunate because teenagers–even though they are not often awake at 8:00 in the morning–are often full of life and expressive. They are at an age where they are forging their own identities and finding their own voices. The essay should be an opportunity for them to tell you what they think and feel and for you to help them make that voice stronger, to help them gain more confidence about expressing themselves in the written word. But they have been … well, ruined, in a way. They’re not writers, they’re sled dogs. Here’s the prompt! Five sentences per paragraph! Five paragraphs in the essay! MUSH! Obviously, we must be stopped. Or we must stop ourselves. Or something just as dramatic–I’m having a hard time finding a transition here.

I would personally love to be able to completely transform writing in high school so that the standardized test is not considered the be-all and end-all as far as an assessment. However, since that is not happening anytime soon, what can we do to “stop the bleeding” so to speak and make writing an essay in English class more appealing than losing a limb? The first answer to this question is blatantly obvious. We can give students an open topic. You know, do away with the idea of a prompt, and after having them read some very good essays by a variety of writers, tell them that they can write about whatever they want. This will help them own their topic. They will care what they write about.

Except that this can backfire and you have to be prepared for it. You still might get the tepid, bland pieces you’ve already been getting (especially if said blandness is engrained), but what very well might happen is that they are completely lost from the get-go.

I experienced this earlier this year with one of my classes when I told them they could write about whatever they wanted. A few students came to see me saying that they were glad that they didn’t have to answer another bad prompt but they weren’t exactly sure what to do because it was almost like I had given them too much freedom. After conferencing with them, I had the beginning of the next day’s class be a quick brainstorming activity: think of as many things as you can think of to write about in an essay. You have 30 seconds. Go. When under the gun, they made lists and we wrote them on the board. I don’t know how many were actually used but at least it got the blood flowing and the essays have been okay.

Another approach, which I sometimes take and which kind of flies in the face of standardized testing is that I give my students a prompt or choice of prompts (I tend to prefer the latter even though Virginia’s writing SOL is a one-prompt and one-prompt-only test) but don’t get too strict about whether or not they answered the prompt. If you’re writing a personal essay, you’re not writing a term paper, so you may have a good story to tell and a good point to make. If it is not exactly on point with the prompt but is a well-thought-out or well-written piece I would like to evaluate it for what it is. Why should I ding someone on a technicality that seems like a petty technicality? Of course, the problem with that approach is that when it does come to standardized test day, I am not the person grading my students’ essays, so they will get dinged on a technicality.

So what I did last week in my classes was to give them four different prompts (that were taken directly from state tests) to brainstorm answers for in a short amount of time. Then, we posted a table on the board and listed all of the different answers that they could possibly come up with. I even said at the beginning of the exercise that I was trying to show them how to get past the “Well, I never …” and “I can’t think of …” questions that stymie them whenever they get a prompt. And lo and behold, we found between five and ten different ways to answer each of the prompts. We went on to write an essay a few days later and the results are mixed, but I didn’t expect a miracle to occur right off the bat. Getting a process to be less mechanical and more organic takes time, but my hope is that as they head into next year they are a little less sickened by the thought of an essay.

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