Sunday, March 16, 2014

Writing Prompts are like Video Games

My good friend Katie Wood Ray once taught me that writing to a prompt is not real writing.  It's test-taking writing.  And it should never be called "Writer's Workshop."  

Ok, so maybe it is just in my head that Katie Wood Ray and I are good friends...although I do have a few pictures with her.  I promise I don't stalk her!

Writer's Workshop guru Katie Wood Ray and I (geeking out) before her retirement from speaking.

What's not just in my head, however, is the reality that kids must write to a prompt on our state standardized assessment.  They must address all the questions asked in the prompt.  They must use correct capitalization, punctuation, grammar, and spelling.  They must stay on topic.  They must use "sparkly" vocabulary and describing words.  They are encouraged to write a lot and stay only on the lines provided.  They have 55 minutes to do this.  They are subsequently scored on a 6 point rubric.

My sweet third grade students were not looking forward to this.  We write a lot in our room.  Actually, some of my students are close to being obsessive writers and Writer's Workshop is their favorite time of day.  You know, the kind of writers that have to be reminded to "please put your writing away...I can see you trying to write while we are learning about fractions."  It's wonderful.

The issue is that these kids DETEST writing to a prompt.  Abolutely abhore it. 

The first time we practiced prompt writing, numerous kids were crying.  I was devastated and many students simply shut down.

So.  I went back to a book I read while I was a Literacy Coach.  Writing to a Prompt by Janet Angelillo has an entire section in her book about how writing to a prompt is really like playing a video game.

I brought an old PS3 controller into school one day and set it at the front of the room.  It caused a stir, but I refused to say anything about it until writing time.

When it was finally time to have the conversation with my students, they were completely perplexed  Um no...there is no way on this planet that writing to a prompt is like playing a video game.  How could I be so ridiculous?

Lo and behold, though, my students finally realized what I was trying to help them understand.  Here is the teaching chart we created:

It truly made all the difference.  

My students realized that yes, they do have some power in controlling the direction of their writing in a prompt.  And although they must follow the "rules" of the "game," they can use their imaginations to create and go in so many different directions.

We just recently finished the writing prompt portion of our state test.  And although my students were nervous, nobody cried.  

They knew that they were "playing a game" and that they had the power to win.