Saturday, March 24, 2012

Curing niños' writer's block on standardized tests

by Rudy Garcia

Writer's Block! You think you've got troubles because your deadline's only days away, or your second installment on that trilogy is fast approaching and you already got an advance on it? At least your writer's block won't go on your permanent public-school record, maybe lead to your school being put on the dummies list and shut down, or land your favorite teacher in the unemployment line!

Here's something most teachers dread hearing: "I can't think of anything to write about," says the little girl who weighs less than half my dog. "No tengo ideas, Maestro," says another six-year-old who looks like the couch slept on him, instead of the other way around.

Writer's block, you see, doesn't just afflict the published and the renowned; it even infiltrates our public schools. [Of course this excludes charter school kids because they're the strongest writers who are creamed out of the public schools.]

Anyway, this isn't a how-to for adults to cure their writer's block; see your literary physician for that. But here I'll share how I inoculated a class of 3rd graders from this affliction so they could face the annual cruel and unusual standardized CSAP test in 2011 in Colo.

I'd heard that an entire class of 4th graders had turned in mostly blank sheets on the standardized writing test the previous year. Why? Because it asked about something they'd never experienced. They could only imagine answering truthfully, which meant they had no prior knowledge to work from, nor anything to write about. For that, they should have received high marks in honesty, or something else that standardized tests don't measure.

So, at their teacher's invitation, I taught them some of my "author's secrets" to help avoid making the same mistake as the 4th graders. One "secret" I shared was that the standardized test nazis don't care about the truth, honesty or any other ethical concerns, other than the obvious non-charter school cheating. All they care about is the writing.

My instructions to the students were: Invent. Lie. Borrow. Filch. Fabricate anything to answer the prompt and write it as well as possible.

The "secrets" involved several lessons that I might reveal another time, but the end result was that these 3rd graders scored high marks on the CSAP. According to their regular teacher, it worked.

Later, some kids bragged about how much they'd invented, how many lies they'd told, and how far from reality their compositions were. Of course, I felt half-traitorous for "teaching to the test," in asking them to subvert their character for the sake of scoring high, and for telling a BIG LIE. But my soul is safe because I wasn't their regular teacher who feels guilty enough for both of us.
At the start of this year, I shared some of my "secrets" with my 1st graders. Then I had them write a narrative of "When I went to China." Almost every one of them qualifies for free lunch and the most they'll experience anything of China anytime soon is one of those $1 scoops at an Asian-sounding restaurant. But that didn't stop my 1st graders.

What did they write? "I went to China and saw my teacher Maestro Garcia."--Invention. "Me and my three friends went to China and had a good time using chopsticks and eating sushi."--Lies. "I went to China and met a friend who taught me Chinese and I taught her Spanish."--Total Fabrication.

Luckily, my 1st graders have two more years before they'll have to suffer the new Colo. standardized test. And unless their present teacher has some I-should-prepare-them paranoia for breakfast, they won't have to undergo this rigmarole very often.

Is there a lesson here for curing adult writer's block? I doubt it. But the next time your non-charter school kids tells you, "I can't think of anything to write for homework," toss your moral baggage in the trash can and repeat to him/her/it ten times: Invent. Lie. Borrow. Filch. Fabricate.

And then, the next time you visit the classroom, stand back for his/her /its teacher to toss roses in your path.

Es todo, hoy,

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