This was the question posed to my fourth grade students on their recent “Writing Motivation Survey.” It was in the form of an online poll, complete with twenty-eight questions that they were to rank on a 1-4 scale. It was required before they completed their annual district writing assessment.
Twenty-eight questions. They are nine years old. If I ask them why they write they will tell me things like, “I have to” or “I like writing because it’s fun” or “I like making up stories.” Those replies are perfectly appropriate for a nine year old. But twenty-eight questions? Too much.
Speaking of too much, there’s the assessment itself. In the old days we passed out a paper folder with a writing prompt on the front. It was one or two sentences long. We also passed out a check sheet that kids were to use for revision and editing purposes. Some used it, many did not. After they completed a rough draft they got a second paper folder for the final draft. It was a long process, and quite demanding, but appropriate to the age and grade level.
Times have changed, however. Now the kids get a copy of the scoring guideline, which is written for adults. Good thing we have access to it ahead of time so that we can teach them what it means. The test is now on the computer, which isn’t uncommon, but it does take quite a few more steps to get to than passing out a paper. They have to read through two dense pages of “how to use the tools” (again, we are able to do this ahead of time, thank goodness), before they even get to the prompt.
Ah, the prompt. It’s on the right side of the screen, with a related article on the left side. Remember the old one to two sentence prompt? That’s gone. Now there’s about 200 words of text they have to navigate before they can figure out what they’re supposed to write about. And am I allowed to read it to them or help them interpret it? Absolutely not. They are on their own (even though this is not a reading comprehension test, it’s a writing test).
The expectation is that they will then independently read the included article on the topic (again, no help is allowed) and incorporate information into their response. They also watch an informational video and take notes on it to include. Then they are to independently compose their piece, revise and edit it, and type it into the computer. Did I mention that they’re nine?
We try to prepare them for this task, but frankly it’s too much. Even if I could rewrite the prompt so that it’s easier to understand, even if I could choose a shorter, simpler article, even if I could read it to them, it’s too much. How often do you have to read text, view a video, and compose a piece of writing all in one sitting? And you’re an adult!
It’s a good thing they take the “Writing Motivation Survey” before this assessment, because afterward I don’t think too many of my kids were feeling very good about writing, and that’s terrible. I have to do damage control, and work hard to get them back to a place where they don’t hate to write. Tasks like this are discouraging to so many learners, even kids who are normally enthusiastic about writing.
I understand the value of being able to accomplish that type of task, but honestly for kids in the fourth grade it’s too much, too soon. Now we’ll take a few steps back, break down some of those writing tasks into smaller chunks, and tackle those. We’ll also go back to enjoying language and learning how to play with it.
The good new is that kids are flexible. They did it. They survived. They’ll move on. My creative writing club kids met yesterday afternoon, and they proved it to me. They wrote for thirty sustained minutes about planets they created based on their watercolor paintings from the previous session. We had poetry, a space explorer account, a newscast drama, descriptions of the unicorn planet, the rainbow planet, the basketball planet, and more. Now that’s a reason to write.