Jonas typically sat in silence throughout my entire class period, a downtrodden look on his face. He has made it crystal clear he did not want to be in my Pre-AP 8th grade English class. In fact, he pleaded with the school counselor to be moved on the very first day of school for fear of the course load. However, with student enrollment rising combined with staff cutbacks, there was no other option. Intimidated by the “AP” label and perceived high expectations, Jonas refused to turn in any formal essay I assigned that year in preparation for the state 8th grade reading test.
Due to Oklahoma House Bill 3218, 8th grade students prior to 2021 required a passing score on a state writing test in conjunction with their reading test. This writing test was worth 12% of their total score. Of course, every 8th grade student knew (as they were constantly reminded by parents, teachers, and administrators) they must pass this test in order to become a licensed driver in the state of Oklahoma. With visions of independence and elevated social status looming overhead, pressure to pass was high. When I approached his mother about Jonas’s lack of motivation, she stated via email, “He is a lot like me I think with writing. I would rather do anything than write a creative paper. I want things to have right or wrong answers with no gray areas, so classes where I couldn’t just learn a formula or memorize something always blew my mind!”
I didn’t know how to explain to the parent that I had taught Jonas all year that writing an argumentative essay is one big formula. As I teach 13 year-old young adolescents, I use a crude acronym to get students to remember the parts of an argumentative and expository essay: HIT PEEE POOP (insert giggles here). You HIT on your introduction (Hook, Introduce Topic, Thesis), PEEE on your body paragraphs (Point, Explain, Evidence, Explain), and POOP on your conclusion (Paraphrase claim, Overview your reasons, Opposing argument, Point)! I even have a goofy song that I’ve fashioned to the tune of Disney’s “Bare Necessities” that I play incessantly for students leading up to the test. It’s a color-by-numbers, fill-in-the-blanks, check-it-off-the-list essay that guarantees at the very least an organized essay. How could Jonas not get it? How does it ask him to be creative in any way!? Then it dawned on me. Perhaps the reason why Jonas had not engaged in the writing process in my classroom was because I did not ask him to. Instead, I asked him to detach himself from his writing for the purpose of passing a test and for no other reason.
As an 8th grade English teacher, I am often the first to introduce students to structured, evidence-based writing. Many students come to me unfamiliar with what a ‘claim’ is or how to construct one based on a writing prompt. Often, students come unprepared to gather evidence to support their claims, incorporate evidence into their writing, paraphrase and quote from sources, or properly cite them. Unfortunately, bridging these gaps on top of reading and grammar instruction leaves precious little time for aiding these young adolescents in exploring their individual voices and experiences.
Students like Jonas deserve more than color-by-numbers writing instruction. They deserve more than teaching to the test. Following this realization, I knew I needed to collaborate with those who have struggled with this journey as I have. I knew I needed to be diligent about incorporating student choice, collaboration, and (gasp!) “I” statements into students’ weekly writing assignments. In order to foster this type of authentic, real-world critical writing into my curriculum, I registered for the College, Career, and Community Writer’s Program Advanced Institute the summer after Jonas left my classroom.
The College, Career, and Community Writer’s Program (C3WP) is a grant program by the National Writing Project. C3WP teacher consultants coach teachers through argumentative writing “mini” units with the hopes of strengthening student writing and preparing them for writing beyond the four walls of a classroom. Ultimately, C3WP teacher consultants seek ways to involve students in the community, to reflect about the world they live in, and to explore their unique voices. To achieve these goals, we must look beyond the formula, beyond the box, beyond the checklist. As a C3WP teacher consultant, I have learned far more than I have taught during our professional development workshops.
I learned to help students see beyond “pro” and “con”, to see the nuance in the world around them. I learned to help students see the arguments hidden in plain sight: on cereal boxes, in social media posts, in cartoons and memes. I learned to give students choices on how to craft their own arguments, through video game creation, podcasting, infographics, and much more. I learned that it’s okay to give students direction with tools like HIT PEEE POOP, but to aid them in pushing past the formula by infusing their own unique voices and ideas into their writing.
After years of growth through this program, I still think of Jonas often. I wish I could ask him about his outlook on writing today. I wonder if he cringes when he puts a pen to paper, when he sits to type an email. I wonder if his aversion to writing kept him from college or job opportunities. Could I have made a difference?
800+ students after Jonas, and I can honestly say that I have made a difference, with immense help from my C3WP teacher family.