As the director of a National Writing Project site I am frequently asked by administrators and teachers for a quick fix for the on-demand writing scores of their school or district. Let me be clear – there is no quick fix for “problem” on-demand writing scores. The problem is that anyone thinks that on-demand writing tells us anything more than how students perform on that specific writing task in that specific moment in time. The problem is that this is still a thing (oh John Oliver, when will you do one of your witty reports about on-demand writing?). I recently read a blog post by Tim DeWar about his daughter’s first five-paragraph essay experience and I wanted to cry. I know my 14-year-old son is an experienced on-demand writer (as he must be as an 8th grader in Kentucky), but I believe he loses something important every time he is forced to use this formula and cannot exercise his unique brand of creative wit. Why is on-demand writing still a thing?
OK, it is still a thing and because it is we need to find a way to live with it and not harm our students in the process. Let’s be clear here, many teachers and many schools and many districts are harming their students with their obsessive focus on this one narrow approach to writing instruction. Truly, the problem with student on-demand writing performance is that far too much time is spent teaching students to write on-demand essays and not enough time is spent helping students become writers.
No formula, no graphic organizer, and no prescription is going to fix your on-demand writing scores, because (you might have noticed this on your own) students are individual people with unique skills, fears, and motivations. Even skilled and experienced writers can have a bad day or simply write themselves into a corner (ask me about my tragic GRE exam experience), but skilled and experienced writers have a lot of tools on their workbench to help them. Students taught ONLY on-demand writing formulas have only one tool and no experience for using it any way other than the prescriptive method they were taught. As I’ve argued before: Teaching only on-demand writing is like teaching students to make rice crispy treats and calling them chefs. Worse, students taught only on-demand writing have no confidence in their ability to adapt to a new prompt or writing situation. This is why so many students who have been repeatedly drilled to practice the formula can still perform badly on testing day.
While there is not a quick or easy fix, there is a simple answer – have students write all year and toss out the formula. Give students lots of writing experiences in lots of different situations. This means both high- and low-stakes writing. This means writing for fun and for learning. This means writing in every content area as well as for creative expression. This means fast bell-ringers and slow reflections. This means carefully planned arguments and spontaneous poems. The solution to any writing problem can be found in creating a community of writers who write and read and talk about their writing with other writers. This is the National Writing Project way and it has been proven to work across grade levels and disciplines. Teaching formulas will never make writers. If you are serious about improving writing in your classroom, school, or district then you need to get serious about creating writers.