WELCOMING A BOUNTIFUL HARVEST OF IMAGINATION: Writing Hybrid Forms
I was completely smitten by the book. I longed to read them all, and the things I read of produced new yearnings…But the urge to express myself was my strongest desire and my siblings were my first eager coconspirators in the harvesting of my imagination…I was a dreamy somnambulant child. I vexed my teachers with my precocious reading ability paired with an inability to apply it to anything they deemed practical.
Patti Smith, from Just Kids, Chapter I, “Monday’s Children”
With the advent of the Common Core State Standards the place of the empirical has too often overtaken the place of the imaginative in the teaching of English Language Arts. “Art” features prominently in the identity of the discipline; we must seek to accord art and imagination their just place in our work with people learning to read, write, speak and listen. How else can students feel connected to our hopes for their fluency and virtuosity as writers and readers?
The CCSS anchor standards, sub-standards, and sub-components of performance indicators shape our development of curricula, learning targets, formative and summative assessments and graduation proficiencies. How can we use our judgment and the love of our discipline to both adhere to the spirit of each standard and to create a climate where the precise qualities and traits we want to develop in our students are not trammelled by an overly literal approach to evaluating student work? How can we make the “harvesting of imagination” the controlling principle of our teaching, rather than the accumulation of score points on a deracinated rubric?
This does not mean an abandonment of the standards; instead, it supports the notion that the standards are only one arbitrary schema that allows teachers and students across wide geographical distances to come to a common understanding of what is expected when a student attains excellence in the English Language Arts. Because this set of standards represents a constructed system, notwithstanding its development from a large body of accepted premises about literacy, we need to understand it fully, realizing what the standards contain and do not contain. We must apprehend how what we do every day with our students can help them meet the standards without imposing rigidity. It is a matter of direction and intention.
One way of making writing tasks less pro forma is to revel in the possibilities created by hybrid genres. A flexible, supple intention for assigning written pieces means that we are not confined by the three main genres of writing identified in the CCSS. This does not mean we rule out the assessment of student work on the basis of the performance indicators outlined in each standard. The principles of each one may be creatively applied to writing that defies convention.
Teacher expertise puts CCSS squarely in the service of learners, rather than vice versa. We must work together to increase the sophistication with which we apply standards to the evaluation of student work. These actions free us from a slavish, uncritical and unimaginative adherence to standards that are meant to clarify, rather than to hobble, our appreciation and analysis of student writing. Not only do students experience writing as more liberating when the direction and intention of writing assignments match their impetus for personal investment, but the concomitant growth of teacher expertise in reading their work means greater intellectual freedom and confidence in one’s judgment as an instructor. These ideals are admirable guides for every ELA instructor and every ELA department.
Memoir, personal essay, travel essays, character sketches, portraits of people, the ever burgeoning field of nature writing, narrative journalism, humorous pieces, descriptive vignettes, epistolary stories…all these may fall outside the strict realms of “supporting claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts,” “writing informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas and information…through effective selection, organization and analysis of content,” or “developing real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details, and well-structured event sequences.” (ELA College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards, CCSS, 2010). Yet elements of the special features of each of these three writing genres—argument, informative/explanatory and narrative—will certainly be apparent across maverick forms.
Let’s consider the genre of “creative nonfiction.” One definition, put forward by the online magazine “Creative Nonfiction” is “ true stories, well told.” (https://creativenonfiction.org/what-is-cnf/). This is a serviceable and succinct way of thinking about creative nonfiction. There are many other nuanced ways of looking at it, but for the purpose of explaining this varied and shapeshifting form to our students, it works. And what are some ideas about the most important elements, or “performance criteria” of creative nonfiction?
In his useful and groundbreaking work, Creative Writing: Four Genres in Brief (Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2013.), David Starkey sets forth a concise revision checklist for Creative Nonfiction that might well serve as a rubric, checkbric or checklist for assessing student work 7-12. He outlines six performance criteria with two to three performance indicators for each one. The criteria are: “Organizing Creative Nonfiction,” “Telling the Truth,” “Creative Nonfiction as Narrative,” “The Poetry of Creative Nonfiction,” “ Writing yourself into Creative Nonfiction,” and “Ethics and Edicts.” These six criteria are the bedrock of Starkey’s paradigm for writing careful and captivating nonfiction.
There are clear parallels between and among the CCSS for all of Starkey’s performance criteria and indicators. An example of a specific indicator for “Ethics and Edicts” is: “Have you double-checked the facts in your essay and steered clear of any unjustified disparagement of people and institutions?” A logical and obvious connection to CCSS W.11-12.1,andW.11-12.1a(http://www.corestandards.org/ELA-Literacy/W/11-12/#CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.1) though admittedly the CCSS’ prosaic and objective style disallows the ideas in Starkey’s second clause. Even when one wants to cross boundaries in genres and change up approaches to assessing qualitative elements in a student’s writing, crossing boundaries does not rule out following a well-reasoned path for a crosswalk between and among assessment schema.
Some of the greatest pleasures in literature emerge from unexpected and revelatory forms, whether they veer modestly apart from convention or shift radically into experimental territory. We have the power and the obligation to encourage our students to grow their range of writing to satisfy their imaginations. We should strive to temper the influence of standards, so the best of their points will hold with plasticity, not as implacably concrete strictures. With the nurturing of an indispensable personal connection to their writing and a consistent respect for their vision and imagination, how astonishing and lovely the harvest of our students’ writing may be.
—Melanie Stultz-Backus, PLL, September 2021
Melanie Stultz-Backus, M.Ed., Literacy Consultant for PLL
Melanie is a retired English teacher whose career spanned thirty years at Mount Abraham Union High School in Bristol, Vermont. She first worked as a Chapter I teacher of reading, collaborating in many classrooms across the disciplines in Grades 7-12; next, she taught an array of required and elective courses in grades 9-12. American Studies, a course in 20th century Literature, History and Culture she team-taught for over twenty years, was critical to her growth as a practitioner of collaborative teaching and performance based learning. Influenced by mentors from her high school and college years, she strove to make student agency central to her teaching. Mount Abraham’s early initiative of a school-within-a-school focused on both personalized learning and rigorous development of competencies and performance based assessments. Melanie was privileged to integrate her roles as teacher leader, literacy coach and English instructor into efforts to refine and forward the goals of the Performance Assessment Working Group under the Investing in Innovation (i3) grant through the Center for Secondary School Redesign (CSSR, Providence, RI). This culminating experience deepened her interest and expertise in authentic learning, the art of coaching, and cooperative approaches to professional development as exemplified by Critical Friends Groups’ philosophies. She treasured her twenty-year tenure as a member of the Coordinating Committee of the New England Young Writers’ Conference at Breadloaf. In 2008 Melanie was named a UVM Outstanding Teacher for the Addison Northeast Supervisory Union.