Much—if not all, in some cases—of the writing required of students in school is on-demand writing*. (Meaning the assignment is prescribed: write on this topic, at this length, due at this time.)
I understand why this might be desirable. Among other things, one instructor can assign a whole class at once, and then read & grade the assignments to a common standard (apples to apples). Sort of like having the class all read the same novel. And no one—least of all me—thinks teachers are underworked. Especially language arts teachers, where grading writing assignments is way more labor intensive than grading, say, math tests.
[*Full disclosure: I use on-demand writing exercises in some of my workshops, for specific reasons. I give a brief—100 word or so—writing assignment based on a given scenario, using a specific POV. Then I have them turn around and write the same scene again, using a different tense and POV, and then again. Then students read their different versions aloud and we compare & discuss the differences regarding immediacy, voice, emotional effect, etc. I’ve found that instead of just showing them the difference with examples—i.e. from the outside—it’s much more instructive for them to experience the difference for themselves, from the inside.]
But I think there are a couple of fundamental issues with this (similar to issues with whole-class novels), especially if used exclusively:
The first issue is similar to using writing prompts when trying to inspire writers…
Because unless designed with care to be purposely broad and vague, it hands the students the one thing they need to learn to create for themselves if they want to be writers beyond school. Which is the concept of idea generation…
Because in actual writing (i.e. “writing meant for reading,” whether published or not—as opposed to writing done strictly to fulfill a given assignment) the first hurdle is deciding what to write about…
Because in the real world outside school, most writing, for most writers, will be self-assigned. The writer decides the subject matter, the voice, the plot (if fiction), the form (if nonfiction), and how to go about saying the thing they need to say. (And not incidentally, they also have to decide when it’s “due,” which is even more important when there’s no one waiting for it. As discussed in our very first blog post.)
The second issue is similar to that of assigned reading. (For a deep dive into the problems with assigned reading—and how to migrate from it to a more productive reading paradigm—read Book Love, by Penny Kittle.) The first rule of having an engaged reader or an engaged writer is that they’re interested in the subject before them. And of course the best way to insure that is to let them choose the subject. So many kids are turned off by being forced to read "the classics" that it’s become a cliché about everything wrong with most English classes.
The same thing applies with writing assignments. When I was in 5th grade or so, we were given the assignment to write about ourselves in an autobiographical way. Then the teacher would read them aloud in class, without naming the student. (Oh my god, just kill me now.) I sort of shrugged to myself and started writing. “I was born on Mars,” I began. (I was a big science fiction reader at the time.) The point isn’t that I made the work into a “student’s choice” assignment, it’s that out of all the writing we did in elementary school, it’s virtually the only thing I can remember writing. Because I wrote something I wanted to write instead of the boring assignment I had no interest in. Everything else came and went like the peanut butter sandwiches we had for lunch.
Sometimes on-demand assignments are used with younger students who may not have a specific topic they feel drawn toward. We still want these students to get practice expressing themselves via writing, so we give them a topic with all good intentions. Hence the ubiquitous and painful “What I Did on my Summer Vacation” essays on the first day of school. (I once saw a younger student frustrated to tears when given the first-day assignment, “If you were a tree, what kind would you be and why?” I asked him why he was so upset, and he said he didn’t want to be a tree… of any kind! The more I considered it, the more I agreed with him. Actually sort of terrifying, when you think about it…)
A few mitigation strategies:
1. One easy thing we can do is give a range of options. (If you were a tree, or an animal, or a motor vehicle, or…) This might help students get unstuck when feeling boxed in by a narrowly prescribed prompt.
2. If for some reason it’s deemed necessary for all the students to write on a single topic, have a discussion/poll with the students beforehand, arising at a number of topics they actually have interest in writing about, then work through them (still allowing the broadest interpretation of each).
3. Even better, after making a large and varied list (as above), allow each student to select their individual topic from it for each assignment. Yes, the instructor will have to switch gears while reviewing and/or grading, but the autonomy of choice for the students should outweigh this.
4. And finally, consider the practice of having a list (for the ones who can benefit from a prompt), but with one of the options always being: Or any other subject that interests you. (This is analogous to ELA teachers who have recommended lists of books, with the student always having the option of choosing one of their own.) With the goal being that—as the students get older and more advanced—they are encouraged to develop and use their idea generation skills more and more.
Always keep in mind the question: What is the ultimate objective of the assignment… or of the class itself? If we think the objective is something like “The student is able to expound upon a pre-determined topic in written form” (or, for that matter, “The student reads, comprehends, and is able to parse the minutia within A Tale of Two Cities”) instead of something like “The student learns to enjoy writing creatively and gains skill at it” (or, “The student develops a love of—and skill at—reading”), then maybe we’re missing the broader point.
Because when you boil it all down, we’re teaching creativity. So maybe we should let the students practice being creative…by choosing topics and doing work that has some actual connection to them.
This is where I write about things that are of interest to me and which I think may be of interest to you. I’m assuming most of you are here due to an interest in reading, writing, editing, publishing, etc., so that’s the primary focus.