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April 1, 2018
Vol. 75
No. 7

Let Them Write Plays!

Giving student writers a choice of genre can unleash their creativity in academic papers and test responses.

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Instructional StrategiesEngagement
I was pouring coffee in the break room when I overheard two colleagues talking about one of my students. Iman was bright and insightful in class, they said, but her writing was uncharacteristically bland.
A week later, as I was reading my students' responses to our English department's diagnostic, the teachers' remarks came back to me. We had given each 11th grade student a sample prompt from our state's end-of-course writing test. I'd kept my instructions for responding to a minimum, curious to see what they'd come up with, but all of my students wrote conventional essays—except for Iman, who wrote a two-act screenplay. Its voice, focus, specificity, and depth were exceptional, and it provided a nuanced, implicit answer to the prompt. I asked Iman if she had ever been that experimental before in a class assignment. "Not since middle school," she shrugged, and I began to suspect that my colleagues had only read Iman's conventional essays and papers, which was why they hadn't seen her best writing.
Throughout the year in my English 11 class, Iman went on to write in a variety of genres—prose, verse, and drama. Her essays were well written and thoughtful, but she shined most brightly when writing plays and screenplays.

Getting More Creative

In the upper grades especially, students are often limited to writing nonfictional expositions, summaries, and persuasive texts (Romano, 2000; Scherff & Piazza, 2005). Analytic research papers are the coins of the realm in academia and the workplace, but that doesn't mean that all students should have to write all of those papers in nonfictional prose. Writing in a variety of genres (for example, poems, plays, and short stories) improves students' writing in more traditional academic genres, such as essays and research papers (Lindblom, 2016). Different students do their best writing in different genres (Bouwer, Beguin, Sanders, & van der Bergh, 2015), and research shows that having a choice of genre leads to increased motivation, the development of voice, and greater gains in student writing (Fletcher, 2015; Liner & Butler, 2000; Singer & Scollay, 2007).
In my classroom, I've offered my 11th grade students choice of genre in assignments that traditionally call for nonfictional prose—literary papers, research papers, and responses to standardized writing tests—and have seen great results. If we want to see our students' best written work, we should allow them to choose the genres in which they write.

"Literary" Literary Papers

I first began to encourage alternative-genre literary papers from my strongest writers as a means of broadening their horizons, but I also found that some students who had struggled to write conventional literary papers flourished when they experimented with other genres.
Molly, like Iman, was a student whose nonfictional prose was workmanlike, but her best paper of the year, "A Fantasy in Two Acts: Peter and Holden," was written as a play. Comparing J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan and Holden Caulfield from J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, the play integrates quotes from both works. Here, the two characters meet after Peter flies through the window of Holden's older brother's bedroom:
Holden: Where did you come from?
Peter: "Second to the right … and then straight on till morning" (Barrie, 39). I live with the lost boys in the Never Land, where I can be a little boy without ever worrying about grown-up things.
Holden: (Holden, though he doesn't necessarily believe that such a place exists, is captivated by the idea. He would love to live in a place where "everything always stayed right where it was" (Salinger, 121). He hates the idea of growing up, because he thinks that "there wouldn't be marvelous places to go to" after he graduates and goes to "college and all" (Salinger, 133).) Who are the lost boys, and what the hell do you do all day?
Molly presents three voices in her play, playfully juxtaposing Peter's voice against the irreverence of Holden's, but also adding her own through stage directions. I would argue that the genre of the piece functions as part of Molly's voice—writing an alternative-genre literary paper is a statement in itself. Molly could have written the paper in nonfictional prose, but, in writing a play, she allows the characters to speak for themselves, creating an impactful piece that rearranges familiar text in unfamiliar ways. As Knoeller (2003) suggests, creative writing and the formal study of literature are not exclusive, but often synergic.

The Story of a Research Paper

I encourage my high school students to write research papers in a variety of sustained genres: conventional research papers, short stories, plays, and screenplays—but also multi-genre pieces that might include essays, letters, articles, and poems. I grade creative and conventional papers with the same rubric, and the criteria for both are very similar: Both should have clear titles and strong hooks, they must be at least 1,500 words long and include at least 10 sources, and they must convey clear arguments and counterarguments. My students and I found that in-text citations and quotations hindered the flow of alternative-genre research papers, so we replaced them with footnotes documenting direct quotations and citations. A works-cited section concludes each piece.
A recent paper by my student Mateo bears the title "To Use or Not to Use: Should MDMA-Assisted Psychotherapy Be a Legal Option for Treating Posttraumatic Stress Disorder?"—a potential somnifacient for many readers. But the paper is written as a short story. In the piece, Peter and Sarah's brother Brandon comes home from Iraq with treatment-resistant PTSD. Peter narrates:
Three years ago, I went to pick up my twin brother from the airport.
We were born identical, right down to the birthmarks on our left hands, but time has changed that. He is buffer, louder, more aggressive—and now, his face has shadows that mine has never known, and when he walks, it's with a heavy, awkward limp.
Searching for a cure, Peter and Sarah uncover research that suggests that MDMA (or "ecstasy"), when used in conjunction with traditional psychotherapy, has been effective in addressing treatment-resistant PTSD. But MDMA is illegal. As the siblings advocate for making the drug legal for treatment, they encounter characters with differing viewpoints (counterarguments). Mateo's paper immerses us in the siblings' world, putting human faces on the issue and developing a powerful, emotional impact in a compelling manner. The paper combines beautiful, clear prose with rigorous, peer-reviewed research—there are two-and-a-half pages of works cited.
Alternative-genre research papers do not have to be limited to just English and language arts classrooms. Olson (2015) calls for more narratives in scientific writing: "Both the scientific method and the communication of science are narrative processes. Yet the power and structure of story are neither widely taught nor openly advocated" (p. vii). The study of history is essentially the study of narrative. And imagine how students might grow in their understanding of a foreign language if they could write poetry or plays in that language.

Un-standardizing the Standardized Test Response

The conventional essay has long been the default mode of response to standardized writing tests (Brimi, 2012; Hillocks, 2002). Since 2014, however, my students have written poems, plays, short stories, and other genres on Virginia's writing tests, the SAT, the ACT, and an AP literature exam. One student's short-story response to a question on the ACT scored as well as her classmates' conventional responses. Another of my students actually improved her score on the SAT by writing a creative response. I had a student score a perfect 5 on the AP Language and Literature Exam after writing a love story in response to one of the questions. Their results validate earlier claims that students who receive expansive writing instruction (a component of which involves writing in multiple genres) can succeed on standardized writing tests (Fletcher & Portalupi, 2001; Higgins, Miller, & Wegmann, 2006), even outperforming students who receive only narrow, test-focused instruction (Manzo, 2001).
One of my students, Sruthi, wrote a narrative poem in response to the 2016 Virginia End-of-Course Writing Test prompt, "It has been said that a positive attitude is the key to success in life. Do you agree or disagree with this statement about the importance of attitude?" Here is an excerpt:
"What do you think?" she said. "Tell us your impression of California."
The reporter said our impression of the state but I knew the truth.
She wanted to know our opinion of the fancy cars we never saw back home.
She wanted to know what we thought of the big houses, the expensive pool.
I mumbled something about the warmth of the sun, eager to get this over with so that I could go get ready for the race with my teammates.
She probably meant no harm, but that question was the spark to the powder keg of nerves and doubt that I had managed to keep a lid on until now.
The disbelief that four girls from Chicago's projects could compete for a U.S. title.
The skepticism that anyone from our background could succeed, leading to drug testing after every single win—as if we could afford steroids.
The fear that swimming was becoming too easy if girls like us could win.
I stood behind the block, thinking about that conversation, wondering just what the heck we were doing here.
We were supposed to drop out of high school, not become professional athletes.
The narrator of this poem is paralyzed by low expectations and self-doubt, but she receives encouraging words from a teammate and reflects on the positive thinking that got her team to the starting block in the first place:
Slowly my muscles began to loosen. I could breathe again. She was right.
With every race that we saw what isn't, what couldn't be, we lost.
But where we saw what could be, we won.
And what could be tonight flashed before my eyes.
I looked down at the other end of the pool at the three steps 50 meters away.
And saw the four of us atop the tallest one labeled "1."And for the first time that night, I smiled.
Sruthi is not a swimmer from the Chicago projects, but she attended a STEM-focused high school where only 41 percent of the students were girls. There she founded a nonprofit organization to encourage girls to study computer science, a particularly male-dominated field. Her choice of genre is also meaningful—Sruthi had to pass the state writing test in order to graduate, and her poem was a significant minority in a sea of conventional essays. Yet the scorers awarded her poem 21 out of 24 points, enough for Sruthi to earn a Pass Advanced. Sruthi wrote a meaningful poem that extended her own experience through several layers, empathically connecting it to what others might encounter.

With Choice Comes Transformation

Having taught ESOL and remedial English, I've seen already-struggling writers further discouraged when made to write in a prescribed fashion. Those same reluctant writers can be re-engaged by an invitation to write in different genres. Good writing instruction includes having students write in multiple genres, but great writing instruction moves beyond limiting students to writing poetry during a poetry unit or short stories during a short-story unit. "Young writers thrive in a classroom where they have choice," asserts Fletcher, "and I mean this in the fullest sense of the word: choice of genre, choice of topic, choice in how they decide to create a piece of writing" (Fletcher, 2015, p. 49). Choice of genre can make forgettable writers into exceptional ones, breathe life into stale forms, and turn dry prose into verse that sings. It is choice—autonomy, essentially—that transforms student writers into writers.
References

Barrie, J. M. (1911). The annotated Peter Pan: The centennial edition. M. Tatar (Ed). New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Bouwer, R., Beguin, A., Sanders, T., & van der Bergh, H. (2015). Effect of genre on the generalizability of writing scores. Language Testing, 32(1), 83–100.

Brimi, H. (2012). Teaching writing in the shadow of standardized writing assessment: An exploratory study. American Secondary Education, 41(1), 52–77.

Fletcher, R. (2015). Making nonfiction from scratch. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

Fletcher, R., & Portalupi J. (2001). Writing workshop: The essential guide. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Higgins, B., Miller, M., & Wegmann, S. (2006). Teaching to the test … not! Balancing best practice and testing requirements in writing. The Reading Teacher, 60(4), 310–319.

Hillocks, G. (2002). The testing trap: How state writing assessments control learning. New York: Teachers College.

Knoeller, C. (2003). Imaginative response: Teaching literature through creative writing. English Journal, 92(5), 42–48.

Lindblom, K. (2016, May 30). Is your child getting a good writing education? Four questions to ask your child. Retrieved from Teachers, Profs, Parents: Writers Who Care at https://writerswhocare.wordpress.com/2016/05/30/is-your-child-getting-a-good-writing-education-four-questions-to-ask-your-child

Liner, T., & Butler, D. (2000). "You want to read what?" Giving students a voice in their own literacy and in the literacy program. In K. D. Wood & T. S. Dickinson (Eds.), Promoting literacy in grades 4–9: A handbook for teachers and administrators (pp.139–154). Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Manzo, K. K. (2001, December 12). Schools stress writing for the test. Education Week, pp. 1, 18.

Olson, R. (2015). Houston, we have a narrative: Why science needs story. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago.

Romano, T. (2000). Blending genre, altering style: Writing multigenre research papers. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Salinger, J. D. (1951). The catcher in the rye. New York: Bantam.

Scherff, L., & Piazza, C. (2005). The more things change, the more they stay the same: A survey of high school students' writing experiences. Research in the Teaching of English, 39(3), 271–304.

Singer, N. R., & Scollay, D. (2007). Building a district-based secondary writing program through the National Writing Project model. Retrieved from National Writing Project at www.nwp.org/cs/public/download/nwp_file/10534/LSRI%20Gateway%202007.pdf?x-r=pcfile_d

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