On measurable outcomes in the arts

I had a great time last week in Salina, KS in part of my annual school residency. I did a wide range of performances and workshops, from telling folktales to kindergarten through second grade, to doing my new Shakespeare program for fifth graders (10- and 11-year olds), to giving a workshop for ten kids in a special high school program, to a performance of Tristan and Iseult (my longest story at 95 minutes) at a coffeehouse, to writing workshops with fifth graders. It's this last one I want to talk about.

In this workshop, which I've written about before, one of my goals is to get students excited about writing by actually writing. After I lay the groundwork, I give them a topic and say, "On your marks, get set, write!" as I start my timer for three minutes. The kids are immediately silent, intent upon keeping their hands moving, pouring words out of their pencils onto the paper. Oh, yes, occasionally they get stuck and I quietly give them a little boost of an idea, but in all three classes last week, I barely had to do that. 

I love this point in the workshop, where the kids are deeply focused.. 

Writing so fast, the pencil is blurry!

Writing so fast, the pencil is blurry!

This is the point in the workshop where I see the most value. The students are excited about writing, about learning, about their own innate creativity. It was at this point last week when in one session, a seasoned teacher whispered to me how she could see using this exercise when they had only a few minutes to fill. It was at this point, in a different session, when the young teacher in charge of teaching writing to the fifth graders whispered a question: "How would you measure this? How could I write a rubric for this activity?" 

I was gobsmacked. How could I answer this? A rubric is educational jargon for "a standard of performance for a defined population," according to the National Science Education Standards. I wanted to shake this teacher and say, "Can't you see that these kids are actually learning that writing can be fun? Can't you feel their excitement?" I use an abridged version of Natalie Goldberg's "Rules for Writing Practice," from the book Wild Mind. The last rule is "You're free to write the worst junk in America." I want the kids to write without being graded, judged, measured. If they know they're being graded by the teacher, they'll self-censor (thanks, Kelly Werts, for that insight). They won't write freely, which is the whole point. 

It's not the teacher's fault. The last many years, starting with No Child Left Behind, have forced teachers into this business model of requiring "measurable return on investment." Maybe the Common Core Standards will shift this, as there's a little more emphasis on creativity, but as far as I read them, they're still locked into measurement. The arts don't fit well into this model.

I told the teacher I didn't have a good answer to her question. If I had to grade those kids, I would give them all top marks, for the joy of their own creativity. What they learn when they're able write what's inside them is that they are interesting, creative, worthy human beings with something to say. Let's celebrate this, instead of trying to force it into a rubric.