What’s the Purpose?
At the age of sixteen, I remember watching rain drip down my bedroom window and coming to terms with the fact that I had to get practical. Poetic me, who wanted to write creatively for the joy of it got this idea she had to step aside and let type-A, disciplined-student me take over to get me into college and onto a good career.
I put creative-writer me on the sidelines as I built my career in literacy education. Then one day, she reappeared where I least expected: on a standardized test.
It’s ironic that in K-12 literacy it’s rarely practical to be poetic. As educators, we are busy with the quantifiable and segmented literacies of school:
Reading levels. Text complexity. Text-dependent tasks. Assessments. Schedules. Objectives. Exemplars. Rubrics. Curriculum adoptions.
The longer I’ve worked in education, the more I’ve adapted myself to the rules of the game.
Then, one night a random Google search revealed the unexpected: a collision of my creative and professional worlds. My personal essay, “Dirt,” about my experience backpacking, was Comprehension Passage A on a released copy of the New York Regents High School Exam.
My Creative Writing on a Standardized Test?
It was a personal essay with humble reflections about the meaning of dirt in two different contexts of my life. I’d written it for an online journal about women in the wilderness.
No one had approached me to put it on this standardized test, but there it was, my soul spilled to page, followed by two rows of multiple-choice questions every high school senior in New York that year had to answer for a score.
I was flattered to have the essay selected, I admit. Any publication brings a suppressed writer a flash of joy.
Then, I took the test.
It was the kind of test I hated as a student; the kind of test I never wanted to teach to; the kind of test that gets used to evaluate teachers, sort students, sanction schools, and narrow the literacy-teaching skill sets of educators like me. And don’t even get me started on how problematic it is to measure the reading comprehension of culturally and linguistically diverse adolescents with a passage by a middle-aged white woman about her vacation.
Some of the Test Questions
Question 14 stumped me.
I read the question with two minds: (1) as the author of the passage, and (2) as a teacher.
Author-me read the choices and was stumped. Not a single one even came close to my purpose for writing “Dirt.”
Teacher-me broke it down, eliminated the obviously wrong answers, and figured out the most likely fit.
Teacher-me: The correct answer is “1. Narrate a personal journey.”
Author-me: Are you kidding? Narrate a personal journey? That’s not why I wrote this!
Teacher-me: Yes, but it could be. It is a personal piece about an experience.
Author-me: Logically you have a point, and you’ve missed the point entirely. Not one of these vague answer choices even comes close to my purpose for writing “Dirt.”
At this point, I began second guessing myself, fearing that maybe the test knew something about author’s purpose I never learned. I reread the last paragraphs.
Teacher-me: What was YOUR purpose?
Author-me: I wrote it for the same reason I’m writing this now—to juxtapose apparent contradictions in my life.
Wilderness-me vs. City-me
Creative Author vs. K-12 School Consultant
I wrote it to step back from the lines I draw around my world and see things in a new light, to question whether our constant effort for “progress” actually takes us where we need to go.
I ask the same questions of this test designed to measure learning systematically across an entire state. If the author of Passage A herself struggles to find the correct answer, what is this exam actually measuring?
Does a high score actually mean higher reading comprehension, or a superior skillset to narrow thinking into predictable ideas?
What IS Our Purpose?
The question I stumbled on is bigger than choices 1, 2, 3 or 4. It is a question we need to ask daily as we navigate the systems of literacy education we have inherited: What is our purpose?
What do our policies and actions with students say about our purpose?
Are we thinking enough beyond the tasks and choices on the page?
Are we opening students’ thinking beyond the lines we have drawn?
Are we thinking beyond the lines that have drawn us?
Are we even asking the right questions?
In a multi-decade career from teacher to international literacy consultant, I was foolish to push my creative-writer self away from my work. With my family roots a (white colonial) culture that values productivity over human connection, I didn’t dare let the raw, vulnerable, creative-writer me into my professional world, for fear of the chaos she would bring.
Yet the chaos of complex thinking, of nuance and courageous questions, is exactly what is needed to transform schools.
How else, as we strive for progress, will we challenge our own assumptions?
How else will we find the courage to question each quantifiable success we realize to ask: Does this actually serve our purpose, or get in the way?
Sources and Related Readings
ASCD (Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development) (2018, February). Measuring What Matters. Education Leadership 75(5) (entire volume).
Garbarino, J. (2011). Education Reform in the Wrong Direction: High-Stake Consequences for New York State Teachers and Their Students. (This opinion piece gives context for how the Comprehensive Exam in English was used the year “Dirt” was Passage A).
Menken, K., & Solorza, C. (2014). No Child Left Bilingual: Accountability and the Elimination of Bilingual Education Programs in New York City Schools. Educational Policy, 28(1), 96–125.
Singer, T. W. “Dirt.” In the Mist magazine (1.1). Republished without permission in the NY Regents exam cited above.
University of the State of New York (2011). Regents High School Examination, Comprehensive Exam in English, Wednesday, August 17, 2011. Downloaded from http://www.nysedregents.org/comprehensiveenglish/811/compeng-exam811.pdf