To the Editor:
The Every Student Succeeds Act, while an improvement over No Child Left Behind, will likely do little to fundamentally change the way students prepare for standardized writing tests. All children may succeed, perhaps, but only if they write nonfiction.
Conventional wisdom has long dictated that students must write nonfiction prose in order to do well on, or even pass, standardized writing tests. Look through most test-prep books or websites and you’ll find only one flavor of exemplary writing: nonfiction prose. This narrow definition of successful writing excludes too many student writers, especially those who do their best thinking and writing in alternative genres.
Limiting classroom instruction to nonfiction essays can limit students to a prefabricated writing style that curtails their written exploration of topics. In following central narratives or protagonists, student writers of fiction tend to bring more depth and focus to their responses than do those who write five-paragraph essays. Creative writers introduce counterarguments through the voices of different characters. Such authors are better able to see issues from multiple perspectives because they write from viewpoints different from their own, and they often arrive at more sophisticated conclusions than those students who write nonfiction essays only from their personal experiences. Students who craft free-verse poetry are already a far distance from formulaic essay-style writing.
Of course, creative writing does not guarantee high test scores. But teachers of remedial students may find they can re-engage reluctant writers with an invitation to write poetry or tell stories. Teachers of the gifted may find their best students liberated and challenged by the option of writing creatively. Anyone—gifted or struggling—can tell a story, and anyone can write a poem.
If we limit students to writing nonfiction in the classroom in response to the requirements of standardized writing tests, we will miss precious opportunities to develop critical thinking, character, and creativity.
Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology
A version of this article appeared in the January 13, 2016 edition of Education Week as ESSA Overlooks the Importance of Creative Writing in the Classroom