April 21st Update: Teacher Magazine features a wonderful collaborative writing piece and nice set of digital composing tools (e.g. Wikispaces, Google Docs, Glogster.)
Mr. Johnson, a retired English instructor, spoke of the instructional dilemma he had during his teaching days:
"If I did it right and gave students the assignments they needed to increase their writing proficiency, I was overwhelmed as an instructor and ultimately unfair to myself. But if I did it wrong by not giving enough assignments, I would be shortchanging the students. Either way I felt guilty."
Over the long course of academia, the discipline of writing has stood alone where student assessment is concerned. While some writers aspired to have their work read by large numbers of people 'one day,' nearly all needed to endure having their work read by a few readers at time-- their current English teacher, Mom, & maybe a standardized test essay reader more recently-- up through their undergraduate years.
Thankfully developments in the last quarter century have produced some fine ways for addressing "Mr. Johnson's dilemma:"
Process Writing is perhaps the most significant among them. If you happen to be a parent of school-aged children, you may have never heard of process writing. Mounds View High School writing instructor Liv Rosin, who is a curriculum contact person for a program called College Writing Lab, explained it is a formative type of instruction in which a writer's work-in-progress is subject to interventions by both an instructor and a student's writing peer group. This approach, which is now the norm in many high schools, differs from the traditional writing approach where a writer works alone before submitting the final product for an instructor's judgment.
Most educators prefer formative assessments to summative ones due to their capacity to diagnose, then allow students to improve upon their work before moving on to the next class or grade level.
For those school districts who still find the labors of process writing instruction too heavy a curricular burden, long-time writing proponent Paul Carney has just the "online shop" for them. A no-nonsense educator who saw far too many graduates receiving diplomas who didn't have the second "R" of "readin', writin' & 'rithmetic" mastered, Carney developed Step Write Up for 8th graders and Ready or Not Writing for high school students. Under both programs, students whose schools enroll in the free program can submit either school-assigned pieces or independently-crafted ones for a college ready assessment from a Minnesota college English instructor.
Nowhere does the virtual world of the internet become so practical as in the case of Carney's supplementary creations, which are recognized by both Democratic and Republican leaders at the Minnesota Department of Education who realize there has been a decline in the writing of many graduating seniors.
By now, you could be asking what type of feedback is available for addressing Mr. Johnson's dilemma at the elementary level. After all, the group interactivity of process writing might fly a little high for K-5 kids, and students aren't eligible for the services of Step Write Up until the 8th grade.
A Minnesota-based website called Kidblog provides budding grade school writers the opportunity to have their work absorbed by the most intriguing audience type of all-- similar-aged students of other countries! Kidblog was recently the subject of this front-page, above-the-fold, Sunday feature:Pioneer Press Kidblog Piece. Begun by Matt Hardy-- an Eden Prairie, MN, elementary teacher in 2007-- the site not only makes keyboarding miraculously fun, it has also sufficiently allayed safety concerns enough for 500,000 elementary-aged writers & readers to be sharing their thoughts and life experiences with new friends across the planet.
Taken together, these new programs, processes, and platforms have combined to truly make the days we live in an unparalleled period for the art of writing. Add in the technological changes allowing for the rapid, digital "deconstruction" of a piece and near-instant publishing capabilities-- and calling this period a Renaissance for Writing is not too strong a description.
At the very least, our educational culture now has what it takes to solve "Mr. Johnson's dilemma."