Friday, March 27, 2009

Prompt Writing

Every year, it falls to me (why is another story) to come up with two writing prompts for use by all our students. I try very hard to think of prompts that will not be too complex, will allow the kids to show what they know, and will not fall prey to any major bias. Needless to say, this can be quite a challenge.

Fortunately, as they years go by; I've gotten better at it. Some years are easy. I write a prompt, the group of teachers in my department approve the prompt, the writing genius down at admin vets the prompt, and we are all set. Other years are a little more exciting. This year was definitely on the more interesting side.

As with any other time, I started out by writing a few prompts to present to the department. I always draw on what I know WASL prompts are like, and I try to come up with something that won't be overly biased. For example, years ago there was a to-do over a prompt that contained the word "lawn." Many kids did badly because it turns out that poor kids who live in apartments don't know much about lawns. The perfect prompt is one that is equally accessible to all kids. Of course, perfection IS impossible, but still we have to try.

This year I came up with one prompt about travel, one about friends, and one about technology. I was fairly pleased with all three, and I was quite confident that each would pass the vetting process down at admin. I trotted innocently off to the department meeting. Then all hell broke loose.

Okay, in a group of English teachers "all hell" may be too strong a word. However, there was much too-ing and fro-ing over those three little prompts. At one point we'd almost approved one of my original prompts only to have the agreement smashed by one particularly strident voice. Factions formed, edits were proposed and discarded, and people became quite stern (that's the English teacher version of getting mad).

Finally, the principle (who doesn't always attend these meetings, but happened to be there that day) decided to take action. He proposed a whole new prompt of his own invention. I can't write it here for obvious reasons, but I can say that it was, um, interesting. I knew that is wasn't good, the other teachers all knew it wasn't good, and nobody was willing to challenge him. I felt like I'd already shot down as many bad ideas as I could for the day. With time running out, I promised to send the prompt for vetting.

Can you guess the result? Yeah, it failed the vetting process. I sent down my three original prompts as alternatives, and the genius approved ALL of them. After a protracted email vote (more than sixty emails), the third prompt, the one we'd almost approved at our meeting, made the cut without any editing. We were finally ready. Right before I sent the prompt off to press I get one more email from a brand new teacher "do you think we could re-work the prompt to make it easier for my lower performing students? I don't want them to bomb!" In times like these, counting to ten just isn't enough.

Guess what? The original prompt was a huge success. Even the kids liked it. Of course I have strenuously avoiding saying "I told you so" to any of my colleagues because that would be immature. That doesn’t mean I don't think "neener, neener" at them from time to time.

No comments: