March 28, 2005

Outcry Essays

For over half of my teaching career, I taught English. Even now, when I get a summer school assignment I usually end up teaching an English class. That means grading a lot of student writing. It also means learning a lot about your students that you never do in another subject. That is what they are finding as they grade this year's TAKS essay.
Each year, hundreds of students use the essay portion of the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test to write about being abused, neglected or raped, education officials say.

Others write about being depressed, or wanting to die or hurt themselves or others.

Such essays fall under the state's definition of an outcry, and school officials have a legal and ethical obligation to report the revelations to law-enforcement officials.

You get those in the classroom, too. One term each year I had students writing about "an event that changed your life." Over the years I was flabbergasted by what I got from my students. I was also heartbroken.

One sweet young lady wrote about being molested by her youth pastor several years before, and I had to report it to the school and CPS. I never did hear what happened to the guy. I lost track of her after she graduated.

Another girl wrote about the death of her father and how she blamed herself for it. She had her best friend over one night for a sleep-over, and her father offered to wait for them to ride along to KFC for a bucket of chicken. They preferred to stay swimming in the pool, and her father was killed by a speeding truck on the way home with dinner. Last I heard, she should finish college this spring, majoring in elementary education. I hope she comes back to the district.

One of my boys told the tale of going straight while being robbed of his drug money. When I challenged him on the veracity, he lifted up his shirt and showed me two entry and two exit wounds. He later became the first kid I wrote a college letter of recommendation for, and the first in his family to attend and graduate.

One guy wrote a chilling paper entitled "The Night I Killed A Man." His father had heard a sound in the living room and had gone to check it out. When the student heard a fight between his dad and a robber, he ran into the kitchen, grabbed a knife from the butcher block, and plunged it through the robbers back, killing him before they could even call the police. He was 16-years old. I know he talked about joining the Marines, to get away from the folks who were threatening revenge.

I read papers about drug rehab, crushing personal losses, and becoming a parent-too-soon in the ninth grade. I learned about the thrill of victory, first kisses, and getting saved one Sunday at church. I exulted in the glories that these kids experienced, and bled over the many hurts they had experienced. It was the assignment I dreaded most, and which took the most out of me. Mandated by my district, it was one of the things that was steadily pushing me to the point of burnout and reinforced my desire to teach in my major field, history. And yet, I sometimes miss that chance to really know my students, something that I don't always get to do now.

That a child or teen would write about something so personal or traumatic on a state test "isn't logical at all when you look at it from the outside," said Catherine Ayoub, an associate professor at Harvard University's Medical School and Graduate School of Education.

But "this is the most anonymous way that you can tell," so it's "absolutely what you would expect," Ayoub said.

And it is also because they know that the essays are going to be read. It is unfortunately way too easy to tell a kid you don't have time for them, even if you want to talk to them about a situation -- the bell just rang and you've got 28 other kids in class to attend to, you've got duty in the cafeteria, or there is a faculty meeting after school that you can't miss. The counselors at my school are nothing more than glorified (at best semi-competent) schedule-makers, each with a case-load of 400 students who they might never meet. The administrative team is made up of some really great people, but their one of their major issues is discipline and so some of the kids who most need them tend to avoid them. But that essay is a chance for them to say their piece and be heard -- they hope -- and so they spill their hearts out on those lines and hope that what is there will be taken seriously. It is true in the classroom, and true on the TAKS test.

You might wonder, how old are the kids who give these "outcry" responses on the tests? How common are they? What are the prompts that give them such freedom?

Texas labeled 688 essays as "outcry" last year and 592 in 2003, a fraction of the pool of more than a million essays.

The writing section of the 3-year-old TAKS is designed to give students flexibility — opening the door for personal essays.

"There are so many things that children are bringing to school" nowadays, said Chuck Hoffman, executive director of student and social services for the Fort Worth school district.

Students in Texas must write an essay for the TAKS in grades 4, 7, 10 and 11. Although the TEA flags outcry essays at all grade levels, most appear at the seventh-grade level.

Students are free to express themselves on the TAKS because the writing instructions are less formulaic than on past achievement tests, including the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills.

The essay instructions are broad: "Write an essay explaining the importance of accepting others as they are" or "Write a composition about an adventure you had."

Students can use any writing approach, such as cause and effect, or problem and solution. Essays can be narrative or philosophical.

The TAKS gives students more latitude in their essay writing than other state tests. For example, last year's test included this instruction for 10th-graders: Write an essay about the impact another person can have on your life.

Frankly, I don't know whether to be shocked by how many such essays the state gets, or how few. In a classroom setting, there is at least a relationship that exists and a level of trust between student and teacher. That doesn't exist on the test, which might be a good thing for some kids or inhibit others.

Do we, as teachers, listen closely enough to what our kids say? Do we take their writing seriously enough? They need us to do so. They have a lot to say. There's so much that they need to have heard. We need to give them a chance to get their message through.

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