By Mike Miller
After twenty-one years in the high-school classroom, I thought I knew how my students would respond to a writing prompt. I had given them a sample question from our state’s end-of-course writing test, and I was preparing to dig myself out from a sixty-eight-essay avalanche.
I was mostly right: it was a sixty-seven-essay avalanche.
One of my students, Pegah, had written a two-act play.
The prompt had asked whether we should always be doing something, or if inactivity also served a purpose. Pegah’s play featured an unhappily married couple: a workaholic husband who routinely clocked sixty or more hours a week at the office, and his wife at home, alone, with nothing to do. The busy husband committed a white-collar crime. The final scene found him in a jail cell alone–with nothing to do.
It was the most exciting, well-written piece of the stack. While Pegah hadn’t written an explicit thesis statement, she had answered the question about whether we should always be doing something: her narrative argued that we should opt for a balance between action and inaction.
We might ask why Pegah wrote a creative response, but we would do better to ask, “Why didn’t the other kids?” When students write creative responses to test prompts, I often find their responses to be more insightful, complex, powerful, accurate, and focused than the essay responses.They immerse us in their world, showing us, getting us to feel the answer rather than simply telling it to us. When students write creatively they tend to write more, and for longer periods of time, than when they write essays. And it’s not my bias at work here; I’m an essayist myself.
Five Steps to Encourage Creative Writing
So how do we get students to consider options beyond the conventional essay when faced with a standardized writing test?
- Don’t mistake examples for rules. Look through any prep book for the SAT, ACT, AP exams, or your state’s end-of-course test, and you’ll find page after page of essays. These are samples, not requirements.
- Take a close look at the directions. Reconsider what constitutes an essay. Some prompts ask for a “response,” not an essay. Even when tests ask for essays, we may well ask “What’s an essay?” Essay has multiple definitions, one of which is “a short literary composition on a particular theme or subject, usually in prose and generally analytic, speculative, or interpretative.” Poems, short stories, and one-act plays all qualify as short literary compositions, and the fact that essays are “usually in prose” means that some essays are not in prose, that a poem could reasonably be defined as an essay. David Mikics points out that “in French, essayer means to try something out. In its root sense, an essay is an attempt, a trial, an experiment.”
- Think about how a writing prompt could be answered through creative writing. Consider this prompt from Virginia’s EOC Writing Test: “Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, ‘To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.’ Do you agree or disagree with Emerson’s statement about individuality?” Twain’s Huck Finn, Miller’s Death of a Salesman, and Dickinson’s poetry all provide complex, thoughtful answers.
- Introduce and support the idea of creative responses. Merely asking “Why did almost all of you write essays?” was enough to get my class reconsidering their assumptions. Most of them had never considered the possibility of writing creatively.
- Consider test results from students who have written creatively. Last spring, thirty-three of my students wrote creative responses—short stories, plays, fictional diary entries, and satires–on Virginia’s EOC Writing Test. All of those students passed advanced, some with perfect scores. On the SAT Writing section, several of my students have written creatively and received nearly perfect scores.
Beyond Writing Tests
All good writing is creative writing. Essays are creative if the writer is making new meaning and crafting fresh turns of phrase, but essays shouldn’t be the only option for students taking standardized writing tests.
It takes courage to write an alternate vision to the conventional wisdom of tutors, teachers, and the test-prep industry, to instead follow one’s own sense of what good writing can be, or to turn the table on the test makers by returning a question: are some genres more valuable than others? But it is likely a sign of a young person who is engaged in critical and creative thinking, who is excited about taking reasonable risks.
Maybe Emerson was right. Perhaps being yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else really is the greatest accomplishment. Even greater than a perfect test score.
Mike Miller is a former Content Review Committee member for Virginia’s EOC English Writing Test. He is a Teacher Consultant with the Northern Virginia Writing Project, and he teaches English at the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Virginia.