By Justin Sturgeon, Writing Consultant
Several years ago, I had a peer in middle school who became frustrated with a number of recent school policy changes. One week, cafeteria lunches had to begin abiding by new nutrition regulations—burying many of her favorite and familiar dishes. That following week, dress code policies began to be enforced more thoroughly—indubitably ushering in discipline against female students much more directly than their male counterparts. Both changes felt like additional hurdles to my peer in her learning. At this time, she, along with many of our friends became frustrated with these and other changes in school rules that left them feeling unable to express any feeling other than that of submission. They were angry with an entity that had no face, an imagined enemy that could not be named or assigned to a single person. It also happened to be not long after these experiences that yearly K-PREP testing was about to commence.
This test measures student performance against codified Kentucky academic standards in the major subject areas taught in public schools. Accompanying this test is the usual essay exam question that often champions the standard five paragraph essay that is ingrained into the hearts and minds of public education attendees. One of the hallmarks of the writing section is its plea for crafting an argumentative response to a neatly defined opinion scenario depending on the grade level taking the test. From the time we entered testable grades, we were conditioned to see how important the yearly exam was not only for ourselves but also for our school district. Each year teachers poured their enthusiasm into wishing us well on the test as they laid their trust in our ability to apply what we had learned through the year to those booklets that contained our penciled in answers.
It was on this exam that my peer decided to work out the anger and frustration of navigating middle school as a response to an essay question. Something in the prompt related to a school procedure and my peer leaned into their experience and drafted an argument to lambast the system that garnered the rule changes and heavy thumb this student felt was pressing on her emotions. In making her response, she wrote in a way that directly addressed the reader or grader of this examination and in some ways ignored the goal of the exam—which seeks to measure student writing against a state determined standard. My peer’s writing took on an entirely different form that burnt away the edges of the exam’s intractable parameters. In her best attempt to maintain an academic voice, she pointed her finger at the test grader and gave blame for all the problems that were interfering with her inability to find a voice.
Looking back, I wonder now if only I could hold the clock on that exam and have conversations with my peer about genre, audience, and instruction guidelines—subjects that didn’t matter when pegged with her focus of expressing her frustrations on her own terms. The grader of that exam essay likely glossed over the essay and checked each box when she tried to adhere to the guidelines or address the prompt, ultimately missing her fervor and intent. Perhaps the grader of that exam toted a distinction of incomplete or failing to meet the standard. But, how can one assess bringing awareness of nonnative, invasive plants in a proposed community when the dread of one’s home life looms over waiting until the exam is over and the school day has finished?
My peer in that moment—although failing to meet the On-demand writing standards of the exam—found her voice and did so in a way that forced her to reckon with ideas of audience, tone, and genre. She could have just submitted a myriad, itemized list of concerns or even a stream of consciousness rant that would jump from one thought to the next with hardly any connection. Instead, she knew that she had to make some choices. She kept to the model of the five-paragraph essay and organized her thoughts in a way that would leave no question in the reader’s mind about what issues were occurring and causing her contention. Whether her convictions were rooted in rebellious middle school angst, taking the pulse of the public-school education system, or a mixture of the two—her very real emotional impasse of setting a no.2 pencil to paper had reached its epiphany. In choosing to write about her frustrations and anxieties in a way to address a potential culprit to her issues, she found her agency. In finding her agency she was confronted with the task of taking those frustrations and annoyances and turning them into a portrayable plane for an imagined reader.
Though I would scarcely suggest to students to deviate from their assignment prompts in such a seemingly anarchistic fashion, we (as writing center consultants) do teach them to undertake the journey of funneling those ideas and feelings into a form that a reader can access and engage with. Sometimes students are hesitant to write about a subject in which they hold contentions or reservations about in terms of portraying opposing arguments. These reservations can reach a more abrupt stalemate when students cannot find their agency within the prompt. The challenge of interacting with these prompts is further abstracted by the specificity of state standard which assess student performance in a vacuum. Indeed, much more could be said about the just debate in propping standardized on-demand writing up as the supreme measurement of student performance when schools with higher levels of poverty uniformly score lower on these exams that measure a single notion of writing.
At times, writers face a similar dilemma of channeling their emotions and feelings into their writing to address their audience. We at the writing center are jubilant to work with students whether they are beginning to engage with finding agency or are already in tune with their agency as they develop and become more aware of themselves and how they communicate with others in meaningful ways.