Is it a Reading Exam or a Writing Exam?

Douglas Ray
March 31, 2017
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At the end of last school year, I was teaching a semester-long course to seniors called The Writing Life, in many ways an extension of the fall semester’s The Writers’ Workshop. Students developed a portfolio of work over the semester and also gave a public reading. I was especially invested in this particular group of students, as I had made the decision to take a new job for the following year. For six years, I had lived and worked at Indian Springs School, and I had grown to love, especially, teaching writing classes to seniors.

I realized that almost two-thirds of the senior class had taken an elective writing course from me over the course of the year, and I wanted them to have something more to remember their work and the distinct communities of trust and risk built together. Realizing the ease of self-publishing, and with support from my head of school, I approached the students who had taken a writing course and said, “Submit up to two of your best pieces to an anthology that we’ll publish.” Turnaround would need to be quick because this idea didn’t come to me until five weeks remained in the school year before the senior class would disperse and go their many different ways.

After putting together the anthology, I sat down to write an introduction. Indian Springs is a fascinating school for many reasons, one of which is the ubiquity and frequent mention of the school’s motto “Discere Vivendo,” or “Learning through Living.” Eighth graders reference it as much as faculty and administration; it’s everyday speech and a way of capturing the school’s affinity for John Dewey’s ideas of experiential education. I even used the motto, since my primary teaching duties were as a Latin teacher, to illustrate how Latin uses gerunds and why infinitives can be translated as gerunds when those infinitives are used in the nominative.

In writing the introduction to the anthology, I wanted to riff on the school’s motto: instead of “Learning through Living,” I would go for “Learning through Writing.” Rather than writing “Discere Scribendo” or “Learning through Writing,” I wrote “Discere Legendo,” or “Learning through Reading.” Those distinct words signify distinct actions—right? I know that my own practice of reading informs my writing, and I remember how we were told often in graduate school to “read like writers.” Both actions are part of a communicative process, and both are critical to meaning-making. Perhaps, then, my error in translation actually exposed an argument or belief I was working through. But, with the anthology finished and also my tenure at the school, I didn’t consider this debate much more. There were boxes to pack and a move to Ohio on the horizon.

Fast forward several months and go north 765 miles. Each junior at Western Reserve Academy must take and pass the Junior Writing Exam in order to graduate with a diploma. It’s one of the longstanding traditions at this nearly 200-year-old school, and it’s useful for both the students as they practice timed writing and group collaboration and the English Department as we discuss parity and values in the assessment of writing.

Here’s how it works: students are given a short story and a poem (no authors identified) on a Thursday night. Since no homework is given for them, they are allowed to get together on campus and discuss the works. They can look up encyclopedic things and meanings of words. They cannot seek secondary criticism, but are free to share ideas with each other.

The next morning, they are given new copies of the story and poem (this time with authors identified) and prompts that correspond to each. They then have four hours to write an essay. Those essays are then graded blindly by the department a few days later. Each essay receives a score of 1-4 (we have a rubric for what those numbers mean) from two readers, and a 3 is considered a passing score.

Before we begin the process of reading and scoring all of the essays, we have a “grade norming” session, where we discuss as a group six different essays selected by the exam administrator. We all reveal our individual scores for the essays and then discuss our reasoning behind those numbers. Through these discussions, each of us showed different aspects of who we are as teachers, readers, and writers: preferences, biases, and aims. For example, I was likely to score higher an essay that offered an interesting, risky argument but was syntactically clumsy than an essay with a milquetoast argument and fine prose. In the course of discussion, a colleague said, “But wait, is this a reading exam or a writing exam?”

My answer was, “Yes!” And it brought me back to my scribendo / legendo slip up. When my students and I talk about how meaning is made through conversation with a text, it becomes clear that, as we read, we “write our interpretations” in parallel. Often, as new information becomes available, we have to “revise” those initial “drafts” of understanding. Similarly, writing involves a great deal of reading as thoughts-in-the-head become thoughts-on-the-page. And writers start to read as their intended audience. Both activities illustrate a constructivist approach to learning and meaning-making.

Perhaps the drive to create a binary between these two interrelated processes is another example of an impulse to organize and control things that are far messier than we may like. We see false binaries as organizing principles all the time (e.g. gender, a two-party political system) that limit a nuanced understanding of the world (and often result in the oppression of those entities that do not fit squarely on the binary). Reading and Writing (or maybe “Riting” and “Wreading”), as processes, exist in a state of becoming. They are protean, iterative, and full of possibility. These very queer twins draw us into participating in the imaginative possibility of the ­could, would, may, and might—the hope of the subjunctive.

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