Amid Dropping Test Scores, Teen Writers' Creativity Soars
NPR correspondent Joseph Shapiro and his daughter Eva spent the weekend at the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. Eva, 15, won the "Best in Grade" award, one of two for ninth-grade writers, for a short story. She takes writing classes with Writopia Lab in Washington, D.C.
To hear recent news reports, you'd wonder if there's a teen left in America who can write a coherent sentence. Just 27 percent of 12th-graders tested proficient in writing on the last reported National Assessment of Educational Progress. On last year's SAT tests, reading and writing scores dipped to all-time lows. But here's one trend that gets lost: There's another group of American teens writing with greater sophistication and creativity than probably ever before.
That was clear to us in New York at the celebration of teen writers at the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. The writing we came across was often stunning. For Eva, attending the awards competition made her want to write more and get better. She was inspired to walk across the stage at Carnegie Hall for the awards ceremony, to see the hundreds of winners with medals of gold and silver around their necks and, most of all, to hear other writers read their work.
In just the past two years, there's been a 35 percent increase in the number of writing submissions to the Scholastic Awards, says Virginia McEnerney, executive director of the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers, which runs the program. "We see more writing and we see better writing," she says. "Writing wants to happen. Kids want to write. Kids want to express themselves through writing."
They write short stories and plays about historical events or about imagined lives. They also write what they know — about the death of a mother or about a father who goes off to attend to the wounded in the Arab Spring. They come out as gay or as an undocumented youth. They write about first jobs and first loves. "I see a lot of kids working things out through their writing, and it's very moving. I'm moved by how it's not casual," McEnerney adds. "It just feels essential."
Good readers, of course, make good writers. But large numbers of teens, when surveyed, say they rarely or never read for fun. At the same time, another group of teens reads more and more. Sales of young adult and children's books soared 13.1 percent last year, according to the Association of American Publishers.
As fewer teens in general read for fun, writing scores have declined, setting off a debate over how to teach writing in schools. In fact, you can trace some of the back and forth of a century of debate over education reform by looking at the debate over how to teach writing. M.R. Robinson, the founder of Scholastic, now the largest publisher and distributor of books for children and teens, started the Scholastic writing awards 90 years ago. (Among those since recognized for their early writing: John Updike, Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates, Sylvia Plath and Truman Capote.) Robinson honored students because he felt schools did not encourage their creative side, the way schools celebrate athletic achievement.
Today, some education reformers say schools now give kids too much freedom to write creatively, at the cost of teaching them how to write logically and precisely. The new Common Core State Standards, national guidelines adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia, seek to correct that by putting emphasis on persuasive writing.
Teachers of creative writing call this a dangerous mistake. "Creativity is the orphan of today's rush to standardization," complains Margo Figgins, the founder of the Young Writers Workshop of the University of Virginia, a summer writing camp now in its 31st year.
Figgins worries, too, about cuts in public funding for programs that train teachers to be engaging instructors of writing. Teens we talked to said their classroom teachers too often make reading poetry and prose a chore — students are expected "to crack the code," as one writer put it. Creativity is stifled, and you get your A only if you can follow exact rules, spot all the literary devices and correctly identify the symbols.
One result is a recent proliferation of after-school writing programs and summer camps. "Most kids and teens say that they don't feel comfortable writing what they really think and feel at their schools," says Rebecca Wallace-Segall, founder of Writopia Lab, a writing program for teens that started in New York City in 2007 and now runs workshops in Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles, among other places. "Kids and teens need to process, laugh, think, write and share. They will seek out a place to do so no matter what."
Excerpts from Scholastic Art & Writing Awards Gold Medalists
If I could talk to my eight-year-old self, I would say, "Things will get easier. I promise." It took sixteen years, but I'm finally at peace with myself.
Eight was a rough year for me. I'm not sure which was harder: going through eleven months of watching my brother die or the ten minutes it took for me to find out when he did.
Both my parents were loving people, kind and considerate. Drugs simply made them otherwise. That is what I would like to believe, and I maintain that belief every time I see my little brother smile or paint me a picture on one of his many canvases.
By the time I was four, my mom had become a broken-down, washed-up housewife, and all ninety-four pounds of her always reeked of sin and meth. Her Notre Dame diploma sat in a glass frame cracked and covered with powder my older brother Jeremiah called "bad candy." The bad candy was always around. I could find it on little hand-held mirrors in the kitchen. Often it occupied our glass coffee table, line after line of bad candy, looking more to me like the plowed rows of wheat on Little House on the Prairie than candy. But I was young, and I thought my mother was a beautiful, hateful demon who loved that candy.
My father was a rather respected stockbroker. His good luck and savvy investments paid the bills in our Manhattan townhouse, and also, as he would never let me forget, for all of my health expenses as a newborn. Due to my mother's extensive drug use while pregnant, I was riddled with health problems. The doctors said I was a miracle, that the amount of cocaine, alcohol, and barbiturates in her system could have killed three horses.
From "Bad Candy," by Janay Alexandrea Crane. Personal essay/memoir entry from her Scholastic Art & Writing Awards Gold Medal-winning writing portfolio. Excerpted by permission of the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers.
In 1948, my grandmother was chased out of Palestine when she was nine years old. She fled to Syria, where she eventually raised my mother. She was not religious, only loosely following Islam. However, when my mother came to America, she could not escape the actions of her people, and neither could I.
I was too young to understand at the time. I knew Mom was from Syria, and she painted it like a magical land full of ornate Aladdin-like buildings. It had to be beautiful. When my kindergarten teacher learned this, she asked if my mom would speak to the class. I was overjoyed when Mom agreed. My classmates would get the honor of hearing about her (and my) fascinating history. How cool would I be, once I was the Arabic girl?
My classmates found Mom ... funny. They were stupid and cruel. "Hey, is your mom from Cereal?" they used to laugh, mocking her accent. I was hurt. I hated them. I complained, and Mom said, "Don't worry, habibi. They will stop."
Habibi was Mom's nickname for me. She said it meant "my love."
The teasing did stop. Children have blissfully short memories. Adults, however, do not.
Mom loved being involved. She started teaching Sunday school at our church — our Christian church. The young ones adored her. She treated them with care and love, like they were her own.
Then 9/11 happened. Suddenly there were rumors that a Muslim was being allowed to teach the children. I didn't know what a Muslim was, only that the news said it was bad. It never occurred to me they meant my mom.
We stopped attending church. I was so upset, leaving friends whose parents were suddenly herding them away from me. I didn't understand. It wasn't like I was a Muslim or anything.
I blamed the Muslims. It was their fault we'd had to leave. I told Mom I hated the Muslims. She asked if I had ever met one.
I hesitated. No, I had not.
I remember Mom sighing. She took off her glasses and kissed me on the head. "Time for bed, ya habibi."
From "Habibi" by Samantha West. Personal essay/memoir entry from her Scholastic Art & Writing Awards Gold Medal-winning writing portfolio. Excerpted by permission of the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers.
One day we're eating Eggplant Parmesan over at his place and he's under the sway of his usual seven glasses of Merlot. Grandpa Ralph says to me, "Hey, kid — uh — if you're looking to make some dough, I've got a deal for you." I lean in, trying to decipher every well-mumbled word of his thick Brooklyn accent as he tells me about these four nice — really, really nice — books he's recently ordered off of the Internet. If I read them and write a paragraph-long report on each one, he promises to give me $400. An easy Benjamin per book. It's simple Reaganomics, really. Tax breaks, additional benefits, and whatnot pump excess money into already-wealthier citizens (like Grandpa Ralph), and then the only thing they can do with all that cash is let some of it trickle down — so to speak — into the thirsty wallets of people in the lower classes (like me). So I accept his offer, knowing very well I won't read a single word of those books.
Instead, I almost methodically open each book to page seventy-seven and place them face down on my desk. I then dog-ear at least three random pages to make them look like makeshift bookmarks, and try to feature at least one small accidental tear. I even employ a few coffee stains, but very sparingly, for flavor. Credibility. Grandpa Ralph is quite the coffee connoisseur himself. This is something new, though. He hated drinking the stuff until a few years ago, when, for his birthday, I bought him a coffee mug that featured a picture of a puffed-up bluebird that is seemingly pissed-the-hell-off. Grandpa Ralph now drinks coffee out of that same mug every morning without failure — washing it immediately after breakfast in preparation for the next day's ritual cup of joe.
Anyway, why shouldn't I counterfeit my reading? This is a system of supply and demand. If I can supply Grandpa Ralph's demands for five-sentence-long reports on books about how we should declare English the national language, make Christianity the state religion, or hunt down gays and socialists, I might as well demand a small financial gain. It's plain, straightforward capitalism. Grandpa Ralph should understand that better than anyone else. I don't think I even need to mention that Grandpa Ralph is the kind of guy who calls Michele Bachmann his secret girlfriend. Not any concern of mine (it's really between him and Grandma Della); however, it doesn't mean I'm up for reading Sean Hannity's Conservative Victory: Defeating Obama's Radical Agenda.
From "Grandpanomics" by Anthony Desantis. Humor entry from his Scholastic Art & Writing Awards Gold Medal-winning writing portfolio. Excerpted by permission of the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers.
Full versions of these pieces, as well as works by the hundreds of other teen writers recognized by the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, are available on the Scholastic Awards website.