BELLE CHASSE, La. — In the early elementary school grades, Zachary Davis and his classmates at Belle Chasse Primary School in suburban New Orleans wrote almost entirely from personal experience: describing their ideal vacation, trying to convince readers that a longer school year would be a good (or bad) idea, penning a letter about their adventures during summer break.
This year, as a fourth-grader, Zachary writes persuasive essays using “evidence” from nonfiction reading. For example, students “read a description of Louisiana’s Avery Island followed by one of a bayou swamp tour, and then wrote about which destination they would prefer to visit based on examples in the passages.”
Proponents of the change say an increased emphasis on analytical, evidence-based assignments will better prepare students for the kind of writing they will face in college and the workforce, where few will be asked to describe family vacations or write poems, but they could very well be asked to summarize a research paper or defend a project proposal. Others worry that if schools veer too far in the direction of analytical writing at too young an age, they risk stifling children’s creativity and discouraging students who aren’t strong readers.
The “intense focus on text-based analysis is new,” said Shelley Ritz, principal of Belle Chasse Primary.
The school still teaches creative and narrative writing, but teachers expect new core-aligned tests will require students to write essays based on multiple reading passages. (The state’s transitional exam did just that.)
In keeping with the new standards, Belle Chasse teachers have gone to a 50-50 split between fiction and nonfiction readings. “Kindergarteners might read a non-fiction book about the life cycle of butterflies and moths paired with a fictional one featuring those insects as characters,” writes Carr.
In Zachary’s class, students practiced writing essays for the state exam, but protested when they learned they’d be doing more writing in social studies and science.
The class had just finished a citizenship unit where they learned how citizens of all ages can contribute ideas to improve their communities. So the students said they wanted to write a letter to Gov. Bobby Jindal protesting all the writing required in Louisiana’s public schools these days.
Teacher Mary Beth Newchurch agreed. After all, it was another chance to practice writing.