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Rethinking Composition - Writing Outside of the Rubric

Appalachian State University

Green typewriter  with woman's hands and a cup of tea on the table

Many metaphors are sandwiched into what it means to be a writer and what it means to write. Some teachers insist that composing is like baseball, while others suggest the process is like swimming. These are comparisons I have tried out when teaching writing with middle schools and with university students. I think they are true, like all metaphors, at least in part.

Writing Beyond the Rubric To Create Identity

Yes, learning to write requires one to write. What is frightening at times about writing instruction is how this artwork is miscommunicated as only a series of menial steps or as a golden prize to be achieved only after crossing through some gates. Johnson and Dehaan (2021) noted this dynamic of resistance to claiming a writer's identity. For my work as a literacy scholar, this resistance holds implications for the students I encounter in clinical practice – and sometimes for the preservice teachers who are working with these children.

Part of the impetus for sharing about writing stems from my concern that much of composition instruction is either ignored or reduced to a series of by-the-numbers steps to broach academic writing. I fear that composition has been chained by seemingly well-meaning individuals, often in positions of power. In 2012, the school district I was working in was flooded with a range of writing standards, focused on expository, argument, and narrative composition. Because the state in which I taught incorporated a writing assessment, these changes were taken very seriously and resulted in many school-wide assessment practices throughout the academic year.

Storytelling as a Foundation for Composition

Composition, like so much of instruction, cannot become a casualty of over-testing culture. There is too much beauty and too much power in storytelling to be withered. While I do not have a comprehensive answer to this issue, I suggested a few steps pedagogically.

  • Redefine what counts as an error. Suppose I start a new paragraph with a broken line of enjambment. In poetry, this is acceptable, but not in prose. Suppose I dare to write in which the way I speak (for example, I rarely use prepositional phrases like "in which" mid-sentence). Understanding the balance of prescriptive grammar, those principles that must be held to, and student voice are important and thoughtful work in writing instruction.

  • Reconsider the red pen approach, even when a mistake is made. Lindblom (2020) noted that it is not always helpful to correct writing errors for six reasons, including the effect on the student's view of themselves, as well as the danger of creating dependence. When possible, I advocate for holding off on swift correction, especially considering the multiple goals that might be part of writing instruction.

  • Continue being critical. No one owns writing. No one owns what quality writing looks like, and opinions differ greatly. For example, consider the wide range of feedback that might occur surrounding one student paper. The subjective nature of writing makes the evaluation process majestically difficult – often because the composition is forced into the confines of a rubric that does not always fit the intention of the exercise.

Composing, like all art, is living and active, is changing and transformative. Frawley (2018) noted cultural influences and further suggested the relationship between writing and practice. Writing is powerful and personal, and I learned this best from working with middle-grade writers for almost ten years and then taking my experiences to the university classroom and clinical literacy space. Sometimes I find this reminder tucked in the need to write a poem or two after drafting out pages of research. Sometimes, I find this reminder when a child's drawing or bit of writing falls out of a used book that I have just purchased.

If we are going to teach writing in a meaningful way, we have to go there, too. Sometimes that means we negotiate our vulnerability and our willingness to share. We choose and edit what we want to say and self-disclose, and this is a move that I have documented from teachers I have worked with who use filmmaking in their classrooms.

In Conclusion

In the rush to college readiness, my final note hinges on the importance of hearing student stories, sharing our stories, and keeping the beauty of writing as a central element. At the same time, we can step back, reconsider and rework, and ask ourselves about the curricular intentions of honoring certain styles of writing (even certain styles of grammar) over others. Above all, I desire to keep writing alive as a process that is never really done, just as I want to make sure my reading instruction is focused on keeping the world of literacy alive. To teach reading and writing, I believe we have to love this content and develop an appreciation for student voice. This passion, alongside our belief in our students and our desire to honor their voices and experiences, is the heartbeat of what we do.

Discussion Questions:

1. Where are you in your development of writer identity?

2. What are your concerns about teaching writing?

3. How do you invite student voices?


Frawley, E. (2018). Are you a writer? Literary and cultural influences on writer identity uptake within subject English. English in Australia, 53(3), 64-72.

Johnson, K., & Dehaan, K. (2021). Real writers: Perceptions of writer identity. English Journal, 110(5), 80-86.

Lindblom, K. (2020). 6 reasons not to correct student errors in writing.


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