Looking at On-Demand Test Writing in a New Light

You know the feeling you get when a beloved former student comes back to visit you right before leaving for college?


Our school has a new fangled sign-in program that lets you experience the elation twice. The front office snaps a picture of the visitor as she signs-in at the front office and sends the receiving teacher an email. I had my first official visitor of the year on Friday:

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My heart leapt twice: once when I checked my email, and again when she walked through my door.

My heart does a similar dance when I hear about real people doing real writing in the real world. I tend to hover over my husband’s computer when he’s writing a proposal, contract, or memo. “What are you writing about? Are you making an argument? What other writing skills are you using?” When I send a letter home with students at the beginning of the year, I often include a postscript that asks parents/guardians if and how they use writing in the workplace. I collect these moments and examples of writing to share with my students as “proof” that the writing they’re doing in school matters — that they will use what they’re learning and practicing later in life, no matter the field.

So you can imagine how excited I was when my friend Carter, who was interviewing for a communications position at a university, forwarded me an email from her potential employer:

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A light bulb went off. A few weeks ago, when Rebekah and I were doing Professional Development in Hanover, someone asked about how on-demand writing (a la Common Core-aligned writing prompts) fits into the writing-with-mentors model.

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End-of-course writing prompts, Virginia Department of Education

At first glance, it might appear that it doesn’t. In our classrooms, mentor texts are at the center of everything we do — from planning to writing to publication, professional mentor texts guide and inspire our students in every phase of the writing process.

Additionally, we come from a tradition of writing workshop in which choice is the bedrock of instruction.

Common-Core aligned prompts are offer very limited choice, and the student sample prompts teachers can share with students do not fit our definition of inspiring, professional, relevant mentor texts.

However, many professionals today have to sit and write for a potential employer. The tasks range from 20 minutes to a few hours to a few days. Years ago, when my friend Carter was making a shift from broadcast media to public relations, she was presented with another writing assignment: write a press release in 25 minutes. While she had never written a press release before, she had studied myriad press releases in her old job. So she conjured up the power of those old familiar mentor texts, wrote the release, and got the job.

In this most recent interview, Carter was given a 19-page project proposal document from which she had to “develop a story” that would reach the entire University community. For privacy reasons, I won’t publish the assignment here, but I will say that the project proposal included an image that Carter needed to work into her story, a description of the audience, and the following requirements:

  • 150-400 words
  • The writing sample should be considered appropriate for print, web, and social media
  • Deadline: 6:00 PM on Wednesday, July 27 (she had three days)
  • An email address for submission

Real writing by real people in the real world.

All of this to say that on-demand writing isn’t limited to standardized tests; it’s an authentic genre that deserves a place in our workshops. And when presented to students the right way, it can contribute to their growth as writers and people.

As I begin to think about how I might integrate on-demand writing into my classroom, I’m chewing on several big ideas:

On demand writing is a unique genre.

Because it’s every genre. On demand writing is ANY writing that is germane to the profession requiring it. A press release. A news story. A report. An email. A brief. And for our students, standardized essay prompts on Common Core-aligned exams. Additionally, on-demand writing must be completed in one sitting. Unlike processed writing, the writer must formulate a plan at the beginning, stick to it, and complete the task within a specific time frame.

But while on demand writing is different from all other writing we teach, it’s also ALL the writing we teach. Because on-demand writing can be anything, we are preparing our students for it every time we expose them to a new genre. When our students write poetry, they are developing the skills they’ll need for on-demand writing. When they write narratives, they’re practicing it, too. When they write commentary or op-ed, they are preparing for on-demand writing. Because when you take away the time limit, on demand writing is just writing. And students need to be as comfortable writing in as many different genres as possible to be prepared for any and all on-demand writing tasks thrown their way.

Students should not write “on demand” until they have had multiple opportunities to practice writing in that genre without time constraints.

A student who cannot write a compelling piece of commentary will not be successful writing commentary on-demand. The skills of on-demand writing should be nurtured by process writing first. Students must be allowed to practice writing using a process approach before the words “on demand” are ever uttered.

Teaching students how to write on-demand and how to write commentary at the same time would be like teaching them how to do long division and add simultaneously. They need to be separated out, with plentiful opportunities to practice the writing, and small focused lessons on time management and planning later.

An on-demand writing genre study is a study in planning.

If I were to teach on-demand writing, I would teach it in the second semester, after my students had been exposed to several different genres of writing. My mini-lessons would be about time management and planning, not about writing techniques — because the writing techniques would be the same techniques I had taught them in our process writing units. And the mentor texts would not be Common Core-given student samples but the same mentor texts we had used in previous genre studies.

On-demand writing units offer a wonderful opportunity to linger in lessons about planning. I’m envisioning at least four or five different lessons on various pre-writing strategies — everything from sketching to listing to flash drafting. In Chapter 4 of her new book The Journey is Everything, Katherine Bomer offers numerous tools and activities for generating topics and ideas, including mind maps, two-minute blasts, and twenty questions.

I’m also envisioning another set of lessons on time management, including Kelly Gallagher’s ABC tackle the prompt exercise.

On-demand writing should be one study you teach, not every study you teach.

As with everything we do, balance is key. In reading, we offer our students a healthy, balanced diet of whole class novels AND independent reading AND literature circles. Their writing bento boxes should be just as colorful. When we have to prepare students for a Common Core-aligned test, it can be easy to fall into a pattern of one prompt after another. But on-demand writing cannot be the only writing we teach. It’s a piece of the puzzle, not the whole picture, and a failure to give our students myriad, diverse writing opportunities can deprive them of the very thing we’re trying to get them to do: become so comfortable as writers that even the lamest on-demand writing prompt seems infused with possibility.

How do you frame on-demand writing in your classroom? How much on-demand writing vs. processed writing do your students do? How can the power of mentor texts and the workshop approach be harnessed to teach on-demand writing?


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