Creativity flourishes in the absence of expectations. Teachers who offer broad writing prompts to students should be seeking to inspire a broad range of creative responses--not preconceived "right" answers. Grading of such responses has to focus on the depth of thoughts behind the words, as well as on their strength, in terms of structure and word choices.
I recall being assigned an essay in college with an open-ended prompt to "compare three works by Samuel Beckett to explore recurrent themes and write about a unifying thread in the body of work." I asked my professor, “Is there a particular aspect of the works that you want us to focus on?”
The professor replied condescendingly, “This is an upper level English course. You should be able to find your own thesis by discovering a common thread between the works. It’s an open-ended prompt. It’s up to you to THINK.”
A few days later, after hours of poring over books in the library, I found what I considered an intriguing connection between the works—a connection that inspired a strong thesis. I then composed with passion an essay that I turned in with pride. I expected awe from my professor.
What I received instead of awe was a B-minus. Me? A B-minus?! Never! I thought, stomping down the long hallway to his office after class. I asked why he graded me so harshly, and he replied, “You must not have covered what I was looking for.”
“What you were hoping for? I thought you said it was an open-ended prompt. Did you not like my writing style or something?”
“No, your writing was probably fine, but like many of your classmates’ essays, it just didn’t cover what I was looking for.”
“Meaning what? That you actually did have a prompt in mind, and wanted us to somehow figure out what you were looking for, rather than what we were looking for? Why didn’t you just assign the prompt you expected us to answer? This is totally unfair!”
He raised one eyebrow at me, over the top of his brown plastic glasses. “I’m sorry you feel that way. You’ll still have a B in the class, though, and you should be happy, since this is an advanced class and you’re, what, only a sophomore, right? You did better than some of the seniors, you’ll be glad to know.”
I sighed, exasperated. “That’s not the point! I don’t care about how some seniors did. I KNOW I wrote a solid essay. I know how it compares to my other essays—which were all A’s and A-minuses, if you don’t recall. I really believe I deserve a higher grade. Would you please reread this—“ I took out the essay from my backpack—“and reconsider? Please?”
He sat back in his chair and tapped his pen on the edge of his desk, while staring at the essay in my hand. “I don’t have the time to reread essays for every student who complains. Course grades are due tomorrow, and I’m in the middle of submitting them. You’d have to take an Incomplete in this class, you realize. And then I’d get around to rereading your essay when I have time.”
“Fine, then give me an Incomplete. All I’m asking is that you read my essay with the same open mind you asked us to use when searching for our theses.”
He sniffed. “I already did. But since you’re so insistent, and so worried about getting a B, for some reason, I will take a second look—at my convenience. Just know that I rarely change a grade.”
Two months later, at the end of the summer, I opened my mail and found a grade change notice, but no copy of my re-graded essay. He had given me an A-minus for my course grade. Too bad he didn’t have the guts to contact me personally and apologize for not reading my work as carefully as he should have, in the first place.
A teacher who has preconceived expectations should not offer prompts designed to evoke original thoughts and inspire creative approaches to writing. That kind of teacher is not one who inspires, but just requires. At least my professor indirectly acknowledged that my interpretation of his prompt was acceptable after all. Maybe I even taught HIM something by standing up for my “wrong answer.”
I hope that all of my writing students—and ALL students—are familiar enough with their own standards of “Best” to know when they can legitimately demand reconsideration of an unjust grade in their regular school classes. Creative writing has no right or wrong answers; only strong or weak ways of presenting one’s perspective. Strong words deserve respect for the effort taken to craft them. (This is why I never grade my private students' works, only critique and coach them to revise until they feel satisfied with their own new standard of "best." I let regular classroom teachers deal with predetermined standards in their graded assessments.)
Often I am surprised, as my professor was, by the approaches students take to my prompts. Some kids want me to lay out a plan for them, because they want to make sure they "get it right," but the highly creative ones not only don’t want my input, but they inspire me to see their unique perspectives. Nothing beats the joy I have in saying, “Wow, you taught ME something today! I wish I had thought of that myself! Very cool! Thank you! Oh—and will you give me a copy to post on my blog?”