WASHINGTON — It's been a tough year for the most basic of all school assignments: the essay.
Ever since authorities discovered that shooters in Littleton, Colo., and elsewhere had signaled their intent in essays, schools have heaped scrutiny on what students write and teachers assign.
Last month, a seventh-grader in Ponder, Texas, wrote a Halloween story about shooting his teacher and three classmates and wound up spending five days in juvenile detention on suspicion of making terrorist threats. In Franklin Ohio, a high school teacher was reprimanded for proposing the writing topic: "If you had to assassinate one famous person who is alive right now, who would it be and how would you do it?"
After a two-to-three year decline, reports of censorship in K-12 schools are back up since May, according to the Urbana, Ill.-based National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE).
"Since Columbine, people are hypersensitive to every hint of violence in student writing," says Charles Suhor, an NCTE field representative who tracks censorship.
While agreeing that recent events justify a close look at student work, teachers worry that an excessive focus on essays to ferret out threats could undermine the free flow of ideas and discourage a love of writing.
"There is always a delicate balance when students are asked to use their imagination," says Leila Christenbury, NCTE vice president. "Edgar Allan Poe is a staple in the English canon. It's very mainstream to ask students to experiment with this genre. If we're going to ask students to exercise their imagination with horror stories, we shouldn't be alarmed if a student's playful imagination pushes to the edge," she adds.
Some groups argue that the personal essay should be abandoned altogether in favor of nonfiction writing. The St. Louis-based Eagle Forum, for example, urges parents to seek exemptions for their children from all writing assignments that could elicit personal or family information. And recent testing data suggest that nonfiction writing helps student achievement across the board. "As students spend more time in nonfiction writing, their success on multiple-choice exams goes up," says Douglas Reeves, director of the Center for Performance Assessment in Denver.
But NCTE officials insist that personal essays engage student interest and passion in a way that "How a bill becomes a law" never can. And good essays often take both teachers and students into controversial areas.
"We need to give kids an opportunity to just write and get into the flow of writing. When they get into that flow, a lot of things come out that we're not always comfortable with," says Dale Allender, NCTE associate director.
Moreover, students that face violence in their everyday lives are very likely to take up that issue in their personal writing.
"Thirty years ago, students didn't have as much violence in their writing as they do today. Parents and family members were not on drugs. Young fellows weren't being killed by each other," says Virginia Byrd, a longtime teacher at Payne Elementary School in southeast Washington.
One way teachers are dealing with the pitfalls of personal essays is to rethink the purpose of writing. When the District of Columbia and Xerox Corp. set up an essay contest for students this month, for example, they deliberately choose a topic to emphasize what's good in children's lives. Students were asked to prepare essays on "the dreams and promise within me."
What counted in judging these essays was not correct grammar and syntax, but a "controlling idea that conveys a unique perspective on the topic." The goal is to keep students interested in expressing themselves and improving their capacity to write.
"Writing is a very safe and creative way to understand yourself and what you think. Even after Columbine ... it's the last thing I would want to restrict, nor would I want anyone to feel badly about what they had written," says Debby Churchman, an editor for Ranger Rick magazine and a contest judge.
"I think the writing process itself forces a child to think about their thoughts," says Wayne Ryan, principal of Bruce-Monroe Elementary School in Washington. Commenting on one child's work (see story, above) he adds: "Since writing this essay, Tametris has been using some of these phrases about nonviolence and peace in daily conversation."
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