My students always have a hard time writing criticism. The first complaint is that they don’t know enough; that’s not true, of course. They have the assignment, to start, which they can use as criteria. That’s plenty of material in itself, but they also have their own sense of language. It may be difficult to articulate your tastes in writing, but that’s the point. The more you struggle to put things into words, the more you will improve as a writer and a thinker.
Once I get them over that hurdle—sometimes before—their next complaint is that they don’t want to be negative. They want to affirm what’s right as well as explain what’s wrong. The practical-minded curmudgeon in me resists that idea—affirmation is both unnecessary and often unhelpful. In the spirit of compromise, though, I often tell them to affirm first, briefly, and then get on to the criticism. More generally, too, I understand that relentless criticism can be bracing at best and often dispiriting.
In the resisting the curmudgeon spirit, I was happy to read this summary of the proposed changes to No Child Left Behind; a measure often known more simply as No Child left (“Obama to Seek Sweeping Change in ‘No Child’ Law“). Suffice to say that NCLB was a brutal attack on working people and their children. The best part of the proposed changes, to my way of thinking, is the possibility that the new program will embrace what’s called the “Common Core State Standards Initiative.”
The writing standards, in particularly, are refreshingly rich, the opposite of a standardized test. It’s easy to imagine a college admissions process founded in these standards. Teachers, perhaps with the help of students and parents, could create non-reductive narrative assessments. Admission officials, then, with the help of professor’s and staff, could use these narratives to compile diverse freshman classes. It wouldn’t be perfect but it would be a huge improvement.