Putting Students in Boxes

Education is obsessed with boxes. From desks to tablets to lunch trays, boxes are found in every aspect of school: in the classroom, the lunchroom, the playground. Unfortunately, even English classrooms haven’t been immune to the boxed mindset and this mentality has seeped into popular Language Arts methods in the form of rubrics, graphic organizers, and checklists.


Asymmetrical students are expected to fit into each perfectly symmetrical box and when they don’t, they are penalized:



These types of boxes and predetermined standards leave little wiggle room for students to make learning their own. No longer are students concerned with creating a story that needs to be told when they are faced with boxes outlining the five most important elements of a narrative essay. Some of the best poems. by poets like Plath, Hemingway, and Ginsberg, checklistare unconventional and certainly don’t fit into any sort of public education checklist. Yet, the unconventional poems are the ones praised in literary anthologies and studied in higher education. If we want students to write well, why do we tell them what they can and can’t do by using predetermined standards? It’s illogical to force students to change their shape and squeeze into a predetermined formula designed for the minority instead of for the majority.

By putting students into these types of boxes, teachers predetermine their expectations for students. After acing several rubrics, some teachers stop challenging accelerated learners. After being handed graphic organizer upon graphic organizer, students shut off their creative intuition. Is it a coincidence that the most popular image of robots are the shape of boxes? The last time I faced a rubric, I was at the DMV. “Move here. Go there. Sign here.” I felt like a cow being herded into a branding chute. Mimes are always trying to be freed from boxes and students are no different.


Writing and reading should not revolve around busy work, rubrics, or graphic organizers. Teaching reading should be about finding the right book for the right student, not making the student fit to the book. Teaching writing should be about self-expression and participating in an on-going conversation, not writing a grammatically correct five paragraph essay about an outdated topic.

What would happen if students had more control over their education? More engagement, more meaningful responses, more participation, less behavioral problems. Why don’t we leave the expectations wide open and see who meets us? There are better ways to assess students than checking off a premade list ordained by the government. The best assessment can consist of a conversation, a sincere letter, a book talk, constructive criticism. We don’t need to put our students in boxes to tell them whether or not they have learned and mastered a concept. That’s an injustice to students.

Life is full of shapes: circles, triangles, ovals, diamonds. Let’s get students out of boxes and into other shapes like rectangles: writer’s notebooks, young adult novels, wide-ruled paper. Let’s get students writing and reading and throw the boxes out of the window.

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