Hacking a Trail to Common Core Writing–Part 2 (Sort Of)

“Even while we focus on building a culture that supports change, we know that to date, tests are the tail that wags the dog.  They matter.”  (Pathways to the Common Core: Accelerating Achievement, p. 181)

Sometimes, the current climate about and within my chosen profession definitely makes me feel like a dog whose tail is wagging her to death.  And the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) could easily be interpreted as a piece of this–national standardization is a highly politicized issue.  But what I’ve been trying to do over the past year is separate that piece from the content itself.  When I read through the standards thoughtfully, reflectively, I agree with the shift toward informational and persuasive/argumentative writing.  It feels like a missing component in elementary curriculum and instruction, at least from my vantage point and experience.

So last year I focused on four main units of study–the first was a combination launch unit and test writing unit, since our annual state assessment, the MEAP, lands in October.  The second unit was a narrative writing unit, which was fairly similar to what I have done in previous years.  The third unit was informational writing, which again was similar to previous years.  Finally, I ended the year with a persuasive/argument writing unit, and that was different.  For the past several years I have ended with poetry and/or fiction writing.  While I missed some of the “fun” factor of poetry and fiction writing, I definitely saw the value of the persuasive work, and it really flowed naturally from and built upon the informational writing we’d been practicing earlier in the year.

I predict this shift will be hard for many elementary teachers, especially those who have been hanging onto things like holiday fiction writing (October = Scary Story, December = Christmas Story, etc.).  Some will try to do both, and maybe that will work for them.  Here’s the problem–the CCSS are designed with the idea of making all students the kind of writers who can produce quality work independently and on a regular basis.  The words I’ve bolded, when hung together, are a HUGE TASK.  This is time-and-resource-intensive work, and Calkins, Ehrenworth and Lehman emphasize the need for keeping a priority on writing time, rather than letting other parts of the school day  “outsource” writing.

They also emphasize how, with the focus on informational and persuasive writing, content areas like science and social studies need to be important parts of meeting CCSS in writing.  As I look toward the future, I will be interested to see how teachers embrace this in authentic ways.  I want my students to have enough choice in topic and theme to feel empowered as writers.  I want them to write for the world–in the past we’ve done digital stories and designed video games as part of our informational and persuasive writing.  Common Core doesn’t have to get in the way of what I most want for my students, but it does remind me of my obligation to use both the processes of writing as well as the products to grow my writers.  Third and fourth graders should be learning to construct what the CCSS call a “logical structure”–does that mean a five paragraph essay, or are there other possibilities?  That is still up to the teacher to decide.  For now, anyway.

At the end of the book, the authors devote a chapter to using the CCSS to guide school reform, and they encourage schools to view the standards as a revision of the curriculum rather than an addition to the curriculum.  They also recommend that schools choose one or two priorities as a learning community and commit to those priorities.  It may be that my school district or school building comes together for this work–or maybe not.  Still, the ideas are ones I can embrace as a single teacher–envision reading and writing guided by the common core, and choose a couple of priorities to embrace and work toward in my class of readers and writers.

At the moment, I’m leaning toward making a priority of bringing writing into  science and social studies in more meaningful ways than I have in the past.  My second priority is going to be advocacy for protected reading time both in my own classroom and in my school community.  Those are big jobs–wish me luck.

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