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Reading & Literacy Opinion

How the Common Core Re-Mapped the Way I Teach Writing

By James A. Dittes — June 20, 2016 7 min read
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Route 66, America’s most celebrated highway, is something altogether different today. It is no longer “the best” way to get from Chicago to the West Coast. In many places, the historic road is buried under Interstates 55, 44, and 40. The route that John Steinbeck called “the Mother Road” now goes by a less glamorous definition: frontage road.

Frontage roads connect the traveler to the towns that the interstate was built to bypass—towns like Gallup, N.M., and Winslow, Ariz. Frontage roads are places to find roadside motels, “greasy spoon” diners, and souvenir shops. For most travelers, they are not destinations.

When I think of how the teaching of writing has changed since the Common Core State Standards were introduced, I think of the exit signs on Interstate 40 that remind travelers of historic Route 66. I remember past roads I took through the school years—scenic points and rest stops that I don’t transit anymore—and I recognize that I’m teaching at a higher level now, bypassing unhelpful detours and helping students further along the route to their goals than ever before.

For the past 12 years, I have taught English in Tennessee, a state where for many years poor standards undercut the efforts of teachers and students, placing it consistently in the bottom quintile of states on the National Assessment of Educational Progress and leaving high school graduates woefully unprepared for college.

Before the common core, writing instruction was often like a frontage road. Reading-intensive literacy lessons were the major mile markers of the semester. High school English courses were survey-style classes that sought to cover centuries of American or British literature, arranged chronologically. Writing was something tangential, a break from reading to practice or reflect. Teachers assigned essays about personal heroes, after a unit on mythology, for example, or a research paper based on a theme like ancient Rome or the Civil War that didn’t always use the text from previous lessons.

Changing the Questions

That changed with the common standards’ emphasis on textual evidence. I learned how to craft text-dependent questions and I began assigning longer essays and research papers that required evidence from the texts that we were already reading.

In the years before the common core, teachers assessed students’ understanding of important texts through tests; now, students are demonstrating knowledge in far deeper ways—through their use of text in written responses to questions. This has increased grading time, but it also has led to a richer, more vivid understanding of students’ abilities and needs.

And writing has become more intertwined with reading. It’s like the frontage-road forays from reading to writing have been replaced by adding an extra lane to the interstate, getting students to the goal faster and with more certainty.

Many teachers took comfort in the way standards for reading and writing were condensed under the common core. In my state, the total number of language arts standards went from more than 90 to just less than 50. But the standards also limited the modes of writing teachers assigned to students. Teachers now focus—and students are tested—on three general writing modes: argumentative, informative, and narrative writing. This changed many of the literacy activities that I did under the old standards.

For example, in the past, students often responded to a reading assignment by answering questions about a text in a sentence or less. Now, I assign a paragraph response that requires evidence. A poster about the traits of the epic hero might still be considered “informative,” but it wouldn’t meet the standards as well as an essay analyzing the author’s use of heroic elements in Beowulf will. I still use performances like drama and debates, but I’m more likely to have students write or link the performances to standards than to chalk the experience up to that old, subjective standard: the “joy of learning.”

A number of former writing modes have disappeared or changed dramatically. One mode I miss is poetry, which I always taught in April, the time when teenagers’ minds turn to romance (or at least to prom). I haven’t assigned a fully written and revised poem since we switched to the common core, though I’ve managed to fit poetry in via less structured ways. Another writing mode, journaling, is still used by teachers in my department, but it has been adapted to address more text-based questions, replacing personal or current-event-related prompts.

Getting Argumentative

The mode of writing that has shown the most significant change in my teaching has been the argumentative essay. The pre-common-core routines, when my 11th grade writers were expected to write persuasive essays on state writing tests, seem so primitive now. The prompts were usually one paragraph, addressing one topical question.

I remember the essay question used on the test for the last year of the old standards, addressed just two months after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary: Should teachers be allowed to carry firearms in schools?

Students went ahead and wrote their responses. They were graded on their thesis statements and their ability to combine facts with persuasive devices like “bandwagoning” or “card-stacking.” What did they use for evidence? Personal experience, presumably—I doubt many could recall relevant articles from memory or could authoritatively cite school safety statistics.

That kind of assignment changed with the common standards’ emphasis on textual evidence in argumentative writing. The appendix to the new standards marks a clear differentiation between argumentative writing and previous conventions of persuasive writing. Students are now given articles to analyze—not questions about hot-button issues—and they are expected to incorporate evidence and counterclaims.

One surprising development followed the first round of common-core writing tests in Tennessee. The state department of education issued a directive for thousands of teachers to learn a system called Self-Regulated Strategy Development, or SRSD, an approach to writing instruction designed to boost students’ self-monitoring skills. At the time, I was working as a coach for TNCore, the state’s peer-led common-core-implementation program. When I asked state education officials why we were coaching SRSD, they replied that the data from the writing exams had led to the state’s adoption of this pedagogy for teachers in all subject areas.

Of all the professional-development experiences I had participated in, this was the first that was connected directly to statewide or districtwide data. The state even challenged its teachers to meet specific data-based goals—not, “Let’s raise ACT scores,” but “We will raise a specific rubric category by 1 point.” Not only were Tennessee teachers like me addressing a statewide challenge, we were also focusing on a common goal. It felt good to see testing results used to coach better writing instruction.

Direct Routes

Three years into teaching with the common core, though, I find one shift in writing instruction particularly challenging. For most of my career, written assignments followed a natural flow of a graded first draft, followed by a corrected second draft. With the common core, the emphasis is on regular revision rather than a stage-by-stage drafting process. This change is related to developments in word-processing technology as well. Writing completely new drafts doesn’t make a lot of sense when you’re using an editing program like Google Docs.

With the help of SRSD and other sources, I have moved from focusing on drafting toward teaching revision—the steps students must take before turning in a written assignment. Writing and revision strategies are as essential to writing as grammar lessons. This has been a huge change for me—something that has become a focus of personal development. Yet I think this shift represents the strategic, evidence-based thinking that the common core brought into America’s curricula.

The changes to the teaching of writing since the introduction of the common core are similar to the differences in driving from Chicago to Los Angeles in the years since the building of the interstates. Students are learning more—they progress faster and with more certainty through the curriculum as writing and literacy have joined to form a two-lane thruway.

Still, for those teachers who believe that “getting there is half the fun” of teaching, the common core has diminished writing instruction in some ways. I understand this feeling, particular where the de-emphasis on poetry is concerned. There are insights into culture, moments of introspection, and rest stops in the curriculum that cannot be found on the highway—only on the frontage roads. The teaching of writing is more strategic now, less esoteric, more focused, and sometimes less fun.

But despite significant changes, I still “get my kicks” teaching writing in the classroom. The objectives are clearer, the road straighter, and I have upgraded my teaching from an old, drunken-wheeled jalopy to a vehicle that, I hope, will handle the new road with ease.

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