I recently posted about how the Instructional Shift in writing is wrecking writing instruction. I’d like to go more in-depth about each of the points I made in that post.
Here are the first two points I made in my previous post:
- Many administrators, both district and school-level, assume the shift means students no longer write narratives, fiction, or poetry – even though both the shifts document itself, and the standards, include narrative writing (though not poetry).
- Because “evidence based writing” is the focus of all common core literacy tests, the curriculum narrows around this one type of writing and which becomes the only kind of writing taught in many schools.
So here is the “Shift” I am criticizing, directly from the Common Core website:
Reading, writing, and speaking grounded in evidence from texts, both literary and informational
The Common Core emphasizes using evidence from texts to present careful analyses, well-defended claims, and clear information. Rather than asking students questions they can answer solely from their prior knowledge and experience, the standards call for students to answer questions that depend on their having read the texts with care.
The reading standards focus on students’ ability to read carefully and grasp information, arguments, ideas, and details based on evidence in the text. Students should be able to answer a range of text-dependent questions, whose answers require inferences based on careful attention to the text.
Frequently, forms of writing in K–12 have drawn heavily from student experience and opinion, which alone will not prepare students for the demands of college, career, and life. Though the standards still expect narrative writing throughout the grades, they also expect a command of sequence and detail that are essential for effective argumentative and informative writing. The standards’ focus on evidence-based writing along with the ability to inform and persuade is a significant shift from current practice.
It’s worth noting that the “shifts” document does acknowledge that the standards “still expect narrative writing throughout the grades.” The standards themselves include narrative writing:
Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details, and well-structured event sequences.
The standards, and the shifts documents themselves, acknowledge the need for narrative writing (though it doesn’t value poetry at all), yet here is what is happening: only one type of writing is being tested now, so only one kind of writing is being taught in schools now. Writing to Text is the only thing being taught.
My wife and I recently did a small writer’s workshop for Take Stock in Children to help students develop their college essays. They felt they didn’t know how to tell a personal story to convince a college to take them because they hadn’t been taught to write narratives. They’d been taught one way to write: To Text.
I taught ninth-grade Pre-IB this year, and so I had students from all over my district coming to the program at my school. Here’s what most of them told me: their teachers from other schools taught one type of writing and one type of writing only: Florida Standards Writing Test writing. Read three essays, grab some quotes, stick them into a five-paragraph formula. Don’t say “I.”
At the HATS (High Achieving Talented Students) Program at Stetson University I found the same things. Students who attended public or charter schools were taught to write one way: To Text. Interestingly, my home-schooled students who came to HATS were generally much more engaged in writing because they were much more likely to be writing creatively.
We are creating “rote” writers – writers who follow a series of steps and obey a set of rules to turn out essays that they (and we) think the scoring algorithm of the state test will “like.” I think perhaps we do this out of a sense of fear. If we muddy the waters by teaching them any other kind of writing, they will muddy their essay on the test with some kind of creative thinking or writing! And then what would happen? Our VAM scores go down! Our school grades go down! No, better to play it safe. Teach them one simple formula and only one type of writing. That’s best for the algorithms we live by. Obey the Shift.
But in obeying the “Instructional Shift” in writing, we are going against the standards themselves. Maybe you don’t care that we are making a generation of writers hate writing. Maybe you don’t care that we are giving a generation of writers a warped view of writing by making them think that there is only one kind of writing and nothing else matters. Maybe you think this kind of impersonal, dry, lifeless writing is really all that matters.
But if you are a fan of the standards, it should bother you that we are ignoring a whole set of them pertaining to narrative. Let your kids write some narratives, both real-life and fictional. You’ll be amazed at what they give you. We need flexible writers, not rote writers.
My wife teaches seniors. In their final exam about what they learned this year, many of them said the same thing. They said they had never, until they reached her class their senior year, felt they had a voice or a chance to form an opinion.
Students shouldn’t have to wait until their senior years of high school to get that opportunity. Some students never get that opportunity.
We owe our students so much more than rote writing and test prep.