The Common Core Instructional Shifts in writing have been in place for years now, and now that I am teaching high school again, 9th grade, I am starting to see the results of the “shift” in writing come up to my grade.
The kind of paper I’m often getting at the beginning of the year tends to go something like this:
I have to have a grabber, so I’ll ask a lame question. What do you think? Now I make a claim – not one I necessarily believe, but the one supported by the three essays I was asked to read. Now I’ll tell you my three reasons why you should believe my claim; these reasons came from the three texts I had to read about this topic.
I give you my first reason. I quote some “text-evidence” from one of the essays. I spend a few sentences explaining why this evidence supports my claim. Explain. Explain. Explain. Done.
Repeat paragraph 1 with a second piece of text-evidence.
Contrarily, I present a counter-argument, and some “text evidence” from a source that either agrees with or helps me refute this counter-argument. I then refute this counter-argument by explaining why it’s wrong. Explain. Explain. Explain.
I end with a conclusion that attempts to tie all my textual evidence together and end my essay with something interesting, even though I may not be at all interested in the prompt.
If this is the kind of writing the standards – and more importantly the standardized tests – are looking for, then many teachers are are succeeding. Most of my students know how to write this way. In fact, they have been writing this way since about fourth grade, because once you have the formula down, there is little room growth. I have students who can jot down one of these essays in 20 minutes, without ever really engaging in the topic. They write robotically, churning out five chunks of text with factory-like precision and efficiency. Which is appropriate, because these essays are often scored, at least in part, by computer algorithms – robotic scoring.
The kind of instruction called for by the Common Core shifts, and the accompanying standardized tests, leads to an impersonal, dull style of writing that is, quite frankly, excruciating to read and grade. Even worse, it leads to a monolithic, one-size fits all approach to writing. Not only is this type of writing taught in a formulaic fashion – it is the only type of writing students are allowed to write.
Nearly every essay fits within a proscribed set of variables. They can take side A or side B of the argument given by the prompt – and they usually go with the side that is most supported by the texts they read. Their details should come mainly from the texts they read, so all students use virtually the same “text-evidence.” According to the rubric, they need to have arguments and a counter arguments. So students usually do two arguments and one counter argument. Add an introduction and a conclusion and you have very tidy five paragraph essay, back from the grave!
The justification for this kind of writing is that it is more rigorous. By more rigorous, I suppose they mean more “academic” but suspect they really mean “duller.” Common Core architect and College Board president David Coleman said that students should be “Writing like investigative reporters.”
Aside from our current cultural conflicts about journalists and investigative reporting, is it actually the Common Core’s goal to make all writing journalism? Is the implication that you should be completely unbiased and have no opinion? Coleman has famously derided opinions as things nobody cares about. Is the implication that you are not allowed to have a point of view? More importantly, the implication is that you write from “sources” the way a reporter does. But there is a crucial distinction to be made: reporters talk to real people; reporters visit the scene of the crime or natural disaster; reporters describe what they see. Reporters write about the real world, not necessarily about the real world once removed. Reporters may be assigned topics, but they nearly always go in search of their own sources. Students are seldom if ever asked to search for, find, and evaluate their own sources for reliability. They are handed three texts and told to read them and then write something about them to a prompt. The task does replicate any journalism I have seen, but instead parodies it.
Perhaps by “writing to text” the Common Core and Coleman means we should write more like research papers. Well, most research papers are in a very specific area of academic study, have topics chosen by the author, and have specific requirements for what must be cited. The kind evidence needed for a research paper varies from academic subject to academic subject, and even the driest paper works best when there is passion for the subject behind it. The kind of “writing to text” for purposes of the Common Core are – once again – a pale shadow of the real thing.
So what are we teaching them? It isn’t journalism, and it isn’t a real research paper. We are teaching them how to write something that doesn’t exist in the real world, using writing strategies that are not used in the real world. I am not in favor of a completely utilitarian approach to education or writing, but if real world application is what the common core people were looking for here, they have missed their learning target.
You might say, “Well, at least they learned to use formal voice,” but even in this area, the whole approach fails. On most of the writing tests, the style is what I call “semi-formal” – students can use personal examples and the personal “I.”
The system is promoting a monolithic form of writing that is dull, not rigorous, and has little utility in the real world. Even worse, it disengages student writers, making them hate the act of writing itself – even the ones who do it well – if there can be such a thing.
Instead of teaching one, monolithic way of writing, we should strive to create flexible writers – writers who can write in multiple modes, multiple voices, and multiple styles. Flexible writers are flexible readers, too.
It’s really very simple. Encourage your students to play with different forms and different writer’s tools. The standards even say they should be writing real or imagined narratives, yet most of my students tell me they have not written a story of any kind for years. I am currently reading Jeff Vandermeer’s guide to imaginative fiction, Wonderbook. Take a look at any page, and then try to tell me that writing narrative isn’t rigorous.
But we shouldn’t stop with the standards, which have a limited view of acceptable genres. The standards don’t touch on playwriting, poetry, blogs, creative non-fiction, or a whole host of genres or sub-genres.
To create flexible writers, we should be letting them play with genre, and talking about the conventions of each genre. We should let students play with different levels of formality – there is such a thing as semi-formal writing. We should let students observe how authors use different organizational styles, and then let them play around with organization themselves. We should let them observe closely the kinds of details used in different types of writing – how and when they are deployed – and then experiment with the types of details they use in their own writing. We should ask them to observe how writers create a specific style and different effects on the reader by using different types and lengths of sentences.
I have heard teachers say that this kind of play, freedom, and flexibility scares them – what if the students get confused and use the wrong type of writing on testing day? Even worse, I have heard teachers basically say that if it isn’t on the test, they don’t care about it. Sorry, that’s educational malpractice.
Writing is complex, thorny, and often difficult. But by trying to simplify it and make it so easy a robot could do it, we render it meaningless, un-engaging, uninspiring, and dull.
When we teach students to be flexible writers, everything they read becomes an opportunity to learn about writing. Every piece of writing becomes a unique challenge, and students continue to grow as writers.
We don’t know what jobs our students will hold in the future – that old cliché is actually true – so we can’t know what kinds of writing they will need to do. They may end up in the writer’s room on a comedy show, writing for a pod cast (some may be doing that now), creating descriptions for a catalogue, or reporting on the news (at least, if journalism survives). A monolithic approach will leave them helpless in the face of what they may be required to write.
Even more importantly, getting students to be flexible writers offers them benefits that go far beyond their marketability as employees. Writing in different modes can make them more reflective, more empathetic, more creative, more emotionally intelligent, more aware of their own strengths and weaknesses and interests. It can help them hone their thinking, question their own assumptions, and make them more likely to be active, engaged participants in democracy (at least, assuming democracy survives). Writing can be fun, cathartic, and intense. It can connect us to other people. It can help change the world.
But not when it’s taught one way, with one format, to pass one test that doesn’t prepare them for the future.