Why we must accept Common Core writing standards

As an English teacher who holds a master’s degree in writing, I’m grateful and inspired by the Common Core’s focus on writing skills.  The Common Core standards, as you likely know, “reflect the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers’ in the 21st century.  Critics dismiss Common Core as the corporate takeover of education.  Regardless of these views, “writing,” Marquette University reminds us, “is the primary basis upon which your work, your learning, and your intellect will be judged–in college, in the workplace, and in the community.”  If we as teachers and parents want our children to succeed in this century, we must accept the Common Core Standards.

In the literacy standards, Common Core presents writing instruction in two components:

1. Writing in terms of purpose, distribution, research, and range.  This is demonstrated at the whole-text or paragraph level.

2. Language in terms of punctuation, grammar, and style.  This is demonstrated at the sentence level.

Students must learn this for academic and social success.  Whether we like it or not–we judge.  Students will be judged.  And if we truly want to help our low-income students gain access to post-secondary opportunities, we need to teach them how to write.  These guidelines and links can help teachers build students’ confidence and competence as writers in the 21st Century:

Narrative Writing: Students must write engaging stories and personal experiences, theirs or others, that focus on making more meaning for the audience than for the writer.  In my high-school narrative writing unit, I focus on teaching students to communicate the significance of the experience to others after they understand the significance of the experience for themselves.

Expository Writing: Creating these informational texts in the forms of balanced news articles, abstracts of longer works, or engaging biographies provides students access to the background information too many teachers complain our students lack.  If students have the opportunity to sort out and write out information–instead of having it recited in a teacher’s lecture–students develop skills that will help them sort out the questionable information they access on social media every day.

Argumentative Writing: Students have to stop writing five-paragraph essays.  Argument is an audience-centered experience.  We should enter an ongoing conversation with reasoned evidence or examples grounded in academic, historical, social, or personal research.  My anti-five-paragraph post explains ways to avoid unengaging, rudimentary approaches.

Finally, to successfully teach the Common Core’s Language Standards, we must deeply know what we teach.  If we were schooled during an era when grammar, punctuation, and sentence structure were not taught, we need to find a way to teach ourselves.  Students need to learn the guidelines for a using a semicolon, for example, and they need to know its rhetorical effect: a semicolon creates a cause and effect relationship where the shorter sentence after the semicolon is emphasized.  My post about how I teach to the test in the Chicago Public Schools outlines these strategies.

We can criticize the efforts to standardize education practices–and we should.  But if we avoid accepting and teaching the Common Core Standards–especially the writing standards–we perpetuate the social inequalities many activists claim to be fighting against.

For decades, many wealthy kids and students at magnet or selective-enrollment schools have been exposed to what Common Core pushes us to teach.  That’s one reason those students gained more access to better post-secondary opportunities.  Let’s give our low-income, minority students those same options.

This commentary also appeared on the Ed Week blog Classroom Q & A by Larry Ferlazzo.

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