How to align courses to Common Core: a tongue-in-cheek guide

I’ve been reading the education blogs, and I think I’ve finally figured out this whole “align with the Common Core” thing.

1. Take a lesson you’ve been doing that didn’t produce the learning students need.

2. Find something in the lesson that is like something called for in Common Core.

3. Include the code for the Common Core standard with your lesson plan.

How hard is that?

 

Working Thesis Key to Planning Good Arguments

The most difficult part of writing nonfiction for most students is coming up with a good working thesis to control their planning efforts. With Common Core State Standards putting increased emphasis on argument, it’s useful to look at the role a good working thesis plays in planning an argument.

A first year college student wrote she was having problems writing an argument about holistic health care. She shared the thesis she had already written:

While conventional medicine is science based and has proven it’s place in life threatening illnesses and emergency situations, holistic health care is a less invasive way of healing the whole body, using natural therapies that have been used successfully for hundreds of years.

The student said she feared her thesis was too broad. She also said she didn’t know how to incorporate rebuttal and wasn’t entirely sure her paper was an argument. Her analysis wasn’t far from the mark.

If we strip all the extraneous language from the student’s thesis, we’re left with this as a working thesis:

Holistic health care is a less invasive way of healing the body than conventional medicine.

What is the exact opposite to that position? It’s this:

Holistic health care is a more invasive way of healing the body than conventional medicine.

Would anyone seriously argue that such things as nutrition and de-stressing are more invasive than brain surgery, for example?

No way.

That’s the student’s problem: An argument essay for training purposes needs a debatable working thesis, one that people can argue both for or against using facts and logic. A real-life argument need not be so black-and-white, but students need clear-cut propositions to debate in order to learn the process.

The student’s work contains a nugget that has potential for an argument essay that she might already have research to support:

Holistic care should be used by health care providers in all but life threatening and emergency situations.

To see if there are arguments for that thesis, the student could use a writing skeleton™ following this model:

Holistic care should be used by health care providers in all but life threatening and emergency situations because [reason 1].

Holistic care should be used by health care providers in all but life threatening and emergency situations because [reason 2].

Holistic care should be used by health care providers in all but life threatening and emergency situations because [reason 3].

If the writer can make a case for that position, she still needs to explore the opposition’s argument so she knows what she must refute. To explore the opposition, she can use the writing skeleton™ again like this:

Holistic care should not be used by health care providers in all situations that are not life threatening or emergencies because [reason 1].

Holistic care should not be used by health care providers in all situations that are not life threatening or emergencies because [reason 2].

Holistic care should not be used by health care providers in all situations that are not life threatening or emergencies because [reason 3].

The process I outlined here makes the process of planning an argument easy enough that average students can muddle through it. Muddling through may not sound like much, but students who don’t get through the process the first time rarely try it a second time.

Real Audiences Elixir: Effective or Just Addictive?

One of the remedies for writing ailments that circulates regularly through the online education community is having students write for real audiences instead of the teacher.

Like nostrums sold by itinerant pedlars on the American frontier, the Real Audiences Elixir may be more addictive than effective.

Take a look at the examples promoted by Edutopia with hashtags tying them to English and English Language Arts.

The task author Rebecca Albers provide  for ninth/tenth graders is to require them to select and research a local or state official, examine the official’s record in light of his/her campaign promises, and write the official “a letter of congratulations.. or a letter calling him to action.”

I wonder how meaningful that assignment is to ninth and tenth graders. I don’t know many 14-year-olds whose idea of fun is researching their state comptroller’s record, do you?

I also wonder real the real audience for that writing prompt is. In my experience, mail to an official is most likely to get a templated response based on keywords in the letter. Perhaps the templates are more real than the students’ teacher, but I doubt it.

A more significant problem, however,  is whether the prompt accomplishes anything other than simply giving students writing experience. To what Common Core standards for ELA grades 9-10 does the writing prompt clearly link?  Research, possibly.

Because Common Core wants students to develop deep understanding of essentials within and across disciplines, teachers cannot afford to spend time on activities that address only one of the standards. That means, among other things, teachers need to direct writing assignments to support learning of other essential class content in addition to developing students’ writing skills.

(The writing prompt I criticized for English classes might turn out to be a perfect fit for a government objective in social studies.   Those standards are not yet published, so we can’t be sure.)

I’m not knocking the value of writing for readers other than just the teacher; I am urging teachers not to think that having students write to someone other than themselves is going to achieve the standards set out in the Common Core.

Narrative Writing within Common Core

Whether they are disposed toward approval of the Common Core or not, I believe teachers can profit by looking at their classes and their school curriculum through the lens of the standards.

One of the topics on which study the Common Core has changed my understanding of teaching writing is their use of narrative. I’ve always had difficulty teaching narrative (and avoided doing it) because in my own experience a required narrative was typically a personal essay. I don’t have difficulty writing personal essays—I once wrote humorous personal essays for a weekly magazine—but I didn’t see personal essay as useful in the typical school and business situations students were likely to encounter. Moreover, I was reluctant to open myself to reading the self-revelations students vomited into their essays.

As I’ve been digging into the Common Core Standards, I’ve come to see they use narrative in the same sense that the news reporter uses the term story. The author puts events and people into a primarily chronological context in order to reveal to readers the significance of those events and people. The value of the narrative is not just what happened, but why it happened and what the narrative means for readers.

I’ve written elsewhere about Michael Umphrey’s work with the Montana Heritage Project. The projects Umphrey describes employ narratives in the sense that Common Core uses the term. Students do intellectual work (research, analysis, documentation) with and for agencies in their communities. Their studies often use records of the past (newspapers, photographs, court records, etc.) as raw data. They share and preserve their  findings for other researchers to build upon.

Just last week I began a course in Data-Driven Journalism offered as a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) by the Knight Center for Journalism in The Americas. This fascinating course looks at ways journalists and communications professionals in other fields can use data sources to tell stories explaining the connections between aggregations of data and how the data affects individual members of the audience personally.

These two different projects have some common threads:

  • Both projects use data that is directly relevant to the researchers, often because of where the researchers live/work.
  • The projects involve teams of individuals.
  • They involve real work, not make-work.
  • Projects may involve multiple data sources and multiple types of data sources (including print, databases, photographs, audio, objects.)
  • Projects may be presented in several different types of output, including print, audio, video, and oral presentations
  • Projects tend to be multidisciplinary.
  • Mathematical, scientific, technical, and graphic design skills may be needed to research, analyze, and communicate the story.
  • The end products are gifts to their communities.

I believe looking at these two different ways of story-making can help classroom teachers identify ways of using narratives for authentic, engaging learning in either a Common Core or non-Core environment.

Writing teachers tell what’s on their minds

Writing teachers who sign up for my monthly ezine are given the opportunity to complete a short, anonymous  survey about themselves.  The survey form has a spot where they can add additional comments.  About a third of new Writing Points subscribers complete the survey. Even fewer add comments, but those few provide valuable information.

Teachers don’t enjoy saying they are having trouble with some classroom issue any more than students do. So anonymous comments are a useful glimpse into what’s on the minds of writing teachers. Some of those from the last four to five months are below. I’ve updated the list with comments received in September because teachers signing up for the newsletter recently include many more inexperienced teachers who feel totally unprepared for teaching nonfiction writing.

I have included information about the anonymous respondent if it was not included in the comments. Also, for you convenience, I’ve grouped the comments by the teaching assignments of the respondents.

Public school writing teachers

· “I could really use help with the core curriculum requirements for analytic essays and objective summaries.”  [Public school teacher, 16 or more years’ experience teaching writing, says preparation for teaching nonfiction writing wasbetter than average]  September 2012

· “I teach in low income schools – so we have several outside factors that bleed over into the classroom. Add to that, our administration is worried only about numbers. So I graduation rate has been going up, but there is no way these kids are college/career ready. I feel like we’re failing our students. But that has only gotten me picked on by admnistration and given all the ‘tough’ kids. Which, ironically, I prefer. Everyone thinks teaching AP-Pre-AP is such s testament to their teaching skills. But I am with you, the kids who willing take harder classes are easy to motivate. They come in motivated! If you can get an 17 yr old gang-banger, who is only coming to school as part of his probation, to write poetry? That is a true measure of what you can do.”   [Public school teacher, 5-9 years’ experience teaching writing, says preparation for teaching nonfiction writing was less than average]  September 2012

· “I was a business teacher who was excessed but had enough credits to obtain a second certification in English. Last year I taught 10th grade literature and only got by because I sat in my colleagues classrooms and copied their lessons. This year no one else is teaching non-fiction writing to 11th and 12th graders. I’m so overwhelmed and confused. I don’t know where to start.” [Public school teacher, less than 1 year experience teaching writing, says was totally unprepared for teaching nonfiction writing.]  September 2012

· “THANK YOU for supplying this information. I might be able to figure out what I’m supposed to do now.”  [Public school teacher, less than 1 year experience teaching writing, says was totally unprepared for teaching nonfiction writing.] September 2012

· “I stumbled upon this website accidentally, but I really appreciate the content and free downloads. I need all the help I can get. ” [Public school teacher, less than 1 year experience teaching writing, says was totally unprepared for teaching nonfiction writing.] September 2012

· “I teach in an online high school and am working on curriculum for the common core standards. ” [Public school teacher, 16 or more years’ experience teaching writing]

· “Teach me how to teach less but better in writing essays.” [Public school teacher,  16 or more years’ experience teaching writing]

· “Critical thinking and problem solving and delivery. I am a theater teacher” [Public school teacher, 16 or more experience teaching writing]

· “My students are all special needs.” [Public school teacher, 16 or more years’ experience teaching writing]

Private school writing teachers

· “I really want to know the stages of teaching writing to young learners, teenagers, and adults.” [Private school teacher, 1-4 years’ experience teaching writing]

· “I am currently teaching 7th through 12 English as a summer course and see that their writing skills are very weak. I want to instruct them well for the next few weeks and give them some tools.” [Private school teacher, 16 or more years’ experience teaching writing]

· “I teach in a low economical area where students are years behind educationally. Where I am expected to get them to grade level by the end of the year. ” [Private school teacher, 5-9 years’ experience teaching writing]

· “I have been teaching for more than 15 years. English is a second language in my country, however as we are multi-racial here, English language has become the 3rd or 4th language used especially in rural areas like I am teaching now. Students begin to be interested in the language itself but I wonder how can I really do my part in improving them in all 4 skills.” [Private school teacher]

College and university faculty

· “I am especially interested in help with teaching ESL/ELL students the art of academic writing.” [College/university faculty,  1-4 years’ experience teaching writing] September 2012.

· “Any ideas that pertain to the new Common Core ELA would be greatly appreciated!” [College/university faculty,  16 or more years’ experience teaching writing]

Adult education teachers

· “I am a recently retired high school Special Education teacher who is now working with adults through a local literacy program.” [Adult education teacher, 10-15 years’ experience teaching writing]

· “I have learn’t technical writing.” [Adult education teacher, 5-9 years’ experience teaching writing]

Homeschool writing teachers

· “I am a mother of a 15 year old upcoming Sophomore in high school. I would like to “hit two birds with one stone”. I would like to supplement my daughter’s English skills with a summer course to teach her better reading comprehension and writing skills, while also refresh my skills to re-enter college in 3 years. ” Homeschooler, 1-4 years’ experience teaching writing]

· “I will be teaching ten students in a homeschool co-op, middle school to high school level. I have taught grammar and am a fairly good writer, but I’m overwhelmed at the scope of what should be covered in a one-year writing course at this level.”  [Homeschool, students ages 13-15, 1-4 years’ experience teaching writing]

Tutors or teachers-in-training

· “Help, please. I teach special ed students with learning disabilities.”  [Tutor or teacher-in-training, 1-4 years’ experience teaching writing]

First published Aug 25, 2012

[The last issue of Writing Points was published in November 2013. I closed the website on which it appeared at the end of 2013.]