Saturday, September 15, 2012

Why I Embrace the CCSS Writing Standards

Educators everywhere are in a tizzy about the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) pushing non-fiction reading and writing  throughout the English Language Arts (ELA) curriculums.  "We need to read and write more complex non-fiction texts," I see written all over blogs, in articles, and hear in conversations with administrators.  So, when my colleague, Kerry, and I approached our administration about moving away from a persuasive and expository "on demand" benchmark assessments in September to narrative, the reaction was... well, surprise.

See, we teach in the state of Connecticut, and we have been held captive to the persuasive and expository writing demands of the Connecticut Mastery Test (CMT) for many years.  The on-demand prompt given in March needed to be prepared for, so frankly some years, it's all we taught.  We've done it well, don't get me wrong.  We have professional, highly trained teachers and hard-working (mostly) students in our school. Each year, each of us tried to fit in small units around memoir or personal narrative in the beginning of the year, or poetry at the end after the tests, but it wasn't a focus for our curriculum, so the teaching and learning didn't always spiral or translate in ways that we hoped it would.

Then came a mandatory 8th grade writing portfolio.  In that portfolio, students are asked to reflect on themselves as writers first and foremost.  Reflection after reflection, we read about the dislike of writing from students.  It was like a bucket of water was thrown in our faces and we had to take a good, hard look at why the majority of our kids were leaving middle school with a distaste of writing.  Our scores are so good, we would say.  Or, well, it's all we've made them do, others would reflect.  We realized that we had made writing something that they "had to do" instead of a process that they "liked to do".  There were exceptions, of course, but our teachers lamented over the dichotomy of student enjoyment vs. testing demands.  Our district has always valued (and had) good test scores, not necessarily good writers.

So when the CCSS rolled around and pushed for a mix of all three writing genres:  narrative, opinion and expository, we were thrilled.  "Write more," the CCSS urges.  "Write over extended time frames," it demands. Look at the wordle to the right... the words that jump out at you are the words used most frequently in the writing standards of the CCSS. Yes!  Variety! This is our chance, we thought!   We will be able to focus our energy on good writing, real writing, and writing that students may actually enjoy.

Yet, it's hard work.  All change is. We're sailing in uncharted waters.  And, we don't even know what the new Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) test will really look like.  But the way I see it, if we can teach students HOW to read and write effectively through multiple genres AND they become life-long writers because it's something they value and enjoy...  that's a win.  At the middle school level, we're having new (and exciting) conversations about narrative writing and about stories.  What does good writing look like?  How do we grade narrative writing?  How do we confer with students about meaning? Craft? Structure?

Yesterday was our first stab at it, and I'm uber-excited.  (Little red lines came under that word, so I'm guessing it's not a real one, but I am choosing not to change it because adverbs like "so, very, or super" don't give the same excitement that I feel today).  We dove into the on-demand prompts of narrative writing as a department yesterday discussing student work, good writing, and our values around student writing.  Our day was professional, productive, and phun  (again, red lines, but I was going for alliteration here).

In the words of my colleagues, here are some of the "take aways" that our teachers had about our session yesterday in their evaluations:

  • Structure informs meaning, but there can be meaning floating throughout that needs to be honed in on.  
  • Students ask to write more narrative and say it's their favorite, but we have a long way to go to teach them how to do it effectively.  
  • We need to teach the writer, not the writing.  
  • It (the TCRWP Narrative Writing Continuum) allows for more accurate assessment of student writing.  
  • I (teachers) have a better understanding of where my colleague and I need to focus our energy for our new unit.  
  • There is a lot of potential in a lot of the writing that I read.  
My takeaway from yesterday was all of the above and:  
  • Our students can write.  The mechanics, sentence structure, and elaboration, (for the most part) are strong.  But, few pieces had complex meaning.  It's the thinking that we need to help improve.  
We have all hands on deck.  If yesterday was any sort of predictor, I think we're in for an exciting year!  

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