Toward Writing as a Common Core for the Disciplines

In my previous post, I noted that I am reading the book Holding on to Good Ideas in a Time of Bad Ones by Thomas Newkirk, and I promised to provide an update on the author’s seeming assertion that there is a strict dichotomy between education researchers and successful, intuitive classroom teachers.  Having just read the next chapter, I can say that the author has yet to return to this opening discussion.  However, this chapter provides a very interesting discussion on the imbalance between writing and reading in the American educational system.  I learned a lot about the lack of emphasis on writing instruction and how this started.  And, I’ll say up front that I think the Common Core State Standards are headed in the right direction toward correcting this imbalance.

What is the current balance between reading and writing in American schools?  The author believes that for decades too much emphasis has been placed on reading in both K-12 and higher education.  This is due in part to many teachers’ opinions that grading (marking) student writing is little more than a chore, a view that may have begun with an 1885 essay by Adams Sherman Hill, who believed “the teacher needed to be vigilant in noting [students’] errors.”  In other words, writing teachers were taught not to let any grammatical or spelling errors slip by unmarked.

However, Mr. Newkirk argues that an increasing number of people are writing, even as it appears that fewer people are reading.  The “balance between production and consumption is changing.”  This is due to various trends, including social networking and the increased use of narrative writing in reports to avoid liability issues.  As a result, more people have become frequent writers, both at home and in the workplace.  Even as teachers are placing greater emphasis on reading comprehension in response to No Child Left Behind (NCLB), Mr. Newkirk notes that reading comprehension is increasingly just one component of workplace literacy.  Quoting Deborah Brandt, the author states that “reading is now more frequently embedded in acts of writing: that is people read in order to generate writing, they read from the posture of the writer.”

The problem is that current high-stakes tests assess what can be produced by a number-two pencil: Newkirk’s “curse of graphite.”  Therefore, reading comprehension is isolated from the other parts of literacy.  I think Mr. Newkirk is dead right when he says, “‘Comprehension’ as measured by standardized tests is actually an amputated activity — inert and isolated from the activity systems in which reading actually operates.”

This got me to thinking about the Next Generation Assessments (NGAs) that are under development in response to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), as well as the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).  The NGAs require students to do precisely what Mr. Newkirk argues is an increasingly common part of our workplaces and social lives: we read to write.  Here is an excerpt from a prompt for a model NGA for science assessment in 12th grade (reference lost/unknown, emphasis mine):

Your task is to research and analyze the growing conditions in your local area. This includes the typical climate, amount of precipitation, and type of soil. Using this information, research plant species that are well-suited to these environmental conditions. Then, design a garden using a variety of plant species. The garden can be either a fruit/vegetable garden, or a flower garden.

Make a color diagram of your garden design that labels each included plant species. Then, write an explanation that justifies the inclusion of each selected plant species, based on the environmental conditions in your area.

And, here is a sample English Language Arts performance task for middle school students (Scholastic, 2011).  It’s still very classroom-esque, but at least it gets closer to real world literacy than a multiple choice test of comprehension:

Task 1: Find 3 – 5 texts on the theme of moral courage.  Take notes on those texts.

Task 2: Synthesize what you have learned from the text about moral courage into an essay on the topic.  Cite specific examples.

Task 3: Research and write about a historical figure or a person you know who exhibited moral courage.

Task 4: Write a brief reflection about what you learned from these tasks.

I understand that there is a great deal of angst and rhetoric about the Common Core.  Listening to some complaints, you would think that the proponents of the CCSS are asking teachers to lock students in a room and test them 24/7.  I too worry about the invasiveness of testing programs that are headed our way.  However, as a science teacher and someone who spent ten years in the “real world” outside of education, I feel that the goals of the Common Core are nothing but excellent.  The focus on skills and knowledge that are applicable in the workplace, as well as college, is right where it should be.  I applaud these changes that the CCSS envision.

Clearly, No Child Left Behind placed inordinate value on only one part of the skills that make a student literate, but if the author is correct, classroom instruction tended to do the same thing long before NCLB.  It seems to me that the CCSS addresses this imbalance by adding significance to writing and tying all the pieces of literacy together into a coherent whole.  The author ends this chapter with a spirited, cogent argument to include writing across the curriculum.  Although Mr. Newkirk is deeply suspicious of education reform, I think he would be pleased by the balance that Common Core strikes between reading and writing.

Reference:

Scholastic (2011).  Common Core State Standards Implementation Planning Guide.  Scholastic Inc.

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