“Writing Across the Disciplines” in the Common Core Standards: No Catchy Title Can Capture My Dismay


Our tenuous post-storm electric and internet connectivity kept me from being able to express some of my concerns and questions in our P2PUsession Tuesday night, so I am bringing them here.

Ode to Jack Kerouac

To so many people, the idea of every school striving toward the same objectives sounds like such a good one. To many, the idea that every student, every teacher, is working toward the same standards, will Solve Everything. I’m one of the many who remain deeply troubled by the standards movement and the impact it is having on ideas about what constitutes good teaching, what learning is.

With the onset of NCLB, “standards” slowly moved from being words on a page to being shackles around teachers’ autonomy and creativity. They stopped representing our best hopes for all kids’ learning and began to dictate what all kids had better be able to do or else.

The or else has broken the heart and soul of our schools. It’s broken the spirit of our teachers, shrunk kids’ views of themselves into single dimensions. “I’m a two,” I heard a 6th grader say to a friend, matter-of-factly, as though that digit were as immutable as her genes.

So it’s not the words of these new standards that trouble me, as much as it is what will be done with them. Because of them.

To summarize dozens and dozens of pages, the CCS on writing across the content areas focus on persuasive and analytic writing. In other words, teaching kids to create strong arguments, and to describe and analyze content-specific information. There is emphasis on the mechanics of writing and the  strategies of developing and organizing ideas in ways appropriate to the content area. Here’s some of what’s got me scared.

People, including teachers– even English teachers–are afraid of writing. They don’t think they’re good at it, they think it’s hard (well, it is), that it takes too much time. What kinds of support are content area teachers going to get in developing positive ideas about writing? In extending these ideas into positive classroom environments that foster the desire to write and write well?

We’ve known for decades the kinds of approaches that create classroom environments where kids want to write, and the kinds of instruction that helps writing improve. The National Writing Project has been at the forefront of helping teachers develop deep understanding of the research-based  approaches and how to implement these. Their federal funding was eliminated in the recent budget processes. So, what ideas about teaching writing are receiving budget-based endorsement?

I’ll answer that question with another one. What writing receives top scores on standardized tests? The longest. What’s the emphasis in classroom instruction? In schools I visit and in conversation with teachers, the  five-paragraph essay (5PE) has returned full force as the basic unit of academic trade. While this may be a useful template for beginners, it is woefully inadequate. The format teaches kids that writing about ideas can be reduced to a formula; it rewards shallow thinking. And yet, all too often, the 5PE is where kids’ instruction starts and ends.

When I  scanned the Common Core Standards for writing across the disciplines, my first thought was “Oh goodie, now we’ve got the opportunity to have five-paragraph essays in all the content areas.”

In a time when teachers in the same department are too pressed to talk even to each other about how they’re approaching writing, what provisions will be made for dialog across disciplines?  What kind of support will all teachers be afforded so that writing in all the content areas isn’t reduced to the 5PE, a common denominator of ‘good enough’?

What opportunities will content area teachers receive to unpack and address the assumptions that underlie these standards? Take standard WHST.9-10.2, for example. The standard itself seems innocuous: “Write informative/explanatory texts, including the narration of historical events, scientific procedures/ experiments, or technical processes.”

But, in the process of doing this writing, these standards specify that students must “Establish and maintain a formal style and objective tone while attending to the norms and conventions of the discipline in which they are writing.” Formal? Objective? According to whose norms? Which conventions? Who decides?

The unspoken assumption seems to be that traditional academic perspectives provide the Golden (only) Standard for success in college and life. And yet, in a global information economy where digital communication is evolving exponentially, 65 percent of today’s grade-school kids may end up doing work that hasn’t been invented yet.

According to former Secretary of Education, Richard Riley, the top in-demand jobs in 2010 did not exist in 2004 . Our youth will enter institutions of higher education where traditional notions and models of learning are being challenged and re-imagined.  What opportunities will secondary school teachers have to re-envision their content areas in the light of these new perspectives?

I am afraid I have more questions than answers. Maybe I’m just afraid.



Ode to Jack Kerouac © Oliver Hammond, Used via Creative Commons License CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

4 responses to ““Writing Across the Disciplines” in the Common Core Standards: No Catchy Title Can Capture My Dismay”

  1. Karen, I only have a moment, but you’ve captured my thoughts as well. I mentioned some of my doubts here:http://downtownwriting.wordpress.com/2011/10/27/standards-at-all/
    Deb from our class also talked about limits vs expansion of the standards on our class website, too. This has me thinking….and I hope we can revisit next week in the webinar.

    • Karen says:

      Thanks, Susan. It strikes me that we’re talking about the heart of writing, while the CCS deal only with the skeleton? Definitely need to bring this conversation to class.

  2. Bud Hunt says:

    Yeah – let’s definitely talk about this during the next live session. I’ll set aside some time. Thanks!

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