Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Calm Before the Core

Carol Jago spoke to the Council of Language Arts Supervisors in Orange County, Florida last month. Lucky for me, Houghton Mifflin sponsored an additional keynote for all of Orange County's reading coaches and English  department chairs. Jago spoke about Common Core and evidence based writing. Calm and collected, she put the kibosh on some of the panic surrounding the Core and coming changes.

Jago began by reminding us that her book With Rigor for All shows that she didn't just jump on the Common Core wagon. She has been arguing for equal access to challenging content for quite some time. She reminded teachers in the room that though there has been some push back against the Core (think Indiana) the fundamental goals are the right thing to do for all students.

She painted a picture of teachers teaching writing to advanced placement and honors students, but neglecting those in "regular" or standard courses.  I wish that weren't true, but it is. There are English teachers at my own school who did not require students to write much this past school year. By much I mean students may have written an on-demand essay (or two) as practice for our state assessment and some paragraphs. What do you do about that? What do you do about teacher beliefs that run along the lines of "they can't" or "they won't" or "they are not ready"? One issue perhaps is teaching teachers alternatives for grading and responding to writing. I think some teachers avoid writing because they loathe the paper load that comes with it. The what to do question is haunting me this summer.

We must write with students. We must make writing as regular as breathing in our classrooms. Writing matters no matter what.

Jago mimicked a dialogue to" those" students that runs something like, " As long as you don't throw things and stay in your seat I won't make you write or give you homework." Complacency kills. It destroys childrens' futures by handicapping them. As Jago said, "Everyone in the digital age must write, a lot, in different forms sure, but a lot."

When I started teaching a senior English teacher with whom I worked made a similar argument. She vehemently supported rigor for all and spoke out about how expecting less cripples students and closes doors to future opportunities.

I hate to say it, but there are English teachers on my campus that do not require nor invite students to write more than once or twice a year.  Those students may write paragraphs more often but rarely are they asked to do more than a 1-3 page paper, some never write more than two pages by choice or requirement. We've fallen away from research papers even. I can't count on students knowing what a citation is when they enter my A.P. Language and Composition course. I can't count on students knowing semicolons. Obviously, Common Core's plan for writing and the teaching of grammar aims to change that. Jago talked about students needing to know how to write compelling arguments and how to write correctly. She shared a story from her son's first year of employment. Part of that story hinges on the fact that his evaluation is partly determined by his ability to communicate clearly and correctly. She showed us the company checklist. Corporations are on the look out for clear communication: spelling counts.

In order to master spelling and punctuation and paragraphing and to, too and two and their, there and they're and so many other errors Connors and Lundsford list in their seminal Top Twenty, students need writing practice, a lot of it. Students learn grammar in the context of their own writing, not divorced from it. The very idea reminds me of  a conversation I had with Jeff Andersonat IRA, but that's another post.

Students need to write in every English course. In order to become fluent, proficient and capable  students need to write  across content areas for a variety purposes and audiences.  Scientists write. Historians, mathematicians, police officers, and even service personnel do too. Writing counts. It is one of a few skills that will help keep a job and or open doors of opportunity for advancement or supplemental income.

 Every field has its writers, bloggers, textbook and manual creators. Everyone writes. Writing matters.

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