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CCSS + Writing Instruction Reflection

If you read one article this summer, my mentor Holly might suggest this one:

Are modern standards breeding a decline in cultural literacy?

I highly recommend it, too.

Sylvia Plath
Sylvia Plath

This post is getting messy. Filled with bits of type and text, like overcooked alphabet soup. Consider it a link festival, full of rabbit holes and mad hatter tea parties. The question presented is now that CCSS is established in many states, what have we lost or gained?

Reminder to read and understand how to move forward with CCSS in ELA/SS:


Back in 2013, Dr. Gentry published an article, “Will Common Core Wreck Writing in Schools?”

First, I am wondering if we even have a sense of what is ‘teaching writing?’ It doesn’t seem to exist. There is the editorial/grammatical end to the whole language approach of ‘any mark is a good mark on the page’.

Some of the fears:

How Common Core Might Not Support Real Writing

The worry among good teachers of writing is that if interpreted and implemented incorrectly, Common Core Standards might put an end to many of the practices espoused by Graves and in effect, destroy real writing in schools. Here are some of the concerns and quotes teachers share with me:

Writing is shifting back to a product approach.

Students aren’t given choice of topics.

Children are forced to write from rubrics or templates that stifle creativity.

Ownership for children is out the window.

Common Core says every teacher is a writing teacher but we haven’t been trained to teach writing.

Teachers neither have the time nor the training for teaching the writing process.

Too much test prep and testing take time away from time for writing in school.

Our state writing test is based on strict rubrics and products—creativity doesn’t count.

Our state writing tests are scored by computers—add more sentences and the score goes up.

Teachers no longer teach conventions like spelling and handwriting.

One teacher told me, “It’s hard to see the ‘vibrancy of life’ in children’s writing when all we care about is the score on the state writing test. That’s a product.”

Most of these fear seem to be the opposite outcome from Common Core. I’m not quite sure what the rumors were, or where the fears came from. But the testing part does seem to have some merit at first glance. Later this weekend I’ll be completing a Prezi that contains the brief write rubrics for Common Core writing assessments, and they are valuable for any content area. 

Some of these fears are truly odd: since when have standards given students specific topics? And since when have standards ‘taught teachers how to teach writing?’ 

And on what metric is creativity? I’m not sure. I’m still a bit baffled. 

Contrasting to Gentry’s article, the Atlantic published an article about how the CCSS revitalized and revolutionized writing in schools by Peg Tyre: 

New Dorp’s Writing Revolution, which placed an intense focus, across nearly every academic subject, on teaching the skills that underlie good analytical writing, was a dramatic departure from what most American students—especially low performers—are taught in high school. The program challenged long-held assumptions about the students and bitterly divided the staff. It also yielded extraordinary results. By the time they were sophomores, the students who had begun receiving the writing instruction as freshmen were already scoring higher on exams than any previous New Dorp class. Pass rates for the English Regents, for example, bounced from 67 percent in June 2009 to 89 percent in 2011; for the global-­history exam, pass rates rose from 64 to 75 percent. The school reduced its Regents-repeater classes—cram courses designed to help struggling students collect a graduation requirement—from five classes of 35 students to two classes of 20 students.

The critical difference between pre-CCSS and emerging CCSS is writing argumentative and explanatory pieces.

In the coming months, the conversation about the importance of formal writing instruction and its place in a public-school curriculum—­the conversation that was central to changing the culture at New Dorp—will spread throughout the nation. Over the next two school years, 46 states will align themselves with the Common Core State Standards. For the first time, elementary-­school students—­who today mostly learn writing by constructing personal narratives, memoirs, and small works of fiction—will be required to write informative and persuasive essays. By high school, students will be expected to produce mature and thoughtful essays, not just in English class but in history and science classes as well.

The NCTE provides their take, which correlates to the analytical approach, and appears more inclusive instruction.

Writing grows out of many purposes

Writing is not just one practice or activity. A note to a cousin is not like a business report, which is different again from a poem. The processes and ways of thinking that lead to these varied kinds of texts can also vary widely, from the quick email to a friend to the careful drafting and redrafting of a legal contract. The different purposes and genres both grow out of and create varied relationships between the writers and the readers, and existing relationships are reflected in degrees of formality in language, as well as assumptions about what knowledge and experience are already shared, and what needs to be explained. Writing with certain purposes in mind, the writer focuses attention on what the audience is thinking or believing; other times, the writer focuses more on the information she or he is organizing, or on her or his own emergent thoughts and feelings. Therefore, the thinking, procedures, and physical format in writing are shaped in accord with the author’s purpose(s), the needs of the audience, and the conventions of the genre.

And the NWP weighs in with their suggestions for ‘teaching writing.’ I’ve labeled each suggestion to make sense of what skill it may be adressing.

NWP: 30 Ideas for Teaching Writing

Table of Contents: 30 Ideas for Teaching Writing

  1. Use the shared events of students’ lives to inspire writing. brainstorming/ideas
  2. Establish an email dialogue between students from different schools who are reading the same book. literary connections
  3. Use writing to improve relations among students. audience/purpose
  4. Help student writers draw rich chunks of writing from endless sprawl. organization
  5. Work with words relevant to students’ lives to help them build vocabulary. vocabulary/word choice
  6. Help students analyze text by asking them to imagine dialogue between authors. RAFTS (role, audience, form, topic, strong verbs)
  7. Spotlight language and use group brainstorming to help students create poetry. revising/craft
  8. Ask students to reflect on and write about their writing. self-assessment
  9. Ease into writing workshops by presenting yourself as a model. craft
  10. Get students to focus on their writing by holding off on grading. self-assessment
  11. Use casual talk about students’ lives to generate writing.  brainstorming/ideas
  12. Give students a chance to write to an audience for real purpose.
  13. Practice and play with revision techniques.   grammar/revision/editing –conventions/mechanics
  14. Pair students with adult reading/writing buddies. workshop/mentor
  15. Teach “tension” to move students beyond fluency. craft
  16. Encourage descriptive writing by focusing on the sounds of words.
  17. Require written response to peers’ writing. workshop/craft/revising
  18. Make writing reflection tangible. annotating, self-assessment
  19. Make grammar instruction dynamic. grammar/revision/editing –conventions/mechanics
  20. Ask students to experiment with sentence length.
  21. Help students ask questions about their writing. self-assessment
  22. Challenge students to find active verbs. RAFTS (role, audience, form, topic, strong verbs)
  23. Require students to make a persuasive written argument in support of a final grade. audience/purpose
  24. Ground writing in social issues important to students. audience/purpose
  25. Encourage the “framing device” as an aid to cohesion in writing. structure/craft
  26. Use real world examples to reinforce writing conventions.
  27. Think like a football coach. RAFTS (role, audience, form, topic, strong verbs)/mentor texts
  28. Allow classroom writing to take a page from yearbook writing. mentor texts
  29. Use home language on the road to Standard English. word choice/sentence fluency
  30. Introduce multi-genre writing in the context of community service. audience/purpose

Evolving from the fears of the CCSS writing standards to the present, what changes do you think have been most effective, and where are some areas educators are still confused? What is most beneficial to students, or is an understanding that writing is complex, and approach with patience and grace the most important thing?

old scholar

Scholarly articles if you’re really bored this summer:

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Inner voice logorrhea.

Teachers need one for Shame, Student Success Joy, Professional Guide, and Data Wrangler.
Teachers need one for Shame, Student Success Joy, Professional Guide, and Data Wrangler.


Come on old brain, learn some new tricks! Is it possible to re-program a brain to think differently, not focus on the negative, but wash away shameful thoughts and quickly suture confidence? Hope so. Remember, there’s no such thing as overnight success, people! I have faith–I’m a writer, after all. Whatever that means. (Maybe I need Journalist Inner Voice, too?)

The other day I had a gift of an opportunity to discuss ideas for next year: it was a good chance to listen to new directives and possibilities. My local professional circle is characterized by folks of immeasurable generosity, new connections and long-time colleagues. I have been attempting to do planning now for next year, anticipating and adapting for students’ needs. I have a lot of questions about new directions, and am desperately trying to sort out the most important things. But me and my big mouth. Unfortunately, I wrote something in an e-mail that was too strident in tone, and I wish I could have the chance to say it differently, because what I was trying to say matters. Because I said it in a matter-of-fact way the perception (and understandable) may have been that I was being petulant and stubborn, not action-oriented. From that point, what got lost, because of my own stupidity, was the potential for a great discussion about the bigger ideas. I mishandled it, and made it worse.  Talk about the alarm bells going off! There isn’t a homunculus personified emotion representation for how it feels to feel ashamed at allowing the conversation to veer off into personality ditches. Where is the “Beating Yourself Up” inner voice?

My new homunculus: Inner Monk
My new homunculus: Inner Monk

Here was the big idea: there are solid concepts, enduring understandings, and pedagogical foundations that transcend change. A few examples may be the concept of Name, Voice, Identity, Social Justice, History Repeats, Monomyth Studies/Archetypes, Storytelling Over Time, etc. These themes in the Humanities are transformative for generations of students. The time and place, however, for these deep discussions about instruction is something I need to work on, big time. But what steps to take, which direction to go?

As we shift toward focused, skill-based conversations about instruction and less about the means of delivery, I know I’m blessed–the empowerment of teacher choice and autonomy is huge, and that message was clearly communicated, for which I am grateful.

Keep in mind, the standards are helpful in guidance, but not necessarily these ‘big view’ ideas:

Before we myopically fixate on any set of new standards, teachers and administrators would be well served to remind themselves two things about the new standards: (1) teachers who religiously follow them are being asked to do things that are not in the best interest of our students, and (2) these new standards will one day be ushered out the door to make room for the next generation of “improved” standards. When first introduced, new standards come with a certain gravitas— a gravitas, however, that is unlikely to persist. One study, How Well Are American Students Learning? The 2012 Brown Center Report on American Education, notes that “standards with real consequences are most popular when they are first proposed. Their popularity steadily declines from there, reaching a nadir when tests are given and consequences kick in.

Gallagher, Kelly (2015-02-28). In the Best Interest of Students: Staying True to What Works in the ELA Classroom (Kindle Locations 157-162). Stenhouse Publishers. Kindle Edition.


Listening well is skill-based, too.

Most of the time I am in the role of listener. I listen to directives, agendas, targets, and translating subtext. (Translating subtext is a skill I wish I could shed, however. Blessing in the classroom when I’m listening to a student, a curse when I recognize others are not synthesizing or integrating concepts, or I’m failing at communication.) I am the receiver of others’ decisions and discussions, and no longer at the local ‘big kids table.’ And that is totally okay.

Choosing time and place is tricky. It was a great discussion about logistics and philosophies, and that’s really important. I listened, and listened deeply, to the bigger message. It’s possible, and perhaps preferable, to keep those big idea conversations in my own head as I clean out the mental teacher clutter. I am an ambivert, and need processing time. However, that internal monologue at some point needs to be external: I love my partnerships and collaboration, and am so grateful for PLNs (Professional Learning Networks). So the take-away: not all conversations should be about the means of delivery of instruction. This is where a PLN (Professional Learning Network) is a lifesaver.


Ah, but what a gift that is: I am free to create on my own, and collaborate with whom I choose. One of my passionate PLN connections has, and will forever be, with the National Writing Project. I can’t wait for the first of two workshops starting tomorrow. I have things to pack my lunch, and extra snacks! (I might even write myself a note to put in my lunch bag: they’ll command, “Make Me Proud!” and “Make Good Choices!”)

 PSWP Writing Workshop | One of the pillars of the National Writing Project is that teachers of writing should write. In this class we immerse ourselves in the writing workshop, focusing on ourselves as writers. We spend time writing, working in writing groups, sharing craft lessons, and reflecting on our writing process. Genre for your writing is open; craft lessons focus on memoir, article writing, and fiction. We welcome anyone who teaches.


PSWP Reading and Writing in ELA and Social Studies | This class focuses on language arts and social studies content and how to approach the new thinking and skill demands of the Common Core. We explore strategies for teaching students to think, read, and write in English, social studies, and/or humanities classes. This engaging class is inquiry-based, hands-on, and practical.

This past June, one of the nicest things an exiting teacher told me was to keep her on my ‘tech tips’ e-mail list; she loves those tips, and wanted to make sure she was still included. No one pays me for those, and oftentimes I thought they were either annoying folks, or being sucked into a vacuum. This local PLN heartened me greatly.

I strongly encourage you to curate your own PLN: Three Steps for Building a Professional Learning Network by Brianna Crowley. My own Twitter account, @mrskellylove, has a wide variety of interest and friends, as well as professional connections. (I am not so great at delineating knowledge and curiosity from multiple sources.)

Here are some good folks to follow:

John Spencer @spencerideas

Phillip Cummings @Philip_Cummings

Cult of Pedagogy @cultofpedagogy

Valerie Strauss @valeriestrauss

Hank Green @hankgreen John Green @johngreen

Pernille Ripp @pernilleripp Blogging Through the Fourth Dimension

There are hundreds of potential PLN connections, from politics, to social studies, authors, researchers, science, math, current issues to history. Caution: once you fall down this rabbit hole it’s tough to get back out. But you won’t want to–it’s a safe place to discuss big ideas. And the coffee is just how you like it.


Part II:


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Night’s Watch of Black Sheep


Oh, it is all so clear now.

My brother-in-law (my husband’s brother) possesses a skill that fascinates me: he understands personality assessments better than anyone I know, and how to apply his knowledge adroitly. He is not some flash-in-the-pan self-titled self-help guru, nor does he pontificate unless the audience (me) is a willing listener and learner. He came out to visit recently, and over breakfast I shared some of my reflections about my past year of teaching, and some issues that were still causing me anxiety. After careful listening, he summed it up this way:

“You’re the black sheep.”

But not nearly as cute in a PLC meeting...
But not nearly as cute in a PLC meeting…

His findings derive from Stephen R. Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, but I’ll be darned if I can find any reference to the black sheep personae in the work place. (I’ll read it for myself, because there is always something to learn.) In any case, the black sheep is the one who stands out, stands up, puts their neck on the block, cries wolf, (but real ones) and instead of the intentional help and support, merely ends up losing trust of those they love and respect most. I thought I was a crusader, a paladin/protector, but turns out I am just annoying people.

How to turn back to grace? My brother-in-law mentioned there’s a formula of sorts: 8:1 ratio of positive things to one negative, and the voila! Trust is regained. What about the wolf?! No one cares: his advice was to get a witness. Don’t go after it alone.wolf sheep

Well, crud. My words and advice are heard as the bleating of sheep. (He mentioned unsolicited advice is never, ever listened to. There goes my mom talent.) Great. My anthropomorphic glory resides in stinky fleece, not lions’  manes or peacock struts. Last fall he said I was a ‘traditionalist’ and now I’m a ‘black sheep.’ (After reading a description about traditionalists, however, I am not too comfortable with this label, as I slouch toward speaking in generalizations while my guard is down.)

But our professional lives have to be more than just archetypes and personification, right? Maybe? The question I asked my husband this morning hit at the heart of what is on my mind now: in his years of of being a digital pioneer, teaching himself every conceivable programming and computer design nuance, code, application, and creating original games and apps, how does he sift through what’s most important to mentally keep, and what’s not? He is going to get back to me.

I wish there was another word for ‘overwhelmed’ right now, because to say I feel overwhelmed is an understatement. I am desperate for a deep conversation about what is MOST important to pull from the flotsam and jetsam from my nine years of teaching, over 1,215 students, 1620 days, three different state tests, two Federally mandated programs, six administrators, racing to the top while leaving no child behind, and one new teacher evaluation system to rule them all. Is it hot in here or did I just see two Hobbits run by?

Well, dang–time to visit the wizard, Kelly Gallagher. I just started reading his new book, In the Best Interest of Students, Staying True to What Works in the ELA Classroom, and I feel a huge sense of relief. Already his clear, honest organization of what has transpired, and what is positive and negative about the current state of affairs in education provided true clarity and validation. Here are my first impressions:

All Good Things Come to Holistic ELA Instruction.

Writing and reading in the curriculum remains interconnected, co-dependent, and in harmony. He says it, he restates it, and underscores it in ways that others will listen to. (I haven’t built up my 8:1 ratio yet.) He remarks that many teachers (when writing was not being tested), didn’t teach it, and now students are paying the price.

Writing instruction should be a nonnegotiable, core value in any classroom, and teachers should not have to be concerned with fitting it in. The question “How do you fit in writing instruction around the new standards?” is the wrong question. The correct question should be, “How do you fit in all of the standards around your writing instruction?”

Gallagher, Kelly (2015-02-28). In the Best Interest of Students: Staying True to What Works in the ELA Classroom (Kindle Locations 243-245). Stenhouse Publishers. Kindle Edition.

All Good Things Come in A Continuum

I am reminded of my Costa’s Levels of Questions work, and where I’ve always said no one should expect students to swim in the deep end of the pool all the time, to please respect all the levels of thinking, to show a continuum, the ‘not yet,’ and please don’t put obstacles in good teachers’ ways.

This is a great lesson idea, one I can easily adopt in practice:

Deeper reading starts with a literal understanding of the text. If students cannot figure out what the text is saying— if they cannot retell what is happening— then moving into closer reading and deeper understanding will be impossible. You have to recognize who is a Capulet and who is a Montague before any rich understanding of Romeo and Juliet can take place. When it comes to making sure my students know what the text says, I start by introducing a series of summary activities. The ability to write summaries is an often overlooked and underrated skill. They are hard to fake, and they give me a quick, formative assessment of what my students understand (and what they are missing in their initial reading). When introducing the skill of summarizing, I start very simply and scaffold my students up from there. Here are some activities I have my students do to sharpen their summary skills: 17-Word Summaries My students were just beginning to read Lord of the Flies (Golding 1962). I walked them into Chapter 1 by reading the first few pages of the chapter to them and then asked them to complete the reading of the chapter on their own. Before we really dove into the later chapters of the novel, I wanted to see if they understood what was happening in Chapter 1, so I chose a student at random and asked her to pick a number between ten and twenty. She chose seventeen, so I asked my students to write seventeen-word summaries of the chapter. Not eighteen words. Not sixteen words. Seventeen, and exactly seventeen words. Here are some of their responses: Ralph and Piggy are stranded, but with the help of a conch shell, they discover more kids. —Alicia

Gallagher, Kelly (2015-02-28). In the Best Interest of Students: Staying True to What Works in the ELA Classroom (Kindle Locations 427-440). Stenhouse Publishers. Kindle Edition.

All Good Things Come to Those Who Read. Books.

Do not feel once moment of guilt, hesitation, or concern if someone comes in your room and observes a teacher read-aloud or students silently reading. Not every thing needs to be a ‘close reading’ lesson. Don’t buy into the hype. Close reading is a skill for students to employ in order to enjoy texts more, not less, to give them the independent a-ha moments and connections, both literature and non-fiction. But that’s it.

Because close reading of short passages is valued by the tests, some teachers are overdoing having students analyze short passages. Conversely, the tests do not measure a student’s ability to hold his or her thinking across 300 pages, so less emphasis is placed on having students analyze longer works.

Gallagher, Kelly (2015-02-28). In the Best Interest of Students: Staying True to What Works in the ELA Classroom (Kindle Locations 338-340). Stenhouse Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Ba Ram Ewe.

The thing is, as my husband says, no one really knows what they’re doing, and no one’s in charge. Truly. This isn’t a fatalistic sentiment, it’s actually quite liberating. I am in as much control, or lack thereof, as anyone else. This is the essence of growth mindset: ask good questions, listen for good answers, and don’t be afraid to share your own expertise.

And read a Kelly Gallagher book.

To my esteemed colleagues: how do you keep from getting overwhelmed with change, and focusing on what’s meaningful and critical for your best practices?