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Why Narrative Writing is Crucial For Students: A Warning for Common Core Implementation

Narrative within professional development nonfiction: Readers kept going past midnight, telling me, "I had to find out what happened to Josh!"
Narrative within professional development nonfiction: Readers kept going past midnight, telling me, “I had to find out what happened to Josh!”

As 46 states implement using the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), one big change is from the traditional amount of narrative writing students do to far more analytical and argumentative writing. As someone who knows and uses the power of narrative techniques in a considerable amount of business writing, this has me worried.

Susan Pimental, one of the primary authors of the standards, explained that the reason for the switch is

to reduce writing “opinion untethered to evidence” and “decontextualized” writing—writing not based on the reading of a text—in favor of writing that requires students to read, comprehend, and respond to text, grounding their interpretations in evidence found there. That shift reflects what young people can expect in college and work, she said. “In faculty and employer surveys, the kinds of skills that score high are the argument and evidence-related skills, developing ideas with relevant details and reasons,” Ms. Pimentel said. “Telling stories scores very low” (Gewertz, S11).

Really? Really? I can only guess that these employers and professors equate narrative writing with “How I Spent My Summer Vacation” essays. REAL narrative writing is every bit as complex and every bit as crucial to businesses as “argument and evidence-related skills.” I’m not saying instead of. I’m saying both narrative AND evidence-related writing.

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What Kind of “Complex Text”?

My “To Read” Shelf

Saturday morning, I read a book cover to cover. I laughed, I pondered, I underlined, I got ideas for my own writing, I…loved every word of it.

It was a book on mathematics.

Honest.

Now, honestly, have you run across a mathematics textbook that would glue you to your chair on a Saturday morning? Or a science textbook? Or history? Or is your experience much like mine—finding that the texts are boring or outdated or, worse, irrelevant to the real work of the discipline.

A history teacher told me, “I never assign more than five pages of reading because the students get too bogged down. It’s too complex. Oh, and 10/20 on a quiz is a C because the information is so difficult.” I took a good look at the book. Folks, it was an encyclopedia of names and dates, not “complex text” that explored the fascinating ideas and motivations that drive history. The ideas he was testing weren’t difficult, either—they just required hours of memorization. I will say that the publisher had added lots of pictures of torture and brothels, I assume in an attempt to keep students turning the pages.

The Common Core State Standards emphasize complex text:

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Are Either/Ors Slowing You Down?

“Beware the Either/Ors” is as important a consideration for school reform as “What will best help students learn?”

Last week, Annie Murphy Paul’s blog Why Kids Should Learn Cursive (and Math Facts, and Word Roots) got a lot of attention. She cites some excellent reasons and points to

…a raft of recent studies supporting the effectiveness of “old school” methods like memorizing math facts, reading aloud, practicing handwriting, and teaching argumentation (activities that once went by the names drill, recitation, penmanship and rhetoric). While the education world is all abuzz about so-called “21st-century skills” like collaboration, problem solving, and critical thinking, this research suggests that we might do well to add a strong dose of the 19th-century to our children’s schooling.

Note she says Add these old methods rather than use Only the old methods.

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Intellectual Persistence? Let’s Model It!

Yesterday, I completed a whopping one page in my newest book project (more on that later). Today I wrote an entire chapter. Same amount of time, different results. What happened?

Well for one thing, I wasn’t preoccupied with national elections. More importantly, though, I made myself plan for being as engaged and productive as I knew how to be. For writing, that means removing myself from the temptation of organizing my office or doing laundry (far more attractive than deep thought on a complex issue!), getting a good dose of exercise, and enhancing my environment with motivating music or other sensory touches.

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Aren’t Math Mistakes Beautiful?

It’s official. Here’s the research: having students analyze how math mistakes were made is more powerful than having them solve equation after equation.

I often show math professional learning communities a great film that Lucy West provided to me. Picture an 8th grade math class in an urban school. One girl explains the equation she developed to describe the number of tiles that surround the edge of a swimming pool. Her equation is correct, but instead of saying, “Right!” the teacher says, “Thank you for sharing. Who has a different answer?”

Another boy comes to the front, places his equation and diagram on the overhead projector and says, “After hearing her answer, I think I’m wrong, but I can’t figure out my mistake. Who can help me?” And the other students, not the teacher, analyze the two threads of thinking and determine not just which is correct, but how the second student got off track. The teacher intervenes only to help the students make their diagrams clearer and ask for reasoning.

Powerful, isn’t it.

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Math Assessment Hope

What will be measured drives what will be taught. Any more reason needed for paying attention to the assessments being designed to align with the Common Core State Standards (CCSS)?

And there is hope. Dan Meyer (follow him on Twitter) posted this morning The Smarter Balanced Assessment Items which has a great example of an item that a) requires thinking b) shows the real-world usefulness of the concept being assessed and c) uses technology appropriately. Here’s the item:

Five swimmers compete in the 50-meter race. The finish time for each swimmer is shown in the video. Explain how the results of the race would change if the race used a clock that rounded to the nearest tenth.

Way better than a set of practice problems on rounding, isn’t it?

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The Benefits of Working With PLC Styles

Last week I introduced four professional learning community (PLC) styles that provide a framework for deep collaboration.

  • Pragmatic PLC: Teachers who prefer this style want ideas and resources they can use tomorrow.
  • Supportive PLC: Teachers who prefer this style are looking for modeling, co-planning and expert advice.
  • Collegial PLC: Teachers who prefer this style love to share ideas and strategies while retaining some freedom to be creative and put their own stamp on their classrooms.
  • Intellectual PLC: Teachers who prefer this style enjoy delving into why things work, the research and theory behind new ideas, and how they fit with what they already know and do.

You can read about the styles

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What’s Your Professional Learning Community Style?

 

Contrasting Styles Add Spark!

What do you want out of collaborative time? Has your team ever discussed the best way to use that time? One method for understanding each other’s wants and needs is to explore four overall styles that describe different ways that teachers

  • Learn
  • Communicate
  • Value forms of data
  • Benefit from support

While all of us can flex, and benefit from learning in different ways, collaboration is more effective for everyone if no one is constantly left out. 

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Does Your Professional Learning Community Have a Coaching Culture?

If your PLC is endeavoring to go beyond data analysis to deep collaboration that has an impact on student learning, establishing a coaching culture creates the necessary trust. What is a coaching culture? Here are some key markers, available as a handout at the Solution Tree site for my book Creating a Coaching Culture for Professional Learning Communities. Which apply to your team?

  • Members welcome diversity as a tool for making better decisions and use a common framework to communicate more clearly and understand other viewpoints
  • Members can ask questions, share beliefs, challenge ideas, and disagree with each other as part of their mutual commitment to adult learning and improved student achievement;
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Instructional Coaching as Ritualizing

A few weeks ago I wrote about similarities in coaching myself as a cyclist and the strategies of differentiated coaching. A key component is knowing when to help teachers develop a routine or ritual to overcome a persistent struggle.

My problem with biking was remembering to unclip from pedals soon enough to avoid tipping over at stop signs. I needed a routine. To develop it, I identified when to clip in and out, practiced to determine how far in advance I needed to start the process (way sooner than other bikers), and also experimented with whether twisting my feet together or separately was the better way (separately so that I could then flip each pedal and not accidentally re-clip). These routines have so far kept me fall-free.

Teacher Routines

Here are a few examples of routines that helped teachers find flow in their classrooms:

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