The Importance of Knowing the Standards: Expand the Possibilities of Genres You Teach

Expand the Possibilities Blog Series - February 2020

It was a sweltering day in August. My wife and I, still newlyweds, sat at the kitchen table of our loft apartment, hunched over the map that lay before us.  We had decided to leave our small town in Oregon and move to the east coast – Connecticut specifically. My wife would attend art school while I began a new teaching position at the local middle school.  Four years later, we would do the same thing, sitting down again with a map, pens, and a highlighter to plot our course back to Oregon. For our first trip, we settled on a route that took us through destinations like Mt. Rushmore and the famous Wall Drug Store.  For our return trip, we elected a different route, one that allowed us to visit the majestic Yellowstone Park, as well as make other key stops. Two completely different journeys full of adventure and, of course, some unpredictability. But each of them planned, planned carefully with a final destination in mind.

Across this past week, the authors at Two Writing Teachers have written about expanding the possibilities in the genres of writing we teach.  Each post has offered ways in which we as writing teachers might think about venturing outside the parameters of what we have perhaps previously imagined.  In doing so, we are hopeful you have enjoyed an opportunity to rethink, or add to, what is possible in your teaching of writing. But in expanding the possibilities of our different writing units, let us not forget the important guide points the Common Core State Standards – or whatever your local iteration of those standards are –  provide us.  

Why Does Knowing the Standards Matter?

Just like the mapping my wife and I did together at our kitchen table, it is important that we, as educators, think carefully about the journey we hope to lead our kids on as we work to teach them to become stronger writers across a unit of study. Yes, there are certainly many ways to crisscross the country.  But like most teachers, my wife and I were: (a) traveling on a timeline and needed the journey to end by a certain date (a house-sitting job awaited us in Old Lyme, Connecticut for the first trip, a job was beginning for the second); and (b) hoping to accomplish certain things along the way. So we back-mapped our expedition from that date, thoughtfully planning as we did so. As teachers and coaches, we can take a similar approach to our writing instruction.  When we begin a writing journey by identifying the goals [or standard(s)] ahead of time, that is, the end game, we are able to clarify for both students and ourselves what we are working toward.

The standards provide what I’ll call a progressive lens to help us determine where our writers are currently performing, as well as what goals make sense for each student.  For example, if we realize a sixth grade writer is not yet meeting end of sixth grade standards and is perhaps currently only meeting fourth grade standards, then a short-term goal would likely be to support them in reaching end of fifth grade standards by the end of the school year (since end of sixth would be improbable).

While writing about the importance of clear, standards-based learning targets in their book, Leaders of Their Own Learning, Berger, Rugen, and Woodfin write (2014), “The standards themselves, with their precise technical language, are not typically inspirational for students or, for that matter, teachers.  However, they represent educational ideas and capacities that can be genuinely inspiring” (p. 11).  The standards can indeed be inspiring, if we invite them into our planning process.

“The standards themselves, with their precise technical language, are not typically inspirational for students or, for that matter, teachers. However, they represent educational ideas and capacities that can be genui

A few things that might help to keep in mind as we work to expand the genres we teach:

(1.)  Incorporate Standards in Everyday Instruction – As co-author Melanie Meehan wrote about recently in a recent post, incorporating standards in everyday instruction can be accomplished by working to “establish clarity and navigable pathways for writers.”  For those teachers using the Teachers College Writing Units of Study, many standards-aligned tools and charts are made available.  In addition, Melanie’s charts and ideas can supplement instruction and act as mentors for teachers endeavoring to make standards-based work and goals more visible and doable in the eyes of kids.

(2.)  Determine goals for your writers.  As you incorporate new ways to teach into different genres, it is important to think about: in service of what skills- and standards- will I commit to teaching?  Identifying and naming those skills ahead of the journey matters, as it guides planning, much the way my cross-country mapping was guided.  At a recent professional development day, teacher and author Kate Roberts coached teachers to think about: “What two to four things do you hope kids will be better at doing by the end of your unit?” She asked us to think about what skills will truly be taught, versus what will be “covered”?  

Currently, I am working with some sixth grade writers on information writing.  Based on a short pre-assessment, I have identified the following standards as foci:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.6.2.B

Develop the topic with relevant facts, definitions, concrete details, quotations, or other information and examples.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.6.2

Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English capitalization, punctuation, and spelling when writing.

Of course, there are other things these young writers could work on, as well.  And let’s face it, the second standard here is rather vast in its scope. But these standards help provide focus and direction to both my planning and my aspirations for these writers’ improvement.

(3.)  Create standards-based progressions- Researcher and Professor John Hattie teaches us that learners are far more likely to reach their goal if the path toward that goal is made concrete and visible for them.  One way I have been working with teachers recently is facilitating collaborative efforts around creating standards-based progressions. During my time at the Teachers College Reading & Writing Project in New York, I learned a great deal about the power of progressions (called “continua” back then) and how they help clarify learning paths for both teachers and students.  I have seen first-hand the benefit of working together with colleagues, studying standards, and creating clear and visible paths couched in the language of the standards.  A common reaction from teachers is, “It’s so nice to know what higher level work looks like!” In another recent post on launching an information writing unit, co-author Melanie Meehan shared a progression she created with teachers that spans multiple grade levels.  If you have not yet seen it, take a look here

Screen Shot 2020-02-05 at 10.03.26 AM

Above: Melanie Meehan shares a standards-based progression for information writing

The Standards and Our More Fragile Learners

I realize there are perhaps some of you reading this post that feel like the standards do not always apply to you nor your students because…well, the standards just feel so out of reach for some kids.  The standards can, indeed, sometimes feel out of reach for segments of our special education or ENL populations, in particular. Colleague and co-author Kathleen Sokolowski reminds us that it can sometimes help to compare our writing instruction to an exercise class:  Watching the moves the exercise instructor makes during the class can be aspirational for those who cannot yet make those moves. Compare those complex moves to the standards. Sure, some kids will not yet be able to make some of those specific moves or perform at the high levels set forth in the standards.  But planning for ways to (1) make those aspirational moves (standards) visible; and (2) laying out learning paths that make higher levels feel reachable allows kids to see where they can go. Of course, this teaching stance also supports writers who are ready for greater challenge and have perhaps already mastered grade-level standards.

Conclusion

Looking back on my two cross-country journeys, I wish I could say everything went according to plan.  But, as you can likely imagine, it didn’t.  And neither has any unit of study I have taught in writing gone completely according to my well-intentioned plans.  But let’s remember: what matters is not everything proceeding perfectly, but rather taking a planful approach to our instruction. This is something we should all do. And as you plan for expanding the boundaries of those genres you teach, consider the importance of knowing the standards and how they can support kids’ growth as writers.

Giveaway Information:

  • This giveaway is for a copy of each of the following books: Craft and Process Studies: Units that Provide Writers with Choice of Genre by Matt Glover and Focus Lessons: How Photography Enhances the Teaching of Writing by Ralph Fletcher. Thanks to Heinemann for donating a copy for one reader. (You must have a U.S. mailing address to win a print copy of this book.)
  • For a chance to win this copy of Craft and Process Studies and Focus Lessons, please leave a comment about this or any blog post in this blog series by Sunday, February 9th at 6:00 p.m. EDT. Betsy Hubbard will use a random number generator to pick the winner’s commenter number. His/her name will be announced in the ICYMI blog post for this series on Monday, February 10th.
  • Please leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment so Betsy can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win.  From there, our contact at Heinemann will ship the book to you. (NOTE: Your e-mail address will not be published online if you leave it in the e-mail field only.)
  • If you are the winner of the book, Betsy will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – EXPAND THE POSSIBILITIES. Please respond to her e-mail with your mailing address within five days of receipt. A new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.

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