OK–maybe “terrified” isn’t quite the word. How about nervous? Apprehensive? Uncertain? Stop right there. After all, you teach writing well, don’t you? Maybe brilliantly! So you need to feel intrepid. Start by putting the standards into everyday language to show them for what they are–then you can sail right into them as if you’d been living with them all your life (which, actually, you probably have).

What’s really embedded in those standards?

Something that has been overlooked amidst all the hoopla of the past several years is that the standards are not all that demanding. Really? Yes, really. They’re basically common sense expectations about writing that in fact have been around for years. If you ever took a class–K through college–where you were required to write, you encountered the standards. It’s just that now they’re more clearly articulated. They’re formally expressed. And they appear in lists, grade by grade. If you ever want to make something formidable, put it in a list. Bingo. Paragraphs never intimidate us somehow, but lists? And . . . having said that, let me share a very non-intimidating summary list with you. If you skim through the standards (which you should do routinely, as familiarity breeds courage), you’ll see that at heart the standards for writing comprise very reasonable requests that any good teacher of writing would (or does) make. Here they are, in everyday language (jargon is another intimidator of the first order, as students always learn in a good writing class):

  1. Introduce your topic
  2. Give reasons for any assertions you make
  3. Supply any facts the reader needs
  4. Make sure your information is ordered in a logical, easy to follow way
  5. If you don’t know much about your topic, do some research
  6. Write clearly so that what you say makes sense to readers
  7. Take time to revise
  8. Connect thoughts so the reader can see how you got from A to B
  9. Provide an ending to wrap up your story or discussion
  10. Choose your words with care
  11. Use conventions thoughtfully to bring out meaning–and VOICE!
  12. Edit your work

See? Logical, simple, common sense stuff. And, by the way, things we have been taught and have been teaching for years. How do we know this?

Some familiar comments

Just consider the following teacher comments (pulled from real papers, by the way). Do any of these sound familiar? Maybe you have said or written one of the following–or something like it:

  • This is unclear.
  • What are you trying to say here?
  • What is your MAIN point?
  • You need more detail/information/support.
  • Tell me more about this.
  • I’m not sure what you mean here.
  • Give me an example.
  • Do you have proof of this?
  • Do you have a source for this?
  • Edit this passage carefully.
  • Try reading this aloud to see if you want to make any changes.
  • Is this the word you wanted/meant to use?
  • I’m not following your thinking here.
  • You seemed to off the track a little here! 
  • Show me how these two thoughts are connected.
  • Are you writing about ONE main idea–or two?
  • I love this idea, but I want to know more.
  • Do you know where to look for additional information?

If any of these sound even a little familiar, then you have been at least emphasizing the spirit of the common core standards. I don’t say “teaching” because of course teaching takes more than pointing out problems. It takes modeling, identifying stellar examples from literature–and having students become revisers. More on that in a moment . . .

Setting the standards higher

What?! Why would anyone do such a thing? Well, because the common core standards for writing, as they now exist, are just what they purport to be: a list of basic expectations that, if met, define what it means to be a competent writer. Which is not to say an exciting or earth shaking writer. So–is that enough? Well, would it be enough for you? And if not, why should it be enough for our students? After all, who wants to be competent when it’s possible to rock the world?

What do we do to challenge writers who can do more? We could define standards that exist in the real world of writing–expectations that go beyond the routine. And by doing so, we give students a reason to write. No one writes to place commas correctly in a series or to match subject and verb. Those are tools of writing–not goals. We write to enlighten readers, entertain them, make them laugh or cry or remember, or shake them up. And without reasons like that, we lose the ONLY thing that will EVER lead to higher achievement in writing: motivation. So here’s my list–not a list of standards, but rather, a list of goals for real-world writing. Achieving any of these is an enormous measure of success. Don’t just adopt this list as is; use it as a starting point to define writing success in your own classroom. You may wish to add things you and your students have already done.

Goals for real-world writing

  1.  Write an editorial that gets published in your local paper.
  2. Write an editorial that persuades someone to take action or reverse a decision.
  3. Write a letter (to any corporation or well-known person) that gets a response.
  4. Write a blog, wiki, or podcast that draws an audience.
  5. Write a product review that influences sales.
  6. Write a resume that gets you a job–or interview.
  7. Write a letter of recommendation that gets someone else a job or interview.
  8. Write a poem or story that gets published.
  9. Write a report that prompts readers to ask questions or do research.
  10. Adapt one form of communication to create another: e.g., turn a report into a journal, poem, play, or video.
  11. As a writer, work with an illustrator to create a finished piece–or, as an illustrator, work with a writer.
  12. Review or edit another writer’s work to prepare it for publication.

Real writing = real results. Wait, though. How do we prepare students for writing at this level? Can we even do it? Of course. We’ve underestimated what students can do for far too long. The great Donald Graves warned us of this years ago. Imagine yourself riding a bike or walking a tightrope when everyone watching thinks and fears you will fall. How do you suppose you’ll do? So believe. Then do these four practical things:

Four steps to success in real world writing

1. Model. Model. Model. Every form of writing you can. Not WHOLE essays and stories, but little pieces. Do it often and talk about your work. Be good at it, but not too good. Ask for help from your students. They will gladly give it, and will learn the same way you do–by teaching.

2. Share the BEST literature you can. Read aloud, no matter how “adult” you think your students are. Likely they’ll enjoy it more than they let on, and they will most surely learn from it. Provide what is so rare these days: opportunities to just listen to a human voice conveying meaning and emotion. And by all means, save favorite passages for discussion and to use as models.

3. Give your students time: time to find topics, to do research, to draft and revise, and to do any final editing and publishing appropriate for their grade level. Don’t rush. If you rush, the first thing to go will be reflection, and that’s the thinking part. Next to go will be revision, and that’s the heart and soul of writing.

4. Revise to learn. Meaning what? Meaning that your best curriculum is found right within your students’ own writing. Save sentences or short passages that don’t quite work, and post them–anonymously if you like (I always did it this way) or the writer can identify him- or herself (some prefer this). Don’t pick passages that will embarrass the writer, naturally; but choose something that poses a real problem, a passage that’s vague or one where the writer got tangled up in language that doesn’t communicate to the reader. Ask two questions: (1) What is this writer trying to say? and (2) How could the writer make this meaning clear? Have students rewrite the passage, then compare with a partner. Share results. That’s it. If you used just one strategy to teach writing (other than simply doing it, of course), I’d recommend this one. Students really learn to write by discussing and revising what does not work. And as a bonus, they love doing it. (Our kits are FILLED with lessons based on this strategy–but you can do the very same thing using your own students’ work.)

Important Link . . .

Current research supports what most of us have long believed: that writing directly improves reading skills. In other words, one of the best ways to teach reading is through direct instruction in writing. To learn more, check out Marshall Memo 417, January 3, 2012: http://www.marshallmemo.com  Look for an article titled “The road to writing proficiency,” a summary from the recent Harvard Educational Review. Thanks for dropping by–and do bring friends! We’ll be reviewing a new book by Richard Peck, right here on Gurus, early next week.