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Will Common Core Wreck Writing in Schools?

Should writing be taught as a process or a product?

Common Core Standards—adopted by 45 states—is supposed to bring back writing in schools. Ironically, a writing revolution in schools happened 37 years ago when an eloquent professor named Donald Graves cracked the psychology of writing. Today some teachers fear Common Core is wrecking writing instruction in their classrooms.

The father of the writing revolution in schools, the late Donald Graves, founded the Writing Process Laboratory at the University of New Hampshire in 1976 that would have profound impact on the teaching of writing in the English-speaking world. Graves and his research assistants conducted classroom research projects that gave authority to what he called “the writing process.” Thousands of teachers came to visit and other researchers joined in and disseminated his work creating a worldwide educational movement.

Before Graves, teaching writing focused on a product. Teachers assigned a topic, required rigid outlines, imposed structures such as a five-paragraph essay, counted off for errors, and graded everything the student wrote. The teacher was the only one reading students’ papers.

Graves’ focus on the process cracked the psychology of writing—how the child’s mind functioned as a writer and how thinking and acting like a real author affected writing behaviors in the classroom. He posited three essential behaviors needed for the process to replicate writing in the real world: the child should have choice of topic, control of the writing, and publication for a real audience.

The switch from product to process changed the role of the teacher. A process oriented teacher would model, conference and ask questions—not assign, impose requirements, and grade. Graves’ revolutionary concept was that all children are writers in the sense that they all have something to say and can make meaning on paper even from a very early age. It might start with drawing pictures from their imagination and scribbling. Writing was a creativity/thinking process. The inspiration and motivation to write, Graves believed, must come from the child and satisfy an innate human drive to speak out and create meaning. When teaching writing as a process, teachers invite children to write, respond to their ideas, and foster their development. (They don’t do a lot of test prep.) In Graves’ model, students spend a lot of time reading and writing in school.

Writing was not simply a set of skills to be taught, it was a craft to be learned. So like the artist or potter who learned in studios or workshops, the craft of writing would be taught in a workshop where the child learned to write under the tutorship and guidance of a writing teacher who would be the master craftsman modeling and practicing the craft alongside the student.

Ownership was at the core of teaching the writing process—the belief that the child, not the teacher, owned the piece. In addition, time to compose in school, trust, and respect for the child’s work were guiding principles for process writing. For example Graves believed choice-of-topic should be owned by the child. As he famously said, “When people own a place, they look after it: but when it belongs to someone else, they couldn’t care less. It’s this way with writing.”

The process-writing principles of choice of topic, ownership, writing for a real audience, time for composing, and feedback through conferencing were indeed revolutionary. These principles along with Graves’ notion that “Children want to write” have led to the basic methodology of the classroom writing workshop and, from a reductionist perspective, to a 5-step writing process.

The 5-Step Writing Process

Step 1: Pre-writing

Pre-writing involves decision making, rehearsal, and perhaps putting down a plan. It’s when writers generate ideas, make decisions regarding the genre or type of piece they plan to write, rehearse how a piece might develop, and begin to put their thoughts in order. Once children understand the concept of pre-writing, rehearsal can take place out of the classroom as they get an idea for writing when watching a movie, riding their bike, reading a book, bussing to school, listening to a snippet of conversation, seeing something impressionable, following a passion—the sources are endless.

Step 2: Drafting

Drafting—writing it down—is what happens after the child picks up her pencil and begins. It’s when ideas become words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs. Drafting is the preliminary version of a text that gets written with the expectation that it is not the final product. Drafting is generally easier and quicker if students spend time, thought, and effort on pre-writing. It should mostly engage the writer in thinking about substance and meaning.

Graves thought it important for students to recognize that drafting doesn’t have to be perfect but that it is rigorous. In the words of author, Joyce Carol Oates, "Getting the first draft finished is like pushing a peanut with your nose across a very dirty floor." Kids in a rigorous writing workshop get this concept.

Step 3: Revising

Revising is making content changes to make a piece of writing better. Real writing, in Graves’ view, started with revision. In his words: “Writing only truly becomes writing in revision. A professional’s first draft is often not much better than anyone else’s. It is chiefly in revision that the professional’s experience and craftsmanship show.” He believed children learned most about writing during this step in conferences under the tutelage of a good teacher. He playfully thought of revising as “messing up” the first draft: “Young writers need to learn a whole repertoire for messing up their first drafts as they change pieces, insert, take out, reorganize. When children stop erasing and instead cross out, draw lines and arrows, or change handwriting from careful printing to a functional scrawl (knowing this to be only a draft) they show awareness that draft writing is temporary, malleable, meant to be changed.”

Step 4: Editing

If revision is “messing up” the first draft, editing is “fixing it up” for conventions. Editing is when the writer focuses on correct mechanics such as capitalization, grammar usage, punctuation, and spelling. Of course today’s students don’t do too well with things like spelling because we aren’t teaching it explicitly and systematically. The way American schools teach spelling is schizophrenic—we haven’t decided if spelling is important or not—but that’s another topic.

Step 5: Publishing

Publishing makes writing real and gives it purpose. Children are inspired by publishing their own writing. They want other children in their writer’s workshop to see their published work and view the classroom audience as being as important. Class books, newsletters, bulletin boards or magazines can create an audience. A wider audience may include parents and grandparents, other classes, the students’ school, other schools, members of the community, and even famous or important people

Technology allows for an abundance of new publishing opportunities: word processing to create letters, essays, brochures, and class newsletters; software programs for illustrating; PowerPoint for publishing individual, team or class writing projects which can easily be printed and bound or saved as eBooks; podcasts to record students as they read their writing. Technology even allows collaborative projects and sharing among students in real time reaching distant audiences in other districts, states, and countries.

The goal of writing process is the same as the goal for Common Core Standards: good writing that will enable students to succeed in college and careers. Author Rachel Howard recently wrote about good writing in a New York Times opinion piece saying that a writer must move consciousness “out of information-organizing mode into an intuitive way of seeing.” In my view a skillful writer, like the artist, sees something differently but the writer expresses it in print. In Rachel Howard’s words, the author sees it “deeply enough to capture the vibrancy of life on the page.” Teaching Graves’ process of writing is intended to get children started in that direction. Teaching children in writer’s workshop is a joy. Teachers see young writers in writer’s workshop capturing the vibrancy of life every day.

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.”

Dr. J. Richard Gentry is the co-author of the series, Getting to the Core of Writing: Essential Lessons for Every Kindergarten through Sixth Grade Student. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. Find out more information about his work on his website.