The Common Core, Hard-to-Reach Students, and the Personal Essay

by Keith Hefner, publisher and executive director of Youth Communication

Hefner_Keith_FSP authorWhen I first read the Common Core State Standards for language arts, I was impressed with the thoroughness, and with the emphasis on reading and writing nonfiction. The standards aligned with our work at Youth Communication: helping teens develop the skills to write narratives that use “well-chosen details and well-structured event sequences” and that use techniques like dialogue and description. Students in our program typically write 10 to 15 drafts before their stories are ready for publication, so I was especially pleased to see the focus on revision in the Common Core standards.

The main challenge I saw in the Common Core was that the writing standards and reading samples were far above the skills of most of the students in our program, many of whom are recent immigrants, attending second-chance schools, or in foster care. If we suddenly assigned “grade level” reading and writing, it would drive students right out of our program.

What helps struggling students improve their skills, we have learned, is to build engagement by starting with their own experiences. For example, if our topic is dropouts, students will write about their experiences and those of their peers before looking at research reports. © Pressmaster | Dreamstime.comAs any good teacher knows, bridging from what students know (themselves and their environment) to what they don’t know is the most effective strategy for engaging low-skilled or at-risk teens. Of course, students’ personal explorations can (and should) be held to the same rigorous standards as any other writing—in everything from choice of language and narrative techniques to use of facts.

So imagine my surprise when I learned that David Coleman, the lead architect of the Common Core, is highly critical of personal writing, saying that “when you grow up in this world, people really don’t give a sh** about what you feel or what you think. . . . It is rare in a working environment that someone says, ‘Johnson, I need a market analysis by Friday, but before that I need a compelling account of your childhood.’”

I was equally surprised last December when I heard John King, the commissioner of the New York State Department of Education, make almost the same statement in a speech at the Harvard Club.

Ironically, King made that statement right after telling a powerful personal story. In his speech, he used one of the most effective strategies for writing a persuasive essay: he took an abstract idea (school is important, especially to vulnerable children), and made it memorable and compelling by telling a personal story (when his parents died, the staff at the middle school he attended became like a surrogate family).

Two months ago, David Coleman graciously hosted an event honoring 16 teens in foster care who won an essay contest that we sponsor. Coleman is now president of the College Board, where one of his goals is to support educational equity. In his remarks, he noted how much he had learned from reading the winning essays by teens who described how they overcame enormous obstacles to succeed in school. I’m sure Coleman is well versed in the research on school persistence, but these personal essays drove home the issue in a way that complements the research.

I wonder if Coleman and King read the weekly “Corner Office” column in the Sunday Business section of The New York Times, which features a Q&A with a major business leader. One question is always on hiring. What do these industry leaders ask prospective hires? More often than not, they say that they want the applicant to tell them stories about problems they’ve solved and obstacles they’ve overcome. Many of them also want to hear about the relationship between applicants’ professional goals and their personal journey. Of course these executives demand technical competence. But if you can’t also tell an appropriate and convincing personal story, they’re not going to hire you.

What does this mean for teachers who work with students who are performing far below standards?

Common Core State Standards logoFirst, treat the Common Core standards as worthy goals, not as prescriptions for what you should teach on Monday. Requiring students to read impenetrable texts just because they are “Common Core aligned” is a prescription for failure (no matter how much “scaffolding” you provide). Assign texts that are challenging, but not so difficult that your students will disengage. And remember that texts with low reading levels often address complex ideas and emotions. Those texts can be especially helpful in teaching close reading skills.

Second, though the Common Core grade levels may not be appropriate for your students, the principles are excellent. No matter what texts you are using, teach close reading skills. Teach writing strategies like organization, transitions, dialogue and description, and effective word choices. And have students revise their work.

Third, ignore the critics of the personal essay. Allow and encourage your students to bring their lives into the classroom. But insist that they write their personal essays to the same standards, using the same literary techniques (and even research and fact-checking) that they would use in writing an essay on Shakespeare or the Civil War. Research has shown that students are more likely to persist through a difficult task (like reading or writing) if the task feels personally meaningful.

Finally, to reassure your principal, create your own accurate and compelling personal story about why your approach is effective.

Leaders Guide Struggle to be Strong FSPKeith Hefner is executive director of Youth Communication, a New York-based nonprofit organization that teaches writing, journalism, and leadership skills to inner-city teens. He is also the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship for his work in youth development. He is the coauthor of A Leader’s Guide to The Struggle to Be Strong: How to Foster Resilience in Teens.

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