I’m not sure how to spell “kerfuffle”—indeed, I’m not even sure it’s a real word—but if it is real, then there is a real kerfuffle going on in the United States about how the Common Core will affect teaching and learning in our nation. Some see the Common Core as a left-wing plot to make all U.S. kids carbon-copies of one another as they go through the paces in mathematics and language arts, while other critics view it as a government grab of everything educational, taking away a local school district’s rights to educate their children as they best see fit. Me? I see the Common Core as a set of baseline standards that are eminently flexible in how they are implemented in individual classrooms, by individual teachers.
Although I’ve been retired from teaching for five years, I have vivid memories of the ever-so-blah writing assignments my middle school kids were required to complete in preparation for Ohio’s annual proficiency tests. The dreaded “5-paragraph essay” loomed over every student like a metaphorical Sword of Damocles, where even the slightest wrong move brought ignominious defeat. Writing became an exercise to endure rather than a pleasure to experience, and even the kids who liked writing most came to see it as a chore, not an expression of self.
But done right—and there are many ways of doing it right—the Common Core in English/Language Arts (I’ll leave the mathematics standards to those more well-versed in numeration than I) can become the cure for the current writing malaise that affects our nation’s classrooms. Let’s look at it from the student’s perspective:
What could be more enjoyable than writing about a subject of keen interest to you—yourself? First of all, what subject do you know more intimately than your own personality, quirks, desires, and needs? This untapped resource of writing possibility begs to be explored and, through the Common Core, it can be.
Let’s consider an example from a book my wife Deb and I wrote for Free Spirit in 2011, Building Strong Writers in Middle School. Our favorite activity from the book is called “Wa-a-a-a-ay Beyond Description.” The first element of this three-part activity is to describe yourself in only and exactly 100 adjectives, in any languages that you’d like. Not only does this build vocabulary, it also makes a thesaurus your intimate best friend, for at least a bit of time. Part two of the lesson asks students to compose a short essay about one person in their life who helped to “make them the adjectives” that they are. Who made them kind, despicable, amiable (that’s French), gregarious, intuitive? The lesson ends by having students create a “concrete poem,” which is a visual image composed of only the 100 adjectives used to describe themselves. In past lessons, students have created a rocking chair, a stage with lighting, and a ticket into a concert that had seemed to be sold out.
What does this have to do with the Common Core? Uh . . . everything. This activity alone addresses twelve of the Common Core objectives, including “Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective techniques, relevant descriptive details, and well-structured event sequences.”
The Common Core is not a beast to be defeated, but an invitation to explore student creativity. As a teacher or parent, see the Common Core as a roadmap where various routes are suggested rather than as a trajectory that has only one planned route. Instead of dismissing the Common Core, accept it as a way to expand your child’s or student’s options as a writer.
What creative classroom activities have you conducted that support the Common Core?
Jim Delisle, Ph.D., has taught gifted children and those who work on their behalf for more than thirty years, including twenty-five years as a professor of special education at Kent State University. The author of more than 250 articles and sixteen books, he is a frequent presenter on gifted children’s intellectual and emotional growth.
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