Keeping the Balance

by Kerry Crosby

Guest Blogger and Adjunct Faculty Member for Lesley University’s Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative

As I develop my keynote address titled “Using the Common Core to develop writing curriculum that meets the needs of all writers,” for the upcoming institute at Lesley featuring Katie Wood Ray, I have been struck by the need to put in visuals of balancing scales throughout my presentation.  Districts all over are looking deeply at aligning their curriculum to the Common Core and mapping their units of study over the year.  I am deeply grateful that the Common Core has forced all of us to take a look at how to align our curricula both horizontally and vertically and has created an atmosphere for deeper collaboration and study of what we expect from our students at every level.  This is all satisfying, good and important work.

However, the reason I have felt the need to infuse my slides with balancing scales is so we don’t lose sight of the need to balance our understanding of the Common Core with our understanding of our students and what they demonstrate as writers. We cannot have one without the other—without common standards, we often lack content and high expectations, but without the kids, we fall prey to “covering” materials…plowing through whether they understand it or not in an effort to stay loyal to our units of study and our curriculum map.

So, the question we must ask of ourselves is:  how do we meet the demands of the Common Core and make sure our curriculum is rich and supportive of these standards while making room to differentiate to meet the varying needs of our students?  How do we meet students where they are and bring them to where they need to go—whether they are writing above, on or below the standards for their grade level?

Understanding the Common Core Vertically

One way to do this is to understand the expectations of the Common Core at each grade level. It is not enough to understand what the standards say for your own grade, but what are the expectations for your students’ writing the year before and the year after?  If we understand the differences in the language of the Common Core at the different grade levels and have consensus on what this means in actual teaching and in student work, we will know what our students need to do next in their writing whether they are on grade level, below or above.  As we work with colleagues to align our curriculum to the Common Core, we must not forget to have these questions at the forefront:  What are the expectations for the students’ writing at this grade level? What does that look like? What will I see in my students’ writing to know that they are reaching this expectation and how will I know where to bring them next?

Analyzing Student Work

This brings us to the need to look at student work closely.  Analyzing student writing to know the students’ strengths and what they are ready for next will bring us closer to knowing how to provide the appropriate level of support in our teaching as we address the standards for our grade.  Looking at student writing will help you to figure out how you can differentiate the goals of your unit of study to meet the varying needs in your classroom.

Differentiating Instruction within the Common Core

How then do we meet these diverse needs?  The very structure of writing workshop provides the framework for being able to meet these varying needs and to strike this delicate balance between meeting the standards and not forgetting the individual needs of our students.

The writing minilesson is a perfect place to teach the standard…through explicit modeling and a gradual release of responsibility, you can introduce a concept and let the students try it out in their own writing.  When you notice some students are not taking on the new concepts you are teaching, reflect on how to reach those students.  Instead of just plowing through the curriculum to “cover it,” you will want to think about where each of your students are  in their understandings and use the different instructional contexts offered through a workshop-based approach to meet their needs.  Instructional contexts like interactive writing, guided writing (small group instruction of writing) or writing conferences allow for this differentiation.  Whether these needs are addressed individually, in small groups or through whole group minilessons, the point is that the children are not left out of the process as we strive to meet the demands of the Common Core.  After all, our common core—the heart of our teaching—is our children.

Talking with Colleagues to Keep the Students at the Heart

So, as you strive to understand the demands of the Common Core and align your curriculum, have these important conversations with colleagues:

  • How will we know our students are taking on the learning? What kind of evidence will we want to see in their writing to know they are meeting the standards?
  • How will we meet them where they are?
  • How will our curriculum maps and are teaching allow for differentiation?

Calkins, Ehrenworth and Lehman sum it up nicely in Pathways to the Common Core:

Mostly then, the Common Core writing standards seem utterly aligned to the writing process tradition that is well established across the states, with a few new areas of focus and a raised bar for the quality of writing we should expect students to produce.  This quality of writing can be achieved by mandating explicit instruction, opportunities for practice, centrality on feedback, assessment-based instruction and spiral curriculum that have been the hallmarks of rigorous writing workshop instruction.” (Heinemann, 2012)

If we continue to place our students at the core of our work, we will strike the balance between meeting the demands for high-quality writing offered by the Common Core and meeting the diverse and exciting needs and interests of our students.

Kerry Crosby will be presenting at this year’s Summer Literacy Institute–The Language of Teaching: Planning, Instructing, and Assessing Writing, K–8 on Wednesday, July 11, 2012. There is still room in this institute. Visit http://www.lesley.edu/crr/summer for details.

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