For the past few years, the new nationwide Common Core state standards have been slowly rolling out in Florida’s schools. Next year, all schools will fully implement the standards, which lay out what students are expected to learn in reading and math in kindergarten through twelfth grade. It’s led to big changes for teachers, many of whom are throwing out lesson plans and cherished writing assignments and learning new ways to teach the basics, like multiplication. The Hechinger Report’s Jackie Mader visited one rural panhandle elementary school to see how the standards are changing writing instruction. You can hear the report below.
Students in Laurie Langford’s second grade classroom are reading about public sector jobs. As the students work together, Langford repeats a phrase that has become increasingly common in her classroom. “Go back to your article, OK? Look in the text. Find your evidence,” Langford said.
In 2011, when this elementary school in rural West Defuniak adopted the new Common Core standards, many teachers revamped their lessons to phase out the creative writing that is typically taught in the early years of elementary school. Instead, even in the youngest grades, teachers are focusing on evidence-based writing.
Last year, Langford says she focused more on ‘fun’ writing assignments. “Last year I did a cute writing on… ‘just as my mom opened the oven for thanksgiving dinner, the turkey popped out and…’ And the kids went on with it,” Langford said. “And it was really cute and really fun, and we threw it in a center this year, but we are not going to spend all week writing about a turkey running away.”
At the opposite end of the school, Casi Adkinson’s third-graders are also in the midst of a writing lesson. The class is spending the week reading a non-fiction story about a girl named Mary Anning who discovered a dinosaur fossil in England in the early 1800’s. Today, the students are asked to write about how that discovery changed what scientists knew about dinosaurs and the earth’s history.
Eight-year-old Hannah has already filled up half a page, but it is somewhat off topic.
“I think that it was not nice of the scientists to try to take credit from what she had found and discovered,” Hannah said. “And I don’t think it’s fair that girls got pushed out of everything. And I don’t think that’s fair as a girl myself.”
Adkinson says that students sometimes get overwhelmed by all the information in a text. She jumps in to redirect Hannah.
“Make sure you give the reasons why it changed earth’s history, OK?”
Hannah nodded. “OK.”
Adkinson says the new style of writing is the type of writing students will have to do in college and in careers. It gets them thinking deeper about what they’ve read. And compared to some creative writing assignments, she says this kind of non-fiction writing can level the playing field. “If you were to ask students to write about their favorite vacation, we have to be honest that every child in your room hasn’t necessarily gone on a vacation before,” she said. “Where as if you’re responding to the text, you all read the same text so they all have the equal amount of information they can provide.”
But it also comes with its challenges. The third graders are used to the old standards, where they would mostly write creative stories or explain steps in a process, like how to make a birthday cake. It can also be hard for students to find the balance between quoting parts of the story, and copying the story line by line. “That’s where we run into, you know, innocent plagiarism at a young age, which even this early you have to start talking to them about how they can’t use someone else’s work as their own,” Adkinson said.
Both Adkinson and second grade teacher Langford know that there’s nothing in the new Common Core standards that is telling teachers to get rid of creative writing. It’s just that the new standards aren’t emphasizing it. And, Adkinson says that it can be tough to find the time to do it all. “I do think it’s very important to not take that creativity away from them, and I don’t think that this Common Core writing is in any way trying to do that,” she said. “I think it’s just that we’re, as teachers having to really receive training and guidance on how to teach it and include that creative writing opinion in there.”
Writing ability will soon take on more importance in Florida’s end-of-grade exams. Unlike the old standards where kids were tested on writing in grades four, eight, and ten, new Common Core aligned tests will include writing each year.