Creative Writing in the Common Core
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Playwriting in the Common Core

Above is a PDF from Centerstage about how to introduce playwriting to your classroom.

 

MY undergraduate degree from NYU came from Tisch’s Dramatic Writing department and my area of specialization is in television comedy writing (I am very, very available for hire!).  This type of writing is my passion and is the kind that I am best at so, of course, I look for ways to include it in my teaching, partially because it is a type of writing I feel I can teach better than many other people and also because I hope to reach students who love watching TV and have always wondered how it was made.  Playwriting is the root of all TV (unless you are writing Game of Thrones, TV generally has a small budget which limits a lot of the action to “people-talking-in-rooms.”  And, if you are writing Game of Thrones, once again, I am available!), and it also allows for 1. students to produce their own work and 2. students to take a fun and actually educational field trip to a theater at the end of the unit.  This set of guidelines is wonderfully helpful to English teachers who are just diving into playwriting with their students despite not having a strong playwriting background.  Almost all students read plays, be it Shakespeare, Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams; why shouldn’t they write some of their own?

 

The checklists at the beginning of the “Playwright’s Handbook” are particularly helpful for teachers wondering what their students will need to avoid getting bogged down in the details and formatting vagaries of playwriting.  These lists should form the basis of a series of worksheets students must fill in as they work through their early play ideas.  This process is valuable from a Common Core standpoint because, while playwriting is a wonderfully creative process, the early stages especially offer students the opportunity to learn how to format their work in different ways, how to follow a foreign structure, etc.  Like math education, the real mental work isn’t preparing them for careers as future playwrights (or, in the math example, astrophysicists) but it is preparing them for when they go out into the world and are repeatedly wrong-footed at work by new software/hardware/requirements. 

 

The dialogue-heavy nature of playwriting is also a great way to get students to think about the most succinct and interesting ways to express information.  Providing them with limitations like “all character changes and major story points must be expressed in dialogue” often brings out the best in writers who otherwise may have avoided writing in a vernacular or who may have been unwilling to write about their feelings via expository texts.  Exercises in the Handbook like “Story of a Journey,” “Secrets,” and “Round Robin” are classic exercises that strengthen student understanding of narrative, of the quickest ways to express information, of collaboration (great plays are rarely written by only one brilliant genius, TV shows are almost never written by only one person). 

 

Finally, the list of young playwright’s festivals at the bottom of the handbook can serve as great motivation for students when test scores or simple good grades do not.  The Common Core stresses that student publishing and choices are very important and playwriting in the classroom provides ample opportunities for both.

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Common Core Standards: Writing in Science | The Biology Corner

Common Core Standards: Writing in Science | The Biology Corner | Creative Writing in the Common Core | Scoop.it

This is from the blog of Shannon Muskopf, a biology teacher seeking out ways to better implement the Common Core in her suburban St. Louis classroom.  

I hope it’s not condescending to say that it’s very nice to read the work of a biology teacher who has put this much time and effort into integrating ELA learning goals into her class.  This is pretty much exactly the sort of writing that any English teacher would love a non-English teacher to be doing; just enough to keep students from turning off their writing skills in other classes, not so much that the writing because too much or so much that the more scientific parts of biology get short-shrift.

“The idea of on-demand writing is particularly appealing, since I already have my students answer “free response” questions on their tests.  After reading this book, I realized I was doing my students a disservice because I had never really taught them how to approach the free response question, I just expected that they already knew how to write… I am adding weekly on demand writing prompts to help my students practice writing,” Muskopf writes of her efforts to improve her students scientific literacy by using methods from one of Kelly Gallagher’s books.  I own the most recent Gallagher book (I used it in a research paper for Tim Fredrick’s class) and it provided me with many great literacy strategies to help students use model texts.  Muskopf’s cross-curricular teaching strategy is a tough one to suggest: teachers should read teaching literature on all the subjects, not just their own, but it’s worthwhile mostly on a case by case basis.  Muskopf identifies a problem with her class (students are not learning how to write scientifically and, thus, the free responses are not fair), defers to an expert (she consults an ELA teacher), who provides a reference (Gallagher), who provides a strategy (on-demand writing) which must be applied cross-curricularly.  It’s a tough path but it’s the right path and it’s that frame of mind (open to all strategies from all subject matters) that lead me to click the link for “The Biology Corner” in the first place.  Before reading up on the importance of cross-curricular education, I might not have bothered.


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P21CommonCoreToolkit.pdf

This long PDF includes some example lesson plans which seek to implement the Common Core while also allowing students an opportunity to be creative.  The ELA section begins on page 14 and ends on page 21 so the rest of the document, save for the introduction, is mostly unnecessary for our purposes.  

 

I was initially suspicious of these strategies when I noticed that the grade levels represented by lesson plans are the grades which are most frequently given standardized tests but as I read on, I came to really appreciate the attempts to bring unique, original assignments to the common core.  Some of the skill justifications seem like stretches to me but the overall goal is good and, most importantly, many of these lessons seem like they would be very engaging to students.  Engagement and motivation are areas of education that the common core conspicuously avoids and sometimes young teachers (read: me) could use some guidance as to how we can best follow the rules while doing activities that our students will appreciate even if they don't end in a full scholarship to Harvardprincetonyalestanford University.

 

I intend to focus on the lesson plans that dedicate their time to the "creativity" skill but the other ones tend to be group-oriented and focused on the kinds of communication that a student might need to get along in a governmental setting, a union or a business.  The first lesson for fourth graders, for instance, sees the students holding a literature discussion, recording the audio and "listen(ing) to the recording, evaluating the effectiveness of points raised in response to the questions, insights shared, and balance of participation."  This effectively uses literature as a jumping off point to ask the question "how should one conduct oneself in a formal meeting?"

 

One if the best lessons included in the ELA section is 4th Grade Starter Lesson 3.  "Using an open-ended inspiration for writing such as Chris Van Allsburg’s Mysteries of Harris Burdick, each student writes the beginning of a story and records it as a podcast.  Students in other classes listen to the story, create the ensuing episodes, and record them as podcasts, until a final group writes and records the conclusions."  What a great assignment!  Not only does this allow students to "write" verbally, construct a story using an example text and work together as members of a creative community, it also allows them the opportunity to publish and archive the work, motivating them even further.  The assignment is structured enough for students to know what to do and fits creatively into the Common Core.  

 

Included later on in the 12th grade lesson set is a version of NYU's own Myrrh Domingo's "digital story" project, wherein students must use multimedia software like Avid/Final Cut/iMovie and iTunes and PhotoShop in combination to create a digital, visual version of a literary text.  Multimodality is a theme in these example lessons and I'd encourage everyone to go through them to see if any could be used next year in student-teaching or at your first teaching job.

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How Common Core will change testing in schools

How Common Core will change testing in schools | Creative Writing in the Common Core | Scoop.it

This piece, republished by the Washington Post's education blog, was written by linguistics professor Stephen Krashen about the proliferation of standardized tests in American education.  Essentially, Krashen argues that there will soon be more tests than we or any civilization has ever expected its young people to endure, tests in every possible subject including the arts and ever-increasing standards despite the inability of students and educators to fully keep pace with the current standards.  It is a somewhat disheartening vision of an educational future in which everything is centralized, tested and booked.  Particulary troubling is the notion that "pre-testing," testing done early on in the year, may be implemented along with the usual late-May barrage.  The rational for pre-testing is good: children from low-income families are often hard-hit by the summer and come into school in September unprepared; a September or October test would track this phenomenon more accurately.  Unfortunately, this well-meaning solution leaves students with little time to actually learn the things they are to be tested on.

 

While Krashen's "more-standards-beget-more-tests" thesis may be just unfounded worrying, on the off-chance that he is right and that testing becomes a twice, even thrice, a year expectation, we can all be sure that creative writing will be the first against the wall in ELA.  Just as music, phys-ed and art are the perennial targets in cost-cutting layoffs, creative writing is sure to be the first element of any ELA curriculum to be excised if only because of the popular notion that it is not "useful" or "practical."  More tests will only further give struggling schools further incentive to cut the one aspect of ELA that may appeal to students to whom argumentative, explanatory or even narrative writing holds little value.  

 

"It also needs to be pointed out that others are eager to test small children: ACT has developed a test to determine if children are ready for kindergarten."  This is not even the most offensive detail that emerges throughout the blog but it is representative of plan Arne Duncan and company seem set on.  What administrators and politicians need to realize is that every test at every age represents actual learning time lost due to assessment.  The more tests students are expected to take, the more this lost time adds up.  
 

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Does the Common Core Allow for Creative Writing? » Teaching the Core | Teaching the Core

Does the Common Core Allow for Creative Writing? » Teaching the Core | Teaching the Core | Creative Writing in the Common Core | Scoop.it

My first scoop comes from the blog "Teaching the Core," an online journal of one teacher's experiences applying the Common Core Standards to his many teaching placements (he has taught all over the US including in New York City, according to his bio).  The blog is, generally, a nice source of quick information and seeks to simplify, comment upon and interpret the Common Core but, when it comes to the issue of creative writing, Dave (he lists only his first name) misses the mark by quite a lot.  His argument amounts to this: there is a section for narrative writing in the common core and quite a lot of "creative writing" can be squeezed in here.  Make do.

 

This is unacceptable on a number of levels, not the least of which being that Dave is essentially saying "there's a lot of room to maneuver.  If you want to throw in some extra creative writing, just make sure your kids test well."  I'm paraphrasing, of course, but the actual quote isn't too far off: "the CCSS dictates what students need to be able to do in order to be ready for post-secondary life - they do not dictate how we should get our students there.  THEY TREATS US LIKE PROFESSIONALS."  I left the typo in so that we could all make fun of it.

 

Dave also discusses the relatively broad definitions of "creative" that only his straw-men use when complaining about the CCSS.  "First of all, many of us need to define 'creative' more widely.  The best arguments are delightfully creative, and figuring out how to explain something in a lively fashion also takes plenty of creativity."  The author insists that argumentative, narrative and explanatory writing are all outlets for creativity and he's correct.  I think we can all agree, however, that, much as it may move us to tears of joy, longing and empathy, a set of Ikea instructions or an argument in favor of repealing the Bush tax-cuts are very rarely "writing-as-art."  Narrative writing, in fact, encompasses a great deal more than fiction and it is no coincidence that the authors of the Common Core emphasize "storytelling," non-fiction OR fiction, rather than writing that derives entirely from the imagination of its author.  What the author offers us here is just not enough, a McDonald's hamburger masquerading as filet mignon.  

 

When I say "creative writing," I'm talking about poetry, playwriting, screenwriting, song lyrics, spoken-word performance, radioplays, podcasts and video games, to make my definition nice and wide.  Dave's take on these is as follows: "in other words, if you want to use a poetry writing assignment to teach a skill that you’ll be asking students to transfer to a forthcoming argument or explanation, rock it out."  Rock it out, indeed.  Just be sure it rocks argumentatively, explanatorily or narratively.

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Creative Nonfiction in the Common Core

This is an excerpt of a quasi-lesson plan from Simone Poirier-Bures, a member of Virginia Tech’s Department of English. 

 

The title of this piece, The Storyteller’s Bag of Tricks, really says it all.  Poirier-Bures’ lesson (or, really, unit, since there are many learning goals to unpack here) hits on a great way to use nonfiction writing to strengthen writing skills in the vein of the common core while also allowing students to experiment with their own creativity and with literary writing.  The author is implicitly suggesting that literary techniques like “us(ing) suspense,” “using dialogue” or “show(ing) change in a character” are applicable to all forms of writing and should be looked for in any reading.  This cross-disciplinary approach to ELA is exactly what the Common Core calls for and exemplifies the English language’s versatility to students who might never have imagined that their day-to-day lives could be dramatized the way a story is.

 

The so-called “New Journalism” of Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe, two countercultural icons who largely reshaped literary notions of objective truth in nonfiction, can serve students well who have trouble getting excited about anything without fantastic new worlds or unrealistic scenarios.  The genre is a gateway to hard nonfiction and can inspire wonderful debate in class.  My literary perspective was completely changed when I read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, another creative nonfiction masterpiece, between junior and senior years of high school, a period during which nonfiction interested me only insofar as it was about a movie star, a rock band or said bad things about George W. Bush.  The idea of a subjective truth, of unknowable mysteries in everyday life inspired me in a way that biology, home to countless unknowable mysteries never could.  Soon, I began asking my teachers about the psychoanalytic terminology in the book, about the motivations of the cops and of Capote himself, about bias.  In Cold Blood made me interested in many academic subjects that, without exposure to them in a creative, narrative context, I might never have sought out.  My choice to read a piece of creative nonfiction opened many doors that would’ve remained closed to me without the motivation to understand them further and the cross-curricular information I sought out and the independence with which I sought it out could have come out of a Common Core brochure.  It was an example of the system working properly and producing the desired result.

 

Of course, since creative nonfiction straddles the boundaries between the Common Core’s narrative, argumentative and explanatory wings and it has great expository potential for self-discovery on the part its authors, creative nonfiction is a perfect writing exercise, either as a long-term project or in short prescribed doses.  Fiction will always have its place but, as Poirier-Bures’ example text included below his learning goals shows, the genre can be a powerful motivator and learning tool for students to whom nonfiction work does not come easily.

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What’s In a Name? – The Questionable Branding of the “Common” Core

What’s In a Name? – The Questionable Branding of the “Common” Core | Creative Writing in the Common Core | Scoop.it

 

 

 

 

 

This piece comes from Heather Wolpern-Gawron from her blog Tween Teacher.  Wolpern-Gawron is a teacher in California and works on teacher research with UC Irvine.

The author insinuates in her blog post that teachers have been fooled or, rather, have fooled themselves into thinking that the Common Core stamps out creativity in the classroom and that unit plans and lessons must be more prescribed or risk incurring the wrath of the standards police.  I agree, of course; I'm not so opposed to the Common Core as to believe that it completely stifles creativity and offers teachers no possible way to include creativity, critical-thinking or outside-the-box lesson-planning.  "The standards talk about possible choices of responses: debate, written essay, digital project, etc… Student Choice is acknowledged as vital in a rigorous program, and writing will now be a skill universally assigned and assessed in all disciplines," writes Wolpern-Gawron about the options of response afforded to students via an emphasis on varied assessment.  Still, what does the Common Core teach students and what are the best ways to get students engaged with their work?

Wolpern-Gawron's solutions are mostly summed up by her assertion that teaching with "the 4 C's: Critical-Thinking, Collaboration, Creativity, and Communication" is the key to successful implementation of the Common Core.  How is this specific to the Common Core?  Couldn't any system work well if teachers taught with the 4 C's?  The way she hopes teachers implement the 4 C's, once we provide our students with ample assessment and material choice,  is helpful enough: "The answer is: collaboration.  By working together as content area experts, we can guide students to use uncommon ways to prove their knowledge of the standards.  In other words, the Common Core standards not only ask that students work together, but that teachers do too."  More cross-subject cooperation is always good, particularly in light of the workmanlike, skill and technology-based Common Core.  The rest of her solution, however, amounts to holding out hope that teachers will just be good at their jobs.

The "Four C's" sound too much like buzz-terms to me.  I appreciate that they're coming from the right place and I do like the idea of keeping them in mind while teaching but I just don’t know what they look like in the context of the Common Core.  Articles like this one make me question the necessity of the existence of any common standard, even one that’s basically pretty good, like the Common Core.  At the end of the day, it seems like most of the pieces whose tone amounts to “the Common Core’s not so bad, here are some ways to get around it” make me think that we’re spending way to much time trying to game a system that shouldn’t need to exist when that time could be spent being creative and encouraging creativity in all its forms.

 

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Introduction.pdf

First of all, I'm not so sure the link at the top worked because this document exists online as a .pdf.  Here is the link, if you need to copy and paste it.

 

http://www.heinemann.com/shared/onlineresources/E02710/Introduction.pdf

 

 

As my previous post may have indicated, I am a strong proponent of poetry and other types of less "functional/practical/get these kids to college!" creative writing.  As the author, Paul Janeczko, writes in his introduction, "if our students aren't motivated to learn, we can take our marbles and go home... For years we've talked about a crisis of engagement and yet we seem to spin our wheels when it comes to changing our teaching to provide the experiences and in- 

teractivity that lead to engagement."

 

"Why don't my students like reading?" cry a thousand teachers every year as they pass out xeroxed copies of "How Socially-Conscious Johnny Went to College and Saved the World" or some other such drecky short story to their disinterested, eye-rolling students.  I'm not saying that, as teachers, it's our job to don our now-too-tight Sonic Youth t-shirts, roll a cigarette pack up in our sleeves and get "what the kids are into" but, if high school is universally recognized as a time of discovery and awakening, why not let our students channel some of that self-discovery into writing at school that helps them both grow as writers and grow as people?  Forget the notion of school as a place to churn out informed voters, we need to start looking at school as a place to churn out people who can analyze themselves, who can express themselves in ways that don't hurt other people, who care about each other and who can learn from their own mistakes.  Poetry and other forms of personal writing are the best ways to do that and, whether our students go to college or not (if they want to, I hope they do; college was very fun for me), we are equipping them not just to be workers but to be people in the world.

 

Anyway, Janeczko has taken a collection of twenty poems and provided us with the Common Core skills they can be used to strengthen.  This is immensely helpful for situations in which a "prescribed" solution is needed, i.e. "my students are struggling badly with theme.  Janeczko thinks Marilyn Nelson's 'Friends in the Klan' would be helpful to get them more familiar with how to work on theme."  When you're performing emergency literary skill surgery in mid-March, having lists like this for the poems you like to teach could save valuable time, energy and sanity.

 

Janeczko's article has some problems.  He insists that he wants students "to reach while they read poetry" but doesn't totally describe what that means to him.  Additionally, I find his methods a bit teacher-centric, particularly the steps he takes when reading a poem with his students.  He spends a ton of time talking through why he likes the poem, what it means to him, etc.  It seems like he does this to model his way of thinking through a poem to his students but he never really mentions whether or not he expects his students to do this themselves.  Of course, they should be expected to do this themselves, in fact, they should eventually all be expected to bring poems to the class, to talk through them with their classmates, to lead discussion.  The teacher's role should shrink until, eventually, he's not doing much more than assessing.  

 

With all that said, if poetry must be shoehorned into the Common Core and not included outright, this seems like a nice way for teachers to do it.  That poems are usually SHORT is a major advantage to using them as skill exercises.  One would hope, however, that the class could have the opportunity to write poetry of their own.  As I wrote before, self-expression is key and could help solve the "crisis of engagement."

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