Elementary students embrace core challenges

In the early elementary school grades, Zachary Davis and his classmates at Belle Chasse Primary School in suburban New Orleans wrote almost entirely from personal experience: describing their ideal vacation, trying to convince readers that a longer school year would be a good (or bad) idea, penning a letter about their adventures during summer break.

That all changed this school year.

As a fourth-grader, Zachary rarely writes stories or essays based solely on his experience or imaginative musings anymore. Instead, it’s all about citing “textual evidence.”

“In third grade, they would just ask us to, like, describe your dream store. It was easy to me,” said Zachary, adding that he enjoys the new challenge.

Much to the delight of writing enthusiasts, the curriculum standards known as Common Core stress the importance of students putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) across all subject areas.

The standards also specify that students — even those in the youngest grades — should cite evidence from readings as they write and not just invent stories or opine based on prior knowledge.

Common Core, adopted by most states, does not constitute a federal curriculum or mandate specific readings. It does spell out skills that children should learn by different grade levels (such as understanding place value in first grade) and general education principles (such as incorporating nonfiction readings in English and multipart word problems in math).

The students at Belle Chasse Primary might not be ready to compare the existential quest of “Moby Dick” with “Waiting for Godot,” but they are doing a lot more writing based on what they read. Zachary and his classmates regularly use paired nonfiction passages as the basis for persuasive essays.

For one assignment, they read a description of Avery Island followed by one of a bayou swamp tour, then wrote about which destination they would prefer to visit, based on examples in the passages.

In the past, they might have been asked to discuss a similar question based solely on their own experiences.

Zachary said the hardest part is figuring out the main ideas of the passages, which he then uses as “evidence” in his essay.

Proponents of the change say an increased emphasis on analytical, evidence-based assignments will better prepare students for the kind of writing they will face in college and the workforce, where few will be asked to describe family vacations or write poems, but they could very well be asked to summarize a research paper or defend a project proposal.

Others worry that if schools veer too far in the direction of analytical writing at too young an age, they risk stifling children’s creativity and discouraging students who aren’t strong readers.

Denise Cooper, a fourth-grade teacher at Belle Chasse Primary, said many of her students are adjusting to the more sophisticated writing assignments — and even enjoying them.

“It’s so much more in-depth,” she said. But weaker readers have had a tougher time. “Now we are training them at (age) 9 to write a claim and back it up with evidence,” she said. “That’s a lot for 9. ... The ones who struggle with reading are now struggling with writing, too.”

Common Core doesn’t call for eliminating creative writing or personal narratives, and Belle Chasse Primary still teaches those forms of writing as well. But since the standards emphasize critical thinking and citing evidence, most teachers expect new tests aligned with Common Core will require students to write essays based on multiple reading passages.

That hunch turned out to be true this year when a transitional test designed by the Louisiana Department of Education and aligned with Common Core asked the state’s fourth-graders to do just that.

The new standards also specify that students should be reading an even division of fiction and nonfiction in the lower grades, while high school students should be reading 70 percent information texts, 30 percent literary ones.

Belle Chasse Primary has increased its nonfiction assignments as a result, shifting to a 50-50 split this school year. Kindergarteners might read a nonfiction book about the life cycle of butterflies and moths paired with a fictional one featuring those insects as characters.

Lucy Calkins, founding director of the Teachers College Reading & Writing Project, said Common Core calls for placing equal weight on narrative, opinion and informational writing.

“It’s been a huge wake-up call that writing is important,” she said, adding that in the past, some schools failed to teach writing at all because it wasn’t prioritized — or even covered — under the No Child Left Behind rules.

Calkins worries the new standards could “get defined by tests that are much less ambitious and significant than the Common Core.” If executed correctly, she says, schools should be challenging students to “read fiction like writers” — dissecting the connections between craft and theme, for instance — while also giving them time to experiment with less analytical forms of writing.

The teachers at Belle Chasse Primary spent a lot of time on writing in previous years, but the intense focus on text-based analysis is new. Of all the Common Core-inspired changes at the school this year, the “writing has come through more clearly than anything else,” said Shelley Ritz, the school’s principal.

Even kindergarteners are citing more evidence in their writing. The teachers stress the importance of words like “because,” for example, encouraging the 5-year-olds to write, “I like the beach because it’s pretty” instead of just “I like the beach.”

Mary Beth Newchurch, a fourth-grade instructor who was recently named the district’s teacher of the year, compares the new writing assignments with mini-research papers where the teachers provide all the “resources” students need. By high school, the students will have to find the resources on their own, she said.

In a third-grade class, the students read a Wall Street Journal article their teacher supplied on new approaches to teaching fractions. They then used the information to write letters to their principal arguing she should let them tape an “equivalent fraction hopscotch” (a special hopscotch designed to help children learn fractions through play) in a hallway.

After quoting a Carnegie Mellon professor who told the Journal that not understanding fractions “closes a lot of doors for children,” one student wrote: “Mrs. Ritz you don’t want that door to close on us. I know I don’t.”

Hooks, imagery, transitions

In the weeks before the fourth-graders took the extended writing portion of the state’s standardized test, Newchurch’s class discussed the importance of catchy hooks (“Imagine …” or “Have you ever thought …”) that draw the reader in and of vivid images (metaphors, similes) that keep them wanting more.

They critiqued the writing of classmates, applauding a well-placed transition (“most of all,” for example, or “however”) or a clearly stated conclusion.

And they put pencil to paper, trying to persuade a reader — based on “evidence” in background readings — that flying cars (or helper robots) would be a more useful invention, or that a trip to Mars (or a submarine voyage to the Challenger Deep) would be more educational and exciting.

Julianna Shipp, a 10-year-old in Newchurch’s class, has mixed feelings about the changes. She finds the new writing assignments interesting and challenging, but sometimes she misses making up stories.

When presented with two passages and asked to write a persuasive essay, Julianna said, she usually tries to argue for the side with more evidence. She chose to make a case for traveling to the Challenger Deep, for instance, partly because the reading passage about the submarine voyage contained lots of details about different sea creatures the travelers would see.

Belle Chasse Primary’s teachers say the more text-based, persuasive approach to writing has been helpful for students who don’t know where to start when faced with more open-ended questions or when asked to write a story. But it also requires a level of maturity and discipline for a 10-year-old to make an argument based largely — if not solely — on evidence from a reading passage.

In some cases, the students might find themselves arguing against their own conviction or experience in an attempt to write a stronger essay. The passage about Avery Island, for instance, was packed with information the students could use as evidence, although many of them prefer swamp tours.

Newchurch’s students were patient with all the practice writing leading up to the essay portion of the state standardized test. When they learned they would be doing more long-form writing in social studies and science as well, they protested: “We have to write another paper!”

The class had just finished a citizenship unit where they learned how citizens of all ages can contribute ideas to improve their communities.

So the students said they wanted to write a letter to Gov. Bobby Jindal protesting all the writing required in Louisiana’s public schools these days. Jindal has waffled on the Common Core himself, although not for the same reason as the students.

Newchurch thought that would be just fine — after the LEAP test, at least. The exercise would make the children feel better. It would provide a good lesson in citizenship and civic engagement. And the students would get yet another chance to hone their persuasive writing skills.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet affiliated with Teachers College, Columbia University.