Common Core: Caution on narrative writing

Steve Zemelman, director, Illinois Writing Project

There’s certainly a lot to like in the new Common Core State Standards embraced by the Chicago Public Schools – serious attention to writing, emphasis on reading non-fiction (which college students must study), and a focus on higher-level thinking. At the same time, teachers’ first obligation is to children’s learning, so they must apply these standards judiciously, not unthinkingly. And the standards have some limits.

They don’t always reflect the decades of strong research on teaching and learning. Large swaths of learning are missing – science, history, strategies for how to learn, and skills for working together that are needed in the workplace. In areas like writing, the focus is pretty narrow. Further, the standards reflect their authors’ philosophies about what matters in education, philosophies that don’t come simply from analyzing standardized test results.

There are a great many details where devils can lurk in any educational plan, but right now let’s look at just one: the role of narrative – stories – in students’ writing. The standards do start off balancing three kinds of writing – narrative, explanation, and argument. (By “argument,” though, they don’t mean begging your parents to buy you a new bike. “Argument” means marshalling evidence for analyzing academic material.) However, the standards drafters show only grudging acknowledgement of narrative’s importance, while many accomplished writers and teachers see it far differently.

So as children move up the grades, the new standards follow the National Assessment of Educational Progress framework, calling for less and less time on narrative and increasing focus on analytical argument. Actually, the standards writers wanted to omit narrative entirely from high school writing, but determined advocates pushed back. So narrative is to represent just 20% of high school compositions.

The standards drafters continue to denigrate narrative when they give talks, suggesting it’s a frill, a concession to young people’s immature preoccupation with their own lives. As Achieve President Michael Cohen and standards author David Coleman have said about kids’ writing, “No one cares what you think!”

Story-telling teaches comprehension skills

However, let’s take a moment to think more deeply about the value of stories. This is not an abstruse matter, but something we all understand in our DNA. So let us speak in defense of stories.

First, stories are a vehicle by which cultures pass on their history, beliefs, and values. The Bible is filled with stories – commandments and laws too, but it’s the stories that capture our attention and probe the complexity, conflicts and struggles in our lives. Similarly, families tell stories to preserve their heritage, and to inculcate in their young a sense of what matters, what has made them special.

 As individuals, we tell stories all the time as well. Things happen to us – funny, moving, embarrassing, tragic. In telling these stories later, we gain distance and perspective on the events. Sometimes the worse the difficulty, the more captivating the story, and the more satisfaction we get from relating it. This happens because telling stories involves thinking, integrating, and evaluating – i.e., gaining deeper comprehension of a set of events.

Thus, stories are about deepening comprehension and dealing with complexity – exactly what the reading standards are about. And this happens not just by reading stories, but also by writing them. In fact, the Carnegie Corp. study Writing to Read confirms that students’ increased engagement in writing leads to increased scores in reading.

Finally, stories are a powerful tool for composing well-crafted arguments. Often they are excellent conveyers of the complex evidence needed to substantiate a writer’s claims. In fact, Michael Cohen, in his recent school policy forum talk explaining the new standards, spent half the time telling the story of how the standards came to be written. This was important information he wanted us to know. (Note: Cohen spoke at an Oct. 27 forum sponsored by Business and Professional People for the Public Interest and Catalyst Chicago.)

So composing stories – narratives – are not a frill at all, but involve essential comprehension skills our students need.

What can schools and teachers do to meet and exceed the new Common Core Standards, but also address this important element of students’ learning? First, they can learn how to teach all three types of writing effectively, guiding students to find real audiences and purposes for their compositions and building engagement so kids work hard to make their words effective.

Second, they can understand and teach ways that the three types extensively overlap – stories are important in couching thoughtful arguments. Arguments are often implicitly built into stories. And both can imply various how-to’s, i.e., explanations. This good teaching and learning is what enables students’ written communication about the big ideas and concepts that are essential for students as they journey toward becoming responsible, thinking adults.

Steve Zemelman is director of the Illinois Writing Project.