By Dr. Douglas Fisher
Common Core State Standards represent a fundamental shift in what young writers are expected to demonstrate. Stand-alone skills of reading and writing are no longer enough. Instead, students are being asked to analyze complex texts, formulate coherent arguments based on their reading, and back up their conclusions with evidence.
This is in marked contrast to previous experience in which students may have been required to use source material in their writing but were not expected to link and synthesize multiple sources together. As early as sixth grade, students today are being asked to construct complicated arguments that once were the purview of much older students. While this shift isn’t easy, the benefits are clear. More complexity develops a more critical and analytical mind. And that can turn into all kinds of good things for students in every subject. Almost like detectives, students are looking for clues while they read and going back over the material for deeper insights than are possible with a single review. This new approach has obvious benefits for the classroom as students become more deeply engaged with their assignments. In fact, “close reading,” and writing from sources, results in more conversations and collaborative discussions.
While many teachers will thrive under this new approach – especially those who love getting kids to talk to each other – others will find it more challenging. Excellent professional development can help, especially professional development that puts teachers in the shoes of the students by putting them through the paces of reading like investigators and writing like reporters.
It’s important to understand the difference between assigning complex tasks and teaching complex tasks. It’s not enough to tell students “read this text, and then write about it.” Students need to learn the techniques for decoding what they read and the steps required to argue a coherent opinion about the text. And, just as reading should be linked to the writing, reading and writing should be linked with collaborative conversation.
Obviously, the teacher’s role is critical. In this more complex way of teaching, educators must know when to lead their students and when to pull back and let students run on their own. The good news is, all of these challenges can be met. By using this new approach, we can help our students reach their full potential as engaged, critical thinkers.