River Stories and Writing Standards

Common Core State Standards are typically scored and reported on a four point scale: 4 exceeds standard, 3 meets standard, 2 improving or approaching standard, 1 does not meet standard. For the purposes of this discussion, we will look at narrative writing standards for 7th grade; though, notice that the standards are the same regardless of rhetorical mode (narrative, informative, argumentative). More specifically, let’s unpack standard 7.3a: Engage and orient the reader by establishing a context and point of view and introducing a narrator and/or characters; organize an event sequence that unfolds naturally and logically.

This standard speaks to organization. English teachers might call this a story’s exposition – the time and place the story teller “establish[es] context,” and “introduc[es] characters” and plot (event sequence) tensions. Consider next, the descriptors in this Smarter Balanced aligned rubric, specifically the slice along the left edge, narrative focus. This rubric and these descriptors have further unpacked the standard for us and tried to give us a sense of what this looks like along that 4-point continuum.

I wonder if we can consider a piece of student work through the lens of this standard and this rubric. Here is the latest episode of River Stories.

Narrative Focus: 4 Evidence: “Welcome back to River Stories. Today I am here with my mom [“Hello”]. We are all going through COVID together, most of us in school, work, or at home. My mom is an essential worker. She works at Home Depot for eight hours a day and still has to come home to her kids. I am going to be asking her some questions about what it is like to work during this crazy time.”

If you are so inclined, I invite you to apply all the standards to this story. Score the piece and supply evidence for your score. For expediency’s sake, I will offer that “Essential Workers” is an exemplar piece of narrative writing – 4, exceeds standards. I would argue that the piece exceeds other writing standards as well under the categories “Production and Distribution of Writing,” “Range of Writing,” and even research standards.

Most discussions of teaching and learning stop here: unpack standards, assess, analyze data. A more valuable discussion should unfold around the question of how “Essential Workers” came to be. What happened in the classroom that allowed for this story?

Let’s try again. Same standard, same rubric and descriptors applied to this piece of student work:

I’ll grant that this is not a finished episode, but I will also say that the finished episode does not meet our own class standards for publishing. How will you score this work against the narrative writing standards and unpacking provided by the rubric?

If your scores are 1s and 2s – does not meet or approaching standards, I would agree. Again, though, I would argue there are more significant questions to pursue than whether this piece scores a 1 or a 2 on a given standard. What do I do for and with this student in class? What is this student working on? What lesson is next?

I started teaching in 1991 – a long time ago. Unequivocally, the predominance of faculty meeting and professional development time in all those years has gone to unpacking standards, writing and revising assessments, and analyzing data. My dad taught for nearly thirty years, our careers overlapping for just a few of those years as I was starting out. Faculty meetings and professional development during his era focused on unpacking standards, writing (or buying) assessments, and analyzing data – two generations that I am personally connected to doing this work with fidelity, sincerity and passion and yet we continue to have the same conversations.

If standards, assessment, and data are the science of education, then pedagogy, philosophy, relationships, and theory are the art of education. I have experienced throughout my career a frightening efferent lean – a will toward the logical, a privileging of the question “what.” The reason we continue to have the same conversations, the reason you couldn’t pick an agenda guiding a meeting from my dad’s career from one guiding a meeting from my career is this efferent lean, the fetishizing of standards and standardization.

We need attention to the art of teaching – what happens in the classroom. We need to reconcile the classic/romantic split Robert Pirsig debunked in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. We need conversations around the question why.

Classic/romantic, science/art, objective/subjective, logic/emotion these are false dichotomies. They should not be set out on a continuum in opposition. They are parts of the same whole, symbiotic. Descartes did us a disservice privileging logic and reason. We need a smarter balance, one that recognizes the whole human being.

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