Common Core Literacy, Expository Writing: Part 2 of 2

A deeper dive on writing standard 2 for secondary students:

W.6.2 asks students “to write informative/explanatory texts to examine a topic and convey ideas, concepts, and information through the selection, organization, and analysis of relevant content.”

What are the most important elements of this standard? To begin, there has to be a subject matter that students have had sufficient opportunity to investigate and consider if they are to produce text that examines the topic.

One of the greatest pitfalls in classroom writing assignments is their design around the topic selected for the writing task. For example, students may be asked to develop a full essay that explores the relationship between two characters in a novel. Performance of standard W.6.2 using that topic and the given novel might not be possible.

Most writing teachers would argue that students can examine the relationship of two characters in a novel by looking carefully at the text. Further, students’ writing can express ideas and information by using sections of the text that support a thesis about the relationship of the two characters. Finally, the way that students choose to organize the essay and select textual evidence can meet the needs of proving a thesis. By using strong analysis of evidence from the novel, the resulting essay might be sufficient for this standard.

Look at the same standard for Grades 9-10:

W.9-10.2 asks students to “write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas, concepts, and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.”

The standard is basically the same. The level of performance is not the same. The expectation is defined by the use of the modifiers complex, clearly and accurately, and effective. As a writing teacher myself, a few years ago I probably would have put a checkmark next to that standard and felt completely satisfied that my students were demonstrating their ability to produce written text that met this standard. After all, they had read The Catcher in the Rye and examined the sibling relationships between Holden and his older brother and between Holden and his little sister. The relationships were discussed in class, explored from the perspective of personal life connections, and even investigated for the importance that each relationship had on the development of Holden’s own personality. But now I feel very differently about the writing my students did after reading that novel. Is the text under study, whether an independent selection or a class requirement, really enough for students to demonstrate mastery of the standard? Today I would argue maybe not.

The language that requires students to “write to examine a topic” in itself tells us that simply using the novel being studied might not be enough. The topic of relationships cannot be fully explored in one novel. Students who are learning about life cannot possibly include any level of depth about relationships without more information. Granted, using our old paradigm about reading, it would be perfectly fine to ask students to respond to the relationship between two characters by using their own life experiences, previous readings, and stories they know from the world around them. In other words, asking students to make connections to their reading could be considered sufficient.

But to really comment, to fully investigate a relationship, shouldn’t we ask students to read about relationships? Wouldn’t it be helpful to ask them to read expository texts on such things as birth-order personality types or sibling rivalry if the novel they are reading relates to those types of relationships? How can a baby of life dig deeper into the realities of relationships without being more informed?

So is the Common Core asking students to respond to a novel around a topic that is assigned by selecting relevant portions of the text as evidence for a thesis and then organizing an essay in a way that is logical? I would argue that the Common Core is asking students to “convey ideas, concepts, and information” about a topic that they have worked to deeply understand. That deep understanding is indicated by the specific words that students should “examine a topic.” Examination of a topic does not mean responding to a topic by making connections to one’s own experiences. Examination of a topic does mean looking at it from multiple aspects, perhaps even using scientific and historic lenses.

When students begin to explore topics from all angles, they also begin to see an author’s story in new ways. The language a writer uses, the physical form of the writing, or the pace developed through word choice and sentence structure can take on a specific purpose when the reader has discovered new, relevant information to apply to the text. Writing standard 2 requires students “to write to explore.” Doesn’t that mean to probe a topic from multiple perspectives? By focusing on one topic using multiple sources of information, including the literary text itself, our students will begin to learn what it means to examine a topic deeply for full comprehension. In order to meet the writing standard, they will then need to describe their examination and all of its results in their own written exposition.

Good luck to all – teachers and students – who are delving into new ways of thinking about writing under the Common Core.