Are Ready-Made Lessons
Insulting to Teachers?
I’ve been following the online conversation about the need for quality
materials to help teachers implement the Common Core Standards. I see a
paradox brewing. Have you noticed it?
On the one hand, teachers are desperate for Common Core materials they
can actually use in their classrooms. Did you see the recent Education Week
blog quoting a curriculum director in Nevada? “Teachers are struggling,
and very few people are helping. Almost nothing is available for them
to use,” he reports. This is echoed by a principal in Missouri: “There
seems to be very little out there, or it’s just not in places we can
find it. To say we are prepared for the common core would be a misconception.”
But there’s another point of view. In the other camp are the proud and
sometimes indignant teachers who don't want ready-to-go materials.
Blogger Nancy Flanagan expressed this in her recent post, “The Problem with Lesson Plans
She argues that there’s no such thing as “one-size-fits-all” lessons.
Being given ready-made materials is about “being forced to teach in ways
that don't acknowledge students' unique needs. It's about demeaning
teachers' judgment, even scripting their speech," she asserts. Teachers
want a steady supply of good ideas for teaching, but they also want the
responsibility of choosing the best strategies for their own
I honor Nancy’s experience, but not all of her conclusions. As a
teacher, creating curriculum was a passion for me. I created huge
thematic units integrating all the subjects into specific topics of
study, and my lessons were wildly successful. But I believe Nancy and I
are part of a slim minority of teachers.
Whether or not you agree, it’s an important conversation. School leaders
need to pay attention to it, now more than ever. Why? Because teachers
are on the front line of what some are calling a tectonic shift in
American education. It’s called the Common Core Standards, and it’s
impacting 46 states, two territories, and the District of Columbia.
In two short years, students will be tested on the new
standards, which will require much more rigorous instruction. School
funding will be determined partly by Common Core test scores. Teacher
evaluations may be, too. Let’s help teachers get this right. As decision
makers determine how best to support teachers in revamping instruction,
we need to hear all their voices.
Elementary Teachers and the Common Core Standards
So far, there’s one voice I’ve heard very little from in this debate.
Some might even argue that this voice has a special place in the
conversation about support for Common Core teaching, because it belongs
to those who will lay the foundation for Common Core success. It’s the
voice of elementary teachers.
Here’s what I’ve noticed. Those expressing upset about ready-made lesson
plans are nearly all secondary teachers. They are subject-area
specialists. They teach middle school and high school students, and
generally live and breathe math, science, social studies, or English –
whatever it is they teach.
To the contrary, elementary teachers specialize in no particular subject. They specialize in children.
Elementary teachers initiate our youngest learners into formal
education, teaching not only handwriting, reading, arithmetic, social
studies, and science, but also the habits and behaviors that encourage
success in school. The training and personal qualities that make an
outstanding kindergarten or third-grade teacher are different from those
that make an outstanding secondary teacher. The biggest difference is
Unlike their secondary school counterparts, elementary teachers are not
asked to focus on the new Common Core Standards in math or
English/language arts standards. They must find the time and gather the
resources to do both. They're trying to refigure their math
lessons while grappling with demanding new reading standards, not to
mention new writing standards that introduce research writing in
kindergarten – and that’s just for starters.
Did you see the Washington Post article
about rookie teacher Bruce Friedrich, who was named his school’s
outstanding teacher in his second year in the classroom? In spite of
this, Friedrich expressed intense frustration that his district didn’t
try to help him avoid beginner's mistakes by providing lesson plans.
“There were no exemplary lesson plans, no recommended class activities, nothing,” he lamented.
Friedrich was a novice, but in my experience, there’s one subject for
which even most veteran elementary teachers welcome ready-made lessons.
That subject is writing. Writing is one of the most difficult subjects for elementary educators to teach.
Writing is a Significant Teaching Challenge
As writer Anne Morrow Lindbergh said, “Writing is thinking.” It is not a
concrete operation like addition, subtraction, multiplication, or
division. It is more complex than learning phonics. Writing well
requires students to combine many skills effectively. Because of this,
even though most teachers can recognize “good” writing, many feel poorly
equipped to get their students there.
To be sure, there are elementary teachers who enjoy writing, gravitate
to it out of personal interest, invest their time and energy absorbing
best practices, and create thriving communities of writers in their
classrooms. We should all be celebrating them! But it’s a mistake to
think that everyone is going to follow this path. We shouldn’t let these
“naturals,” along with the voices of proud, specialized secondary
teachers, silence the majority.
The Common Core raises the stakes for writing instruction, teachers are
asking for help, and there’s no shame in it. Let’s be clear about it:
there are thousands of highly accomplished teachers who welcome
ready-made writing lessons.
Many districts are investing in professional development (PD), but research shows that PD alone is not enough.
For instance, one study showed that “even with outstanding professional
development opportunities and intensive support, teachers struggled to
implement an exemplary model of writing workshop.”
Other research shows that the writer’s workshop model is the most
effective method in elementary classrooms. How, then, do we support
large numbers of teachers with this technique, if PD isn't enough? What
will help the hundreds of thousands of teachers seeking to implement
rigorous new writing standards? When we look carefully at this, guess
what, folks? Ready-made writing lessons make a lot of sense.
Not All Writing Lessons Are Created Equal
Good writing lessons incorporate best practices that are supported by
research, and they do this in a format that works well for teachers.
Besides incorporating writing workshop, what might this entail? There
are entire books on this topic, and this isn’t the place for exhaustive
answers, but I can offer highlights. Research supports the use of
“anchor texts” (including student samples) to motivate children and
build skills. It also supports giving children graphic organizers to
plan their writing.
These techniques have been conclusively shown to have positive impacts
for LD and ADD writers and non-struggling writers as well. We also know
from studies that students need plenty of reinforcement, or they will
abandon the writing techniques they learn within a month! This points to
the need for a writing program that is carried out consistently
throughout the year and across the grades.
This is not the same as what is offered in most basal language-arts programs. Many
educators have gone wrong by judging ready-made writing lessons by
equating them with the heavily scripted lessons that are typical of
these basals – lessons so prescriptive that they’ve embittered
teachers and give writing lessons a bad name. However, not all
ready-made writing lessons are created equal.
Poorly Supported Teachers = Poorly Equipped Students
“Writing is a gateway for employment and promotion, especially in salaried positions.” This comes from a report
by National Commission on Writing, which concluded that students
who don’t learn to write well are at a considerable disadvantage when
they leave school. Yet, on the last national measure of writing skills
(the National Assessment of Educational Progress, 2002), only 28 percent
of fourth graders demonstrated proficiency, and less than a quarter of
twelfth graders met the benchmark.
The Common Core Standards offers the possibility of a remedy. But only
if teachers receive the support they need to implement them. So far,
that support is not trickling down. In a Common Core webinar conducted
last summer, “the question most frequently asked by the 1,600
participants was where to find instructional resources for the new standards.”
The writer reporting this goes on to say, “Ironically, educators’
frustrations take shape during an unprecedented buzz of activity to
build knowledge about the standards and prepare resources for them.”
Webinars, PD, and curriculum maps from basal publishers aren’t going to
do the job when it comes to giving students Common Core writing skills.
It couldn’t be clearer. Common Core writing lessons are a common-sense
Suzanne to Speak at National Principals' Conference March 24
Principals, if you'd like to get the scoop on success with Common Core
writing, look for WriteSteps founder and CEO, Suzanne Klein, at the National Association of Elementary School Principals conference in Seattle later this month. Suzanne's presentation is scheduled on Saturday, March 24 in Room 3a-3b.
New Study: The Impact of Writing Instruction on Reading
Students who receive instruction in writing become better readers too, concludes a research review in the winter 2011 Harvard Education Review. Here's are highlights of the research based on an Education Week report:
Researchers Steve Graham and Michael Hebert of Vanderbilt University in
Nashville, Tenn., systematically reviewed 95 studies. They found that
all of the studies indicated that writing-skills lessons and the amount
students wrote strengthened their reading skills.
A whopping 94 percent of the studies showed that writing about material
increased students' comprehension of that content. The effects were
stronger when they were specifically taught how to write.
“Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation.
They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life:
they feed the soul."
~Author Anne Lamott