I did it. I am now swimming in self loathing as I write my first listicle.  I want to begin by saying I support the Common Core State Standards. I believe when you read the anchor standards that the lofty goals can help point our schools to a better future.

Still I understand the frustration that many teachers lament. I may not support the vitriol on either side. Yet I do recognize that for some educators they feel the only recourse against well funded billions in corporate reform lies in both grassroots resistance, lazy clicktivism, and astro turfing. So to  discuss this discontent I decided to mask my ideas behind some basic listicle clickbait.

Civic and Community Ready Before College and Career

Many educators do not accept the general economic push behind education reform. Noisy education reform outlets bemoan any talk of educating the “whole” child. The focus, according to accountability based edreformers, needs to be on rigor, rigor rigor. Teachers do not see the path to prosperity through increased rigor in classroom.

Teachers believe in children and the community. Real reform will take community revitalization. Real reform will require a focus on civic engagement of students. Teachers want vigor, vigor, vigor.

So when teachers see David Coleman, the architect of the CCSS, stand up and claim we need to end our focus on narrative writing because, “as you grow up in this world you realize people  do not give a s**t about what you think or what you feel,” educators take note.

In fact this worldview is probably the antithesis of almost every teacher I know. We want students to have empathy for those in our community. We want students to work for a greater good. We teach students to write to engage in reflective practice. We want students to give a s**t, so much so that our kids try to change the world.

Maybe the focus of education should not be on economic outcomes. If we were to create a vision of education that stressed community and civic engagement I believe college and career would follow.

What can educators do?

We do not have to create such a bleak world vision in our classrooms. The standards have many entry points for civic engagement. Encourage students to think and explore their world.

Use the content void standards to personalize learning and allow students to develop voice and agency. While the supporting documents call for a curriculum rich in sequenced content knowledge the standards themselves avoid proscribing specific content (with the exception of  Shakespeare, early American literature, and some founding documents).

No Educator Involvement in Writing the Standards

On paper the CCSS seem state driven. According to CCSS state website the National Governor’s Associations created the standard. In reality the standards were bankrolled by large corporate interest such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and written by Achieve Inc. Susan Pimentel who was an former English major;  David Coleman a lawyer ; and Jason Zimba, a scientist, took the lead writing the standards as consultants.

Coleman, who spent some brief time as a high school tutor while an undergraduate, had the most educational experience of all the authors. In fact the only two educators brought in to validate the standards after they were written refused to sign off on their approval.

This pisses teachers off. Imagine a plumber rewriting standards of medical practice. Doctors would not stand for such illegitimate encroachment.

What can teachers do?

Take charge of implementation of the standards. The standards are not bad and in many cases are superior then the hodgepodge of old standards. The CCSS are supposed to be about what to teach and not how to teach. I often here that without any early childhood experts the standards are developmentally innapropriate for the K-2 classrooms. I hear educators bemoan that play gets taken out of the class.

You are wrong.

Playing with words and oral language development, especially in language and content rich classrooms, is the only way to meet the new standards in terms of early childhood education. Push back against administrators who only want the sole focus of the class to be on  phonic awareness and phonics. Fight for your literacy and play centers .Yes we need explicit teaching of these skills but we also need to immerse students in language and content.

Unfunded Federal Mandate

Forty five states approved the Common Core State Standards. Many with an economic gun to the head. The Obama Administration, under Arne Duncan’s education policies created Race to the Top. In order to qualify for hundreds of millions of dollars in aid states had to adopt the standards. This “carrot” came at a time of worst economic crisis since the great depression.

Very few states won any money. All of the states were left with cost of implementing the standards. States and districts had to redirect millions to new testing. They had to cut positions and salaries to ensure adequate bandwidth.  I know here in Connecticut we had just invested time and treasure to revamping our Language Arts Standards. These were immediately dropped and replaced with a hyperlink to the Common Core State Standards. Yes that is correct our standards were reduced to a hyperlink.

What can teachers do?


Rigid Philosophical Viewpoint

Teachers, especially those trained as English or early childhood literacy teachers, take issue with underlying philosophical views that guide the Common Core State Standards. First is the viewpoint of close reading over more personalized responses to the text. Coleman once again suggested that the meaning of text only, “lies within the four corners” of the text.

Many educators and decades of reading comprehension research disagree. The close reading methods emerge from a school of thought called New Criticism. You are asked just to focus on text structure and read and reread texts to try to crack the author’s code.

The authors of the CCSS suggest such a viewpoint in order to try and equalize the amount of prior knowledge and experience diverse readers bring to a text. The idea that students can turn off background knowledge is absurd.  According to Beers and Probst “Meaning is created not purely and simply from the words on the page, but from the transaction with those words that takes place in the reader’s mind (p.34).”

Another rigid viewpoint revolves around the purpose of reading. The CCSS make no mention of reading for enjoyment. The goal, according to the standards, is just to push students through more and more complex texts without much thought to the reasons of why we read.

In fact if you look through the Appendices the literacy scholars who are not cited reveal just as much as those who are cited. There is no mention of of Guthrie, Wigfield, or Gambrell. These scholars through decades of research, have demonstrated that reading motivation predicts performance on comprehension. Yet if you read the standards teachers are not to discuss reading for enjoyment.

What can teachers do?

In terms of close reading I do believe teachers were spending too much time on pre reading activities. I do not, as many CCSS advocates suggest, propose eliminating pre-reading activities. Activating background knowledge or pre teaching key vocabulary is smart practice. I just believe the majority of the time should be spent reading sources.

In terms of motivation and reading comprehension build a classroom that celebrates the written word. Do not simply abandon your better practice to constantly disssect text structures.

Conflating Standards, Assessment, and Teacher Evaluation

The simultaneous roll out of the Common Core, the development of new high stakes assessments, and teacher evaluations (all required for RTTP or NCLB waivers) is probably the greatest source of consternation for teachers.

Teachers need to know that having national standards and national assessments, in direct conflict with the constitution, has always been the goal of accountability based ed reformers.They want to shut down local school boards,the “educational sinkholes” that destroy our education,  and replace them with appointed rubber stampers who will push national assessments.

I am staying away from the connection of using “poor” test scores to push for privatization of education but that is a constant undercurrent in the accountability based ed reformer mindset.


I myself do not automatically find evil in the high stakes testing. PARCC and SBAC are creating innovative measures. I just think we maybe using the assessments in the wrong way. Accountability based ed reformers are quick to hold up the NAEP assessments as the gold standard. The NAEP results are used to show the inadequacies of the American education  system when compared to homogenous nations without  huge income disparities.

There is a reason NAEP is the gold standard. The assessment uses best practices that CCSS assessments will not use. NAEP is not administered to every student. Instead scientific sampling methods are used that improve the reliability of results. NAEP would never try to assess every single student nor would they try to use the results to judge the contribution of individual teachers.

Teacher Evaluation

States use one of two methods to measure the contributions teachers make to student test scores. Value added models or student growth percentiles. Neither will work. In fact I envision thousands of law suits as teachers lose jobs or seniority based on bad math. You just cannot parse out the variability in scores caused by individual teachers.

Teachers are also now being judged using assessments that no one has yet seen, are untested, and are legally barred to discuss. Imagine your job being on the line and your effectiveness  using a brand new workflow was judged using a test you have not seen nor can discuss. Wouldn’t you be upset?

Teachers are going to be judged on their effectiveness to teach new standards, using a new test, and methods that the statistical scientists have suggested do not work.

What can teachers do?

If student growth is going to be included in teacher evaluation models we should push for the use of district determined measures over the use of the long dreamed about national assessments. DDM’s correlate highly with state assessments and NAEP scores. You also get the results quickly and they can inform practice. So if the assessments are valid, correlate with out gold standard of assessments, and cost millions less to administer why not use them?

We also need to push for increased observations and student artifacts as part of a teacher evaluation process. The observations should be a mixed of announced and unannounced and teachers should develop their own professional development goals and connect these goals to student artifacts.

I have asked the students in my hybrid literature and literacy classes to re-imagine the writing mini-lesson. Students in my graduate classes may also choose to develop a digital text and tool learning activity.

Many may, and should, post a recording of a lecture that goes through the steps: explicitly define, model, guided practice and independent practice. Some students wanted to play more with technology. They wanted to create texts to use in the classroom.

So I decided to play as well. I created four short tutorials on winning at academic writing.I focused on the secondary and college level. Elementary and middle school teachers, however, can get the general idea.

Tutorial One: Defining the Game

In this video I introduce the idea that academic writing is its own genre with specific discourse practices.

Tutorial Two: Do not be Wishy Washy

In this video I discuss strategies for framing the problem and taking a position.

Tutorial Three: Play with Words

In this third video I discuss the importance of defining key words and concepts. I had this idea I used to improve my writing from high school through my doctorate. Good writers define key words great writers make up their own words.

Tutorial Four: The Idea Pocket

In the last tutorial I describe the importance of pre-writing and using evidence from your sources. Throughout the series writing success is defined as a grade not as the piece itself. This is the antithesis of what I believe as a teacher of writing.

The snark just provides a gateway into writing and discussing academic writing as a genre is beneficial to developing writers.

Next Steps

These mini-lessons and others like it can teach students some of the basics of the genre. They would never be enough. I would need to also include mentor texts and exemplars of student work. These works could then be annotated using a variety of tools such as a pencil, subtext, or poetry genius.

I could also create a bank of more minilessons using Plotagon. Technology now allows on demand direct instruction. So I hope over time to have a bank of these short video tutorials.

If you want to contribute to the effort please feel free. I am trying to highlight my efforts to support open learning. I find the writing community (looking at you NWP and #FYCchat) to be open to open learning. So if you want to help curate, critique, and create great digital texts and tools to support writing contact me. Lets learn, fail, and reflect together.


slider image credit: Writing on Windows. everRiviere. Deviantart.com https://www.deviantart.com/art/Writing-on-Windows-77253620

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Many districts, here in Connecticut, have taken on the task to realign district wide writing assessments to both the Common Core State Standards and the rubrics published by Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium.

(Please note earlier versions of the post did not correctly refer to SBAC. Images still list it as Smarter Balance and not the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium).

This got me thinking, as a teacher of writing teachers, how would I encourage the use of assessment to not only align to political tailwinds but to help ensure students can write a college level when graduating high school.

I see a few options for schools:

  1. School leader developed rubric
  2. Creating them at the district level

Option One: School Leader Developed Rubric

  • School leader with an SLO  focused on argumentative writing  would be volunteered to develop arubric
  •  Examine smarted balance rubric and CCSS writing appendix (description of how pieces were scored).
  • Choose criterion
  • Develop rubrics
  • Test, ………….etc
Option Two: Developing and Testing Rubrics
  • Have schools that have already developed rubrics test theirs. Offer that same version to others buildings to try.
  • Develop and share a rubric based on the CCSS and Smarter Balance Rubric
  • Administer a pilot assessment
  • Score and develop anchor packets that can be used to calibrate raters.
Either option involves a ton of work. What I think needs the greatest focus though is how the rubric translates into improving learning in the classroom. My basic tenants of belief when assessing writing:
  • Evidence of scores cannot be inferred.
  • Teachers need to know that they do not need to focus on every criterion at once.
  • Teachers should (or district should be) developing a library of mini-lessons
  • The teaching of argumentative writing is closely linked to text based analysis of mentor texts
    • Texts should be annotated using codes aligned to the criterion in the rubrics
    • Text annotation needs to be taught and modeled.

So I decided to share my attempt at creating an argumentative writing rubric that could be used at the high school level:

Click Here to Open Rubric


How does it work? Well I attempted to align the rubric to both the Smarter Balance argumentative writing rubric and the Common Core Anchor Standards:

Argumentative Writing Rubric


At the top of each domain you will find a CCSS anchor standard. Then each criterion is a grade level expectation. The scale of each criterion is taken word for word from the Smarter Balance Rubric

How would it work?

Improving Writing Instruction

The entire rubric could be used as a summative assessment to give teachers classroom level or building level snapshots. I would NEVER use such an extensive rubric for formative assessment.

There are 13 criterion and four level of scales across five domains. That would be 52 individual boxes for a student to have to consider. In no way will that help them to become better writers.

Instead teachers could take a piece, and with the student focus on a limited number of criterion. Possibly they would choose a specific domain. Maybe after reading the student work the teacher and student may choose 1-3 criterion as targeted areas of growth.

A Holistic Score not a Mathematical Equation

The teacher, and the young writer, are the ultimate arbiters of quality. Therefore I do not assign different point values to each scale and criterion. No complicated mathematical equation exist. Instead the rubric relies on teacher expertise and evidence from the writing to assign an overall holistic score for each domain.

Assessment Needs to Drive Instruction

The domain and  criterion in the rubric should be used to read mentor texts with purpose. Teachers should develop an annotation system that has students identify the qualities of strong writing.

Each student may have a different focus to improve their writing. Do not be afraid to have students work on only a small piece of the rubric at once. In fact I believe students will find this practice more rewarding.

Use schoolwide or classroom wide data from the entire rubric to identify gaps in knowledge growth. Take this information and cater your mini-lessons to fit this need. Record minilessons using screencasts. Overtime you will have a library of better writing practices.

Next Steps

Feel free to open the Google spreadsheet and use as much or little of the rubric as you desire. You can also contact me and we can develop ideas together to connect writing instruction and assessment.

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A lot of hay is being made about the Common Core State Standards, and the biggest hubbub revolves around text complexity.

I am not sure why one anchor standard, number ten if your counting, is getting all the attention. It could be the debate around leveled books versus grade level texts. Some believe that the idea of giving an 11th grader with a 3rd grade reading level an on level book is detrimental. Others believe that limiting students based on their lexile score actually dumbs down the curriculum. This debate ignores the massive amount of scaffolding called for in the CCSS for below grade level reading.

The other debate around text complexity may swirl around some folks who call for severely limiting pre reading activities and the teaching of reading strategies. This of course flies in the face of thirty years of comprehension research. The authors of CCS toned down their initial disdain for pre-reading and the standards now read,

“Care should be taken that introducing broad themes and questions in advance of reading does not prompt overly general conversations rather than focusing reading on the specific ideas and details, drawing evidence from the text, and gleaning meaning and knowledge from it.”

Defining Text Complexity

Neither of these critical issues, however, are the root of my woes. I feel the standard, “Read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently” simply ignores the digital texts and tools that will shape the literary lives of today’s youth.

I know the Common Core claims to embed technology across all of the standards:


To be ready for college, workforce training, and life in a technological society,
students need the ability to gather, comprehend, evaluate, synthesize, and
report on information and ideas, to conduct original research in order to answer
questions or solve problems, and to analyze and create a high volume and
extensive range of print and nonprint texts in media forms old and new. The
need to conduct research and to produce and consume media is embedded
into every aspect of today’s curriculum. In like fashion, research and media
skills and understandings are embedded throughout the Standards rather than
treated in a separate section.

Yet if you do a  close read of the standards the Internet only makes a strong appearance in the writing standards. It is treated as a publishing tool not a text for reading. I do not see digital texts and tools mentioned explicitly in a definition of text complexity.

You could of course, infer that technology is embedded into standard 10, but if you look closely at the definition for text complexity I do not see it.

Quantitative- This involves standard measures of reading difficulty. Anyone who has tried to determine the reading difficulty of websites knows that this is problematic. Navigation links are often read as one word sentences, multimodal texts are ignored, and texts are often multigenre. I know websites I assign will be well above the grade band standards called for by the CCSS but will have low reading difficulty scores.

Qualitative- This base of the triangle refers to the meaning, structure, and knowledge demands. These qualitative text factors shift constantly online; especially as students engage in “self-directed text construction.”

Reader and Task– Teachers can find the most freedom in defining text complexity in this base. One could argue that online inquiry would fit in the task. Yet I find even defining the task as involving the digital text and tools does not capture the socially complex nature of texts.

Socially Complex Text


I define socially complex texts as concurrent arguments that unfold in print and social media with varying degrees of authority and amplification. Basically socially complex texts are authored by opposing focus discussing an issue with equal passion and mutual disdain.  
I would add a fourth rung to text complexity and include socially complex.
How do I find and use socially complex texts?

I would begin with Twitter. I view Twitter as an endless hallway of doors that open to countless texts. If you choose a socially charged issue you can find opposing views.

Then you can follow the links back to the articles that the different positions cite in their tweets. From those articles you can go to the comment sections. These comments are great exemplars for explaining the differences between persuasive texts and argumentation. While these comment sections are full of vitriol and persuasive techniques there is often a lack of evidence.

On the articles you can also highlight how the authors use evidence from outside sources to back up their claims. You can also note who wrote the article and the studies.

The final step is to find the primary sources and investigate the points of view and biases of the authors of the articles and the study.

If you want to step up the complexity of the text you can than have the students complete an inquiry task on both positions. Even more complex would be to have students role play from different positions.

How do I use socially complex text in the classroom?

I am assuming Twitter is blocked in most schools. This does not have to limit your use of socialy complex text.

-You could find the sources ahead of time and create a search engine using Google Custom Search.
-You could take screenshots of the twitter feeds.
-You could recreate the twitter feed using a table in word.

The bottom line: the social nature of today’s digital texts and tools are the most complex text students now read. It is impossible to claim your curriculum is addressing the true nature of text complexity without using the Internet to read and write.

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