Thursday, October 3, 2013

Common Core Through The Eyes Of A Storyteller

Common Core Through the Eyes of a Storyteller

The first time I looked at the Common Core website, I remember feeling a little bit overwhelmed. Even looking at the all the information with a very tight focus—in my case, what the standards say about reading informational books—it felt like a lot to process.

It took me a little while to understand that there are ten big standards, the Anchor Standards for Reading, and that each of these standards then has grade-specific guidelines for implementation.

The Anchor Standards discuss aspects of writing from an educator’s viewpoint, with educator vocabulary—and I’m a writer, not a teacher. So understanding what each Standard was asking students to do took a little processing as well.

But I am coming to understand that many of the Standards address things I think about all the time as I am working on storytelling.

Take Standard 2, for instance. It asks students to identify the main theme of a text, and I think about the main theme of every book I write. The theme is the big picture idea, the ‘so what?’ of every story. Why the story matters. What we can learn from it. We can enjoy reading about all of Alice Roosevelt’s antics, but the takeaway is what matters: “eating up the world.” Having a zest for life. That’s the theme.

Standard 3 asks students to look at how people interact, something I thought about constantly as I tried to show the development of the relationship between Adams and Jefferson—how two total opposites could come together to work for a common purpose.

Standard 4 is all about word choice and figurative language—a writer’s dream standard, if you will. Finding just the right word to express an idea is my favorite part of the job, capturing, for example, Walt Whitman’s passion for taking notes everywhere he went in his little notebooks, and how these notebooks were “fertile ground for the seeds of his poems.”

Standard 5 looks at structure, and boy is that a big part of crafting a story. Every story needs a beginning, middle, and end, and especially in a picture book, the opening lines are crucial to set the story in motion and establish the promise to the reader that will be fulfilled by the story’s end.  And so when we learn that Susy Clemens is “’annoyed’” that everyone is wrong about her famous father, and that she is “determined to set the record straight,” we’re launched into the story of how she does this by creating her own biography of Mark Twain—excerpts of which were eventually published for all to read.

And finally, Standard 6, which asks students to think about how an author’s purpose shapes the text. This ties into everything I do when crafting a story. How do I present the facts of a person’s life in a way that illustrates my theme, shows character development, and gives a satisfying ending to the story just read? Which events, quotes, and details do I choose to include, when I’m limited by the fact that a picture book text must be short—and that every word counts.

When I think about the Standards and how they apply to nonfiction books, what I understand is that the Standards will change the way that students interact with nonfiction texts. Students won’t just be reading nonfiction books to gather information. They’ll be reading books and analyzing how that information is presented.

And for someone who cares deeply about storytelling, this is very good news indeed.


Vicki Cobb said...

This is a very insightful post, Barb. This is exactly what Myra Zarnowski has been asking us to do--unpack our processes, namely--describe what is involved when we make choices about how to shape material so that readers "get it."

However,not all nonfiction is a story. I agree that narratives, even mini narratives, can make difficult or abstract concepts come to life. But I have found that the material often shapes the way I write about it. That's why you cannot separate the CCSS from CONTENT. I recently had a conversation with some teachers who want to work with me on a unit called "informational writing." I pointed out to them that you can't teach this skill without information, which means thinking about SOMETHING. I asked what science content they had to teach in the curriculum, and I think we're going to combine that particular content with the "informational writing" unit. In this way we kill two curriculum birds with one stone. And the students get to wrestle with the same kinds of problems we wrestle with.

Steve Sheinkin said...

Thanks for this, Barb - probably the clearest explanation I've read of the main ideas of the Common Core. I still hate the idea of thinking about standards, but this helps!

April Pulley Sayre said...

Barbara, your post about common core was clear and reassuring. Very helpful. It shows that common core has always been a part of what writers of quality nonfiction do.

Melissa Stewart said...

I agree with April. Your very helpful post highlights that, at it's heart, Common Core reflects what nonfiction authors have always though about as they craft their books. I think it's exciting that now kids will have a chance to think deeply about these aspects of nonfiction, too.

Myra Zarnowski said...

As Vicki has already written, I am concerned about teaching children about the process of shaping information. Many times children don't really understanding that there is a process, much less what that process is. So, YES, in school we will be examining the craft of nonfiction writing as well as the content. We will be especially interested in comparing how different authors write about the same topic. It's very revealing.

Barbara Kerley said...

Thanks, all!

Elizabeth Rusch said...

Hey Barb, great examples of how the common core relate to your books! Liz

Mary said...

Thanks, Barbara.
This really helps me see that CCSS doesn't have to be scary! The way you applied different Anchor Reading Standards to your books makes it easy to understand. And you're right, they seem to address the process authors use in non-fiction books.