Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The CCSS and Me -- I could Be Wrong

   I smiled when I saw Steve Sheinkin's comment on Barbara Kerley's excellent and informative blog, Common Core Through the Eyes of a Storyteller.  He said, "I still hate the idea of thinking about standards."  And I totally agree.
   When the new standards came out a few years ago I did read through them.  Twice, if I recall correctly.  I found them quite normal and sensible.  Nothing a good, imaginitive, and dedicated teacher couldn't easily translate into his/her every day routine (for both fiction and nonfiction).
   I also discovered myself nodding as I went from one standard to another, thinking, "okay, I do that.  And that.  And that, too."  I wasn't being smug.  Just telling myself that I should keep on doing what I was already doing.
   But here's the thing.  I don't write to the CCSS.  I happen to write books that fit into it by sheer dumb luck or some such.  But reading the standards did prompt me to wonder how this happened and whether there was an approach I took or a way of thinking that lent itself to producing books that seemed to echo what the folks who cooked up the changes to the CCSS seemed to be asking for. 
   Here's what I figured out:

   1: I choose topics because they interest me and not because they fit into the curriculum.  I become bored quickly by a lot of things, but if I find a topic that's odd, unusual, or discover a piece of information that gets my attention, then I follow up on it.  I usually don't set out to do this in order to write a book; I do it out of curiosity and if it leads to a book, fine. 

   2: I research every project to death.  I try to make myself an expert on every topic I approach, reading books, documents, talking with real experts, etc. until my head and notes are bursting with (the only word I can think of just now is) stuff.  I'm never completely satisfied that I'm really an expert, which keeps me researching and asking questions; I feel happy when I read someone else's book and I know where they got their information.

   3: When I write, I don't do an outline.  I just look at my computer screen and ask myself, "how can I begin this and get a kid's attention."  Then I write a sentence, revise it, and think about it again and again.  Then I might go on to the second sentence.  I do this over and over again, all the while wondering if a reader (who would probably prefer to be doing something where there are explosions, loud music, and famous stars involved) is still turning the page.  Paragraphs and chapters end when my brain says "that's where it ends, pal."

   4: About those sentences.  I have two approaches.  First, I try to tell my nonfiction stories as if I'm talking with a kid across a table.  Are they engaged with what I'm saying, do they understand the context and individuals and the time that I'm talking about, do they really care about the situation, have I been able to make them think they are actually in the situation, etc., etc?  Along with this, I don't limit word choice or paragraph length to fit an age group.  I try to write simple, direct sentences without too many show off words or stylistic flairs. 
   Second, I tend to view what I write as poetry or music in prose (I was once a very serious poet-type; really, I once could write perfect love sonnets, which I did for friends at $5 a pop).  This sort of approach means that every word counts, so if I change a word in Chapter 5, I have to go back over the entire ms. to make sure that particular word works.  This might be one reason I usually end each day with a headache.

   5: I don't check any curriculum guides to make sure my books fit in.  I try to build themes that reach wider than whatever the situation I'm writing about, I don't wrap up every incident in a "here's what this meant in history" paragraph or some such (kids are plenty smart and can figure out a great deal more than we allow them to), I interpret history and speculate about individual motives based on my research and often go against the popular grain (hey, I said that Benedick Arnold was a better field general than George Washington and actually helped us as much as any well-honored general to gain our independence from Great Britain).  In the end, I hope that a reader will feel as if they were let in on a secret and maybe even re-read the book.

   Five is a nice number to end on (though I could probably add a few more).  I think what I'm saying is that I try to write books that are organic in nature, that evolve out of my research, my love of words and how they fit together, and my respect for young readers, rather then from a set of rules.  Those rules are great and I'm happy they have been formulated and are there for education experts (teachers and librarians and other interested people) to read and think about.  But following them line by line when writing or revising my books seems like it might lead down the road to a text that has more in common with a textbook than a satisfying read. I could be wrong about this, but only time will tell.     


Ms. Yingling said...

I don't understand all of the panic and hatred of Common Core. As you said, most of it is rather sensible. That said, I have never seen any educational initiative last for more than five years, so I tend not to panic about any of them! I have always tried to get my students to read as much nonfiction as fiction!

Vicki Cobb said...

Great post, Jim! I have a loooong reply, that I'm not gonna put here. But you've just inspired my next entry for the Huff Post. More to come....

Steve Sheinkin said...

Well, that maybe wasn't my wittiest one-liner ever, but glad it made you smile. My approach to the standards is very similar - know what they say, and then forget it and write a good book. I just don't understand the part about non outlining. What do you do to procrastinate?

Jim Murphy said...

Ms. Yingling: My gut reaction is that the hatred for the new CC standards is more politcal than intellectual. A kind of "tea party" knee-jerk (accent on jerk) dislike to anything they think of as big government, etc., never mind that a vast majority of states (led by Republicans and Democrats) signed on to these changes to the CCSS as smart and natural.
Vicki: Can't wait to read your post. They are always thoughtful and on point.
Steve: I have a feeling that you and I and a boatload of authors could write a book about how we, um, spend time NOT writing. I read recipes and think about making meals (including how to plate them), cleaning up the kitchen (as weird as it sounds I actually like cleaning up! Sick, right?), helping Alison clean up the house so our house cleaning person doesn't walk out on us, watering plants (we have a lot of plantrs that need attention), and talking to our dog (Alison insists that Page doesn't understand a word I say, but I think she does so I blather on with her (and she never contradicts me, unlike our 17-yr.-old son).

Deborah Heiligman said...

Oh shoot, Jim, now what am I going to write for my post? I was going to say pretty much exactly the same things. :) In other words: RIGHT ON! Or in 2013 language: LIKE.

SEMS Library Lady said...

I find it -- funny? ironic? -- that all the authors who have commented are on my list that I hand to panicked teachers when they come to the library looking for "informational text that meets the Common Core." You all (along with the rest of the I.N.K. crew) are my bastion against the purchase of boring "Common Core-aligned" workbooks. Just today I emailed my list of "Nonfiction You'll WANT to Read" to my middle school English teachers.

I truly think this is the golden age of nonfiction for children and teens. Thanks to all of you, and for goodness sake, stop cleaning the house and write more books!

Deborah Heiligman said...

I just have to say to SEMS LIBRARY LADY: I love you. And thank you. And also, don't worry if I write about cleaning out drawers, etc. When I have a problem to solve, I find that working with my hands at a mostly mindless task is the best thing to get the writing-problem-solving part of my brain working. You should see my sock drawer right now. It's a thing of beauty.

Vicki Cobb said...

As promised, my looong response to Jim's post is now published here:http://www.huffingtonpost.com/vicki-cobb/common-core-state-standar_1_b_4070633.html

SEMS Library Lady said...

OK, I'm on a commenting roll! I commented on Vicki's Huffington Post article. Somehow I am Mrs. Micawber there, and I cannot recall ever using that as a screen name. I didn't even like David Copperfield.

This is clearly a sign I need to stop commenting and get some of my own work done.