Content Creation: A Thought Piece

Are Ready-Made Writing Lessons Insulting to Teachers?

Written for an educational publishing start-up that created lesson plans to help elementary teachers meet new national standards in writing instruction. A competitor had successfully marketed the idea that ready-made lesson plans were an insult to the intelligence of teachers. This was the start-up’s rebuttal, created for the CEO’s blog.

I’ve been following the conversation online about the need for quality materials to help teachers implement the new Common Core Standards. It’s filled with contradictions. Have you noticed?

On one hand, teachers are desperate for Common Core materials they can actually use in their classrooms. Education Week recently quoted a curriculum director in Nevada, who reported, “Teachers are struggling, and very few people are helping. Almost nothing is available for them to use.”

A Missouri principal echoes, “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 Standards would be a misconception.” 

On the other hand, there are the proud or even 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 argued there’s no such thing as “one-size-fits-all” lessons. In Flanagan’s view, 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.”

I honor Flanagan’s experience, but not her conclusions. When I was in the classroom, creating curriculum was a passion. I created huge thematic units, integrating all the subjects into specific topics of study, and my lessons were wildly successful. But I believe Flanagan and I are part of a slim minority of teachers.

Whether or not you agree, it’s an important conversation. Teachers are on the front line of a tectonic shift in American education. It’s called the Common Core Standards.

Map showing state adoption of the Common Core standards.

In two short years, students will be tested on the new standards, and this demands much more rigorous instruction to prepare students for success. School funding will be determined partly by Common Core test scores. Teacher evaluations may be, too!  Let’s help teachers get this right.

Elementary Teachers and the Common Core Standards

Here’s what I’ve noticed. Those who are upset about ready-made lesson plans are nearly all subject-area specialists. They teach middle school or high school, and generally live and breathe math, science, social studies, or English.

Elementary teachers are struggling more with the Common Core because they specialize in no particular subject. They specialize in children.  Unlike their secondary school counterparts, they have to learn complex new standards in every subject. Imagine trying to reconfigure your math approach while simultaneously grappling with new reading standards, as well as new writing standards that introduce research writing in kindergarten.  Soon, new standards for K-5 science and social studies are also coming down the pike.

Does it surprise you that elementary teachers aren’t echoing Flanagan’s rejection of ready-made lesson plans?

In my experience, there is one subject for which even veteran elementary teachers welcome ready-made lessons. That subject is writingWriting is one of the most difficult subjects for elementary educators to teach.

Why is Writing Such a Significant Teaching Challenge?

Writer Anne Morrow Lindbergh said it well: “Writing is thinking.”

It is not a concrete operation like addition, subtraction, multiplication, or division. It is more complex than learning phonics. It requires students to combine many skills effectively. Even though most teachers can recognize “good” writing, many feel poorly equipped to get their students there.

There are elementary teachers who love teaching writing, invest their personal time in learning best practices, and create thriving communities of writers in their classrooms. But the majority do not. We shouldn’t let the voices of natural writers and high school specialists silence the K-5 majority.

Many districts are trying to solve the issue by investing in professional development, but research shows that professional development alone is not enough. The Writer’s Workshop model is the most effective method of writing instruction in elementary classrooms. But sadly, studies reveal that “even with outstanding professional development opportunities and intensive support, teachers struggled to implement an exemplary model of writing workshop.”

Not All Writing Lessons Are Created Equal

Good lessons incorporate best practices that are supported by research and work well for teachers. This includes the use of “anchor texts” like student writing samples to motivate children and demonstrate skills. It also includes graphic organizers to help children plan their writing. These techniques have been shown to have positive impacts for LD and ADD students as well as students deemed “natural writers.”

Click for image of young child displaying writing. Research supports giving children graphic organizers to help them plan their writing.

WriteSteps lessons include all of these elements. They are entirely different from those found in most language arts basal readers – lessons so prescriptive that they give writing lessons a bad name. Teachers need to know that not all writing curricula are created equal.

Poorly Supported Teachers = Poorly Equipped Students

Click to see image and report from the National Commission on Writing.

“Writing is a gateway for employment and promotion, especially in salaried positions,” concludes the National Commission on Writing. Yet, on the last national measure of writing skills, only 28 percent of fourth graders demonstrated proficiency, and less than a quarter of twelfth graders met this basic benchmark.

The Common Core Standards offer a remedy. But only if teachers can successfully implement them.  It really couldn’t be clearer — Common Core writing lessons are a common sense solution.