Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Day 4 #SOLC2014: Welcome to the Mix-Master: Thoughts on Blending the Writing Standards

Throughout the month of March, I am participating in the Slice of Life Challenge, hosted by twowritingteachers.wordpress.com. All participants aim to write a post every day for the month of March. When my posts relate to education, you will find them here. Otherwise, find my SOLC posts at justwritemelanie.blogspot.com.

I think that corn belongs in silos. Looking for a picture of a silo, I learned that coal, sawdust, and woodchips also belong in silos. These structures are incredibly useful in that they maximize volume and minimize oxygen. 

Minimize oxygen. I do not thrive in an environment that minimizes oxygen. Life does not thrive in an environment that has minimized oxygen. 

Maybe it’s the minimizing of oxygen that I react to when I think about the types of writing living in silos, because that’s what I think that the CCSS does to the types. Or maybe, I’m beginning to think that the CCSS should have a fourth silo--one that pumps in oxygen and blends all three types of writing. That’s right--dump them all together and stir them around...

I think that it’s helpful for people new to writing to think about the different types of writing. Why do we write?  What an incredibly important question to think and talk about!  

We write to entertain--hence the third CCSS Anchor Standard:
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.W.3 Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details and well-structured event sequences.
We also write to inform, which leads to the second Anchor Standard:
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.W.2 Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.
And, we can write to express opinions and set up arguments:
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.W.1 Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.
Really good writers, the ones who have elaboration down and the ones who have voice shining through, blend the types. Yes, they know their purpose, but they also know that man won’t read one type of writing alone. Think about it. Who would not rather learn about history from a book with characters and a plot than from an encyclopedia article. The narrative elements intrigue us, but they are woven together with information, facts, and details. Additionally, most historical fiction contains a bias, a subtle hint of argument that is sifted throughout the pages. In fact, most informational texts also contain a bias, some more subtle than others.

Malcolm Gladwell is one of the most effective arguers I have read. Why? Because he injects stories and real people into his arguments. He hooks us with narratives, complete with characters, settings, and plots, and then he spins his argument. He even injects information into his arguments--of course he does, because isn’t the strongest evidence inextricably bound to information? Yes, it is information presented with a twist, but with the “effective selection, organization, and analysis of content” that the CCSS list within the information standard. 

One of the reasons (and there are many reasons) that I love the new Writing Units of Study from Lucy Calkins and her colleagues at Teachers College is because, even though each unit focuses on a particular type of writing, they weave together the types wherever possible. For example, within the fourth grade information unit, there is the suggestion of having students write narrative letters and of having students write opinion essays that analyze a moment in history. These pieces of writing are incorporated into the overall informational book, adding variation and offering opportunities for students’ voices to ring loud and clear through their written words. They also remind us as teachers, and teach students as learners, that writing genres do not live in silos!

As I write this morning, I am aware of the fact that I am writing to learn--my writing is leading me to more questions than answers right now, as I am really not sure of how to handle the writing silos. Do we:
  • Introduce students to the silos one at a time--this is the silo of narrative, this is the information silo, you’re now entering the silo where we store opinion/argument...?
  • Blend the three, but in controlled measures--we are in the silo of narrative, but you’re allowed this much information in it, as well as this much opinion...?
  • Allow for the blending of only two at a time until demonstrated mastery--we are really staying within the silo of narrative, but you can filter in some information, just no opinion until we are sure and solid with the blending of the two...
I think that teaching writing is an art and blending grain is a science, so I’m not really in favor of the bullets above, although I do wonder about explicit instruction for the complex practice of becoming a mix-master. I also wish that there eleven anchor standards, and I would propose that Anchor Standard 4 should be inserted and involve blending the three types of writing, because isn’t that what really great writers do?

I don't think that I am finished thinking and blogging about this topic, but I can't wait to hear other people's thoughts!


  1. Melanie,
    So timely! We were just talking about this. If a student is writing to "teach us" something, they would be "basically under standard 2 but may add in elements of narrative (3) or opinion/argument (1) as "chapters" or whatever structure is being explored. That becomes a "micro" element inside the bigger purpose of teaching and then, in my mind, moves to a more explicit form of elaboration.

    I have moved on. It's less about labeling the "type" of writing and more about what can the student do and what would be the best "next step" for the student. (Teachers aren't as happy - There is no ONE right way!)

    Write. Write some more. Write even more! (my new mantra)

  2. Because my school doesn't look at the CCSS at all, I've only come to know about the challenges through blogs like yours Melanie. But you remind me of the effort I made through all my years in the classroom that the five paragraph essay is "not" what writers do, only what high school English teachers do. So with my eighth graders, I spent a week teaching them about this kind of essay, & what would be asked of them when they moved on to high school, and then we wrote with all the "silos" according to what we were writing at the time, individually, goal oriented for an audience, etc. Terrific metaphor-loved reading your words! Write on!

  3. I like the third option, and that is the one I use with my students. How can we compartmentalize these types of writing - effective writing is knowing how to use one's palette, right? (Sorry for the mixed metaphors!)

  4. I love the symbolism of the silos, it really got me thinking. I also love and use the new Units of Study by Calkins. I think we have to immerse the students into each standard, but encourage mixing them as well. It depends on the experience of the writer, it is just like a masterpiece of sorts with color and paints.

  5. Writing has been consuming much of my thinking, too, Melanie. I love you silos metaphor, and agree that a really well written piece of writing can include all three types. I think problems arise if students don't have a good understanding of the structure of each genre. If they have a good grasp of text structures, then go for it. But if they don't, it could all be a big muddle. It all comes back to practice, though, doesn't it?

  6. Thought-provoking piece. I think it's important to teach the writing types separately to organize our teaching, but not to limit students who are blending them together in their writing. Really, because this isolated (almost sterile) type of writing rarely exists in the real world, if we are using mentor texts with our students, they'll see the types blended anyway. I also think we can lead into teaching the subtleties of mixing types with reading before we do it with writing. (Text structure, anyone?) Thanks for this piece.