I like your essay, but you failed!

Since I recently moved here to New York from Texas, I applied to be on a Common Core (CCSS) committee so that I could learn more about the education policies of my new home state. I’m not really sure what I can and cannot talk about, so I’ll just say that I was required to look closely at a few of the writing standards. By the end of the day, I was left thinking of Peter Greene’s excellent blog post about CCSS, and the limitations it presents.

What makes Greene’s argument so compelling is that he gives examples of famous authors who would fail under specific standards. I thought of this point yesterday while spending the majority of the day staring at one of the common core writing standards that New York has adopted:

WS.11-12.1 Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.

This writing standard is for 11th-12th graders, and seems innocuous until you read all the sub-standards that are alphabetized beneath it. One in particular concerns me, and became a topic of discussion as our meeting dragged on: d. Establish and maintain a formal style and objective tone while attending to the norms and conventions of the discipline in which they are writing. Much of the debate at our table centered around what an exemplar essay would look like to represent this standard. An essay that is completely void of voice?

The standard attempts to give a caveat by claiming that the students’ writing should be “attending to the norms and conventions of the discipline.” However, it reads as if all “norms and conventions” that will be attended to will require an “objective tone.” Let’s not forget that this standard is listed under the argumentative essay.

To echo Greene’s point, this would mean that a student who mimics Charles Blow, Thomas Friedman, Alan Brooks, or George Will would fail. These writers argue in a tone that is anything but objective, and, in my opinion, it is their tone and style that should be credited for much of their fan base. I might not agree with what they say, but I sure enjoy reading it!

According to the state of New York, though, that’s not authentic writing.

Good writing instruction should include mentor texts, and good argumentative mentor texts could include pieces from the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal. Students should then be asked to find what interests them, and what they want to talk about. Then they write. They argue. And while their arguments should attend to the norms and conventions of style and tone, a good essay is not necessarily going to have an objective tone.

When teachers lead their students toward issues that they are passionate about, then it is imperative that we give them a voice. Where is that standard in the Common Core?

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One thought on “I like your essay, but you failed!

  1. I completely agree. What happens to the pathos part of the argument? Some of the conventions of the genre contradict the idea of an objective tone, so you can’t have both all the time. Arguments, both verbal and written, are usually subjective in tone, with a voice that comes from a person. It would be interesting if the test writers had to grade some of the more famous arguments from history, most of which are memorable because of the voice of the author/orator and the appeals to the emotion of the audience.

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