Henry, like many kids, doesn’t fit neatly into a grade level or curriculum. In his case, his cognitive abilities are beyond his years, but his experience of the world is limited to them. I am fortunate to live in a state that allows homeschoolers a great deal of freedom in determining the content of their curriculum, and I take full advantage of that freedom, creating most of the materials we use. Developing curriculum was one of my favorite parts of teaching college classes (we had a great deal of freedom there too) and I am glad to have the opportunity to do so again. Though I work on materials for science, social studies/history, and art, English/language arts/literacy has given me the most trouble. It is wide-ranging, complex, and multifaceted …. I am not even sure what to call the area that covers reading, writing, literature, foreign language, spelling, grammar, punctuation, etc.
My research into literacy led me to the Common Core, of course. I have read through the standards, looked at the specific ways in which it is implemented in a couple of different school districts, read a number of articles addressing it, and have spent time considering both its central premises and its details as they might apply to our homeschool. While I can appreciate the rationale behind the content, I find the standards to be at once too specific, too limiting, too ambitious in some ways, and too detached from theories of developmentally appropriate practices (there is a very accessible and useful discussion of DAP here). At some point, I may delve deeper into the Common Core to substantiate these claims with concrete, specific evidence. In the meantime, I want to offer an alternative to the Common Core that I have found useful as a guiding vision for the literacy curriculum we are using in our home.
Every field of study has one or more organizations that work to define the scope of the field, address concerns, set policies, generate statements of ethics, and things like that. The broad field of English has several, including the Modern Language Association (they do more than tell you how to cite sources), the National Council of Teachers of English, and more specific organizations such as the Council of Writing Program Administrators. Often, each of these organizations have a vision for how their subject matter should ideally be taught. You can find the NCTE “Beliefs About the Teaching of Writing” here, for example. These statements are useful because they are generated by leading voices in the fields, often without input from politicians, lobbyists, policy makers, or corporate publishing interests.
One of the aims of the Common Core is to help students become “college and career ready,” yet it presents a list of incredibly specific and narrowly defined standards. The Council of Writing Program Administrators, an organization that develops and directs college-level writing programs, takes a very different approach. They created a “Framework for Success in Post-Seconary Writing” that “describes the rhetorical and twenty-first-century skills as well as habits of mind and experiences that are critical for college success.” Though developed for college students, the framework is relevant to students of all ages and teachers in any capacity. It encourages exploration, risk-taking, open-mindedness, and stresses the importance of writing in a variety of ways for a variety of audiences. It does not privilege one genre over another or provide specific, graded tasks and outcomes, but acknowledges that future success depends upon the development of habits of mind that we can encourage in our children. Or, taking a cue from John Holt who points out that many of these habits are natural to young children, we must simply make sure they don’t lose them.
Following is a summary of the main points of the Framework:
Habits of mind refers to ways of approaching learning that are both intellectual and practical and that will support students’ success in a variety of fields and disciplines. The Framework identifies eight habits of mind essential for success in college writing:
- Curiosity – the desire to know more about the world.
- Openness – the willingness to consider new ways of being and thinking in the world.
- Engagement – a sense of investment and involvement in learning.
- Creativity – the ability to use novel approaches for generating, investigating, and representing ideas.
- Persistence – the ability to sustain interest in and attention to short- and long-term projects.
- Responsibility – the ability to take ownership of one’s actions and understand the consequences of those actions for oneself and others.
- Flexibility – the ability to adapt to situations, expectations, or demands.
- Metacognition – the ability to reflect on one’s own thinking as well as on the individual and cultural processes used to structure knowledge.
The Framework then explains how teachers can foster these habits of mind through writing, reading, and critical analysis experiences. These experiences aim to develop students’
- Rhetorical knowledge – the ability to analyze and act on understandings of audiences, purposes, and contexts in creating and comprehending texts;
- Critical thinking – the ability to analyze a situation or text and make thoughtful decisions based on that analysis, through writing, reading, and research;
- Writing processes – multiple strategies to approach and undertake writing and research;
- Knowledge of conventions – the formal and informal guidelines that define what is considered to be correct and appropriate, or incorrect and inappropriate, in a piece of writing; and
- Abilities to compose in multiple environments – from using traditional pen and paper to electronic technologies.
You can find the entire framework here.
I most like this framework for the habits of mind that are central to it. Unlike the Common Core and indeed many homeschool literacy curricula, it places curiosity right at the top. This, along with the following habits of openness, engagement, and creativity are central to learning in genuine, meaningful ways. The advantage we homeschoolers have over college professors is that our students have not yet lost those traits. They have not spent decades in school being told that they must write a comparison/contrast paper about two classic novels, not a comparison/contrast sales flier about two favorite airplanes. They haven’t been told that their writing and ideas need to fit preset structures or that the could be good writers if only they could learn where commas go or how to use semicolons.
Of course the framework is also about writing. It stresses the importance, not of learning five paragraph academic essays, but of learning to make one’s writing adaptable to various fields and genres. Writing a lab report, a business analysis, or an explication of a poem are all equally legitimate pursuits. Little kids can learn the same thing by seeing that different types of writing (everything from cereal boxes to shopping lists to fiction and nonfiction books) have different qualities of language, organization, and conventions. Writing processes here focuses on different strategies for achieving an end, not the strict prewrite, draft, revise, and polish we learned in school. These stages are all useful at times, but are not always necessary or productive. Electronic technologies come in to play when relevant and useful, not as something to be forced.
This framework, like any, is an ideal, and the reality of the situation often falls short. Many college students can tell you that their own experiences in composition classes was vastly different from the vision presented here. Regardless of this incongruity, the framework remains useful as a guide for developing a literacy curriculum that engages students, values their own voice above conventions and rigid forms, and helps them become college and career ready in an authentic way.