The title of this blog is the most familiar instruction in writing classes throughout this land. And even way before you turn on your computer to revise your latest effort at the Great American Novel, way down in Elementary School teachers encourage students to include “details” to build up the story. It as if our entire nation were on a class trip out in the forest making sure to note the glistening of dew and how moss feels soft when brushed and spongy at the press of a finger. Details are nice, and can create an immediate mental picture which then engages a reader in a place, a time, a story. With the right observations or memories, words become tactile sensations in the reader’s mind. But is that what our students really need to learn?
I’ve been reading carefully through the Common Core and I’ve been struck by the very different way they think of details, and thus writing. From the same elementary grades up, students are required to make observations and contentions and to ground these arguments in evidence. Details, in other words, are no longer sought out to create mental images in the minds of readers but, rather, to make convincing cases, to ground and to document assertions about the world around them. The dew and the moss matter in a proof, not in story. It is not that the CC is against story, especially in the younger grades. But a driving motivation for the CC is to prepare students life after school where, while some will go on to Writing Workshops and MFA programs, all will need to analyze information, make informed decisions, and make convincing cases. Thus, in the CC framekwork, by 4th grade, 65% of student writing is “to persuade” or “to explain” leaving 35% “to convey experience.” This is 70-30 in 8th grade and 80-20 in 12th.
This shift in what we are training students to write also relates to how we want them to read. We are not asking students how they personally feel, react, or “relate” to a given subject. We are not looking for “personal narratives” and reader response journals. We are looking for students to identify how a poem works, the beats of a story, the sequence of an argument. Once they can identify how a piece of writing works, then can then judge it — using details to ground their arguments. Students are empowered to think in relationship to the world, not just to record how the world makes them feel. Tell the world what you know — that is the new mantra of K-12 education.