Rocking the Common Core: For Writers Developing Curriculum Guides and School Visits

What this post is not: My personal opinion on the Common Core.

What this post is: An attempt to use my classroom teaching experience to help fellow writers approach the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in a way that may be useful in developing school visits and marketing their books to teachers.  
What is the Common Core?
The Common Core is a set of standards that describe the skill sets that students at different grade levels should ideally be able to master.  These standards are currently available for Mathematics and English Language Arts (in this category, literacy standards have also been developed for grades 6-12 in history, science, social studies, and technical subjects).  
Whether you regard the Common Core standards as a boon or a curse (or perhaps you have no opinion on them at all), the fact is that more and more states are requiring that teachers use the CCSS to guide their instructional decisions.  
What this means for authors 
As a teacher, I’m held accountable for finding ways to help my students reach the bar set by the Common Core.  Every lesson I plan is therefore designed with an end in mind – and that end is always tangible evidence of learning.  They have to be able to show what they know.  
So if I’m going to teach a new novel, it helps if the author has already done some deep thinking about how that novel connects to the Common Core standards that I’m responsible for teaching anyway. Or, if I’m going to bring a special writing program into my classroom, I may be tempted by an author who has created a delightfully engaging and informational visit that students will enjoy.  But I’ll fill out that budget request form faster for an author who also advertises that her visit will result in a tangible outcome: evidence that my students have learned a skill or concept that I want them to learn.  
Also, quite frankly, when getting approval to include a new novel or invite a classroom visitor, I may first be asked to prove that my choices connect to the Common Core.  If I have to spend a lot of my limited time trying to figure out how to prove that, I simply might not get around to it, and wind up going with another book or author instead – one who has already done this thinking for me.
Connecting your work to the Common Core
Many writers pay people to write curriculum guides, the meaning and importance of which are beautifully explained here by Jill Corcoran.  If you’re not in a position to pay somebody else and you’re taking a crack at writing your own curriculum guide or developing a learning objective for your school visit program, then the first step is to figure out what the Common Core and your book have in common.  How can what you’ve written be used in a classroom context to help students build their literacy or mathematical skills?  
Pick your target age group, and skim through the standards first, looking for those that have obvious relationships to your work.  For some books, connections will leap to the eye.  
Other connections will require a little more digging to uncover.  This is where knowing how to unpack the standards is handy. 
Take this very spare-looking 7th-grade ELA standard:
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.7.3 Analyze how particular elements of a story or drama interact (e.g., how setting shapes the characters or plot).
Many standards, like this one, appear at a glance to address one skill; however, a student must understand multiple concepts and master several skills in order to meet this standard.
    • What does the word mean?
    • What do we do in our minds, as readers, when we analyze?
      • We notice.
        • At the expert level, we do this automatically, but with students, it’s important to ask them to do it consciously, and with a specific goal in mind.  “Notice the protagonist’s feelings about her sister. What is his/her emotional perspective, here?”
      • We make inferences based on what we’ve noticed.
        • Again, expert readers do this without meaning to, but young readers (even really good ones) benefit from specific questions and structures. “You’ve noticed the protagonist’s feelings.  Why does s/he feel this way?  What events or personal values might be causing these feelings?  Can you show me examples in the text to support your idea? What in your own experience reminds you of this?” (Text-to-self connections can help readers step into the situation, which in turn allows them to better process the nuances in a scene.)
      • Our inferences allow us to draw conclusions, comprehend the author’s intended meaning(s), or find a meaning of our own.
    • What are the elements of story?
    • What does it mean to interact?
      • How does the setting shape the plot of the story?
        • “This book takes place during World War II.  What effect does that have on the events in the plot?  What would be different about this story if the characters had access to cell phones?”
      • How does the setting influence the characters in the story?
        • “In the classroom scenes, the protagonist is silent and embarrassed, but in the scenes with her sister, she’s loud and bossy.  What might that tell us?”
      • How do the events in the plot shape the characters?
      • How do the characters shape the events in the plot?
      • How do the characters influence and change one another?
    • What conclusions can we draw from all of this interaction?
      • Drawing conclusions about how story elements interact and why the author chose to craft those interactions the way s/he did is a huge step toward identifying emerging themes, which brings us to another standard:
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.7.2 Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text; provide an objective summary of the text.

Try unpacking this (or any) Common Core standard for yourself by asking these questions:

  1. If I had to prove that I possess this set of skills, what would I do?  (Write an essay? Conduct an interview? Give a speech? Create a map?)
  2. What steps would I have to take to successfully achieve that outcome?  
  3. What mental moves would I make while taking those steps?  
    1. This is where doing the work yourself first is very handy.  Create your own product that shows the skill required, and keep track of all the little decisions you have to make in order to achieve a successful result. (This is also important because what you create can potentially be used later on as a model for students.)
  4. In what ways can I help teachers and students make those mental moves visible and tangible? (Worksheets? Inquiry-based activities? Free writes? Group or pair projects/conversations? Dramatization? Artwork?)

List all the answers you can think of, and find ways to build your best, most engaging answers into your curriculum guide or school visit.

Whatever individual teachers’ opinions may be on the CCSS, one thing is always true: we’re overwhelmed with all that is required of us.  Any time someone reaches out to support our work in an intelligent and targeted way, we are relieved and grateful.  So help a teacher out.  Show us how your work and our work connects, and turn us into allies who passionately spread the word about your books. 



  1. Great post! I’m planning some school visits, and feel daunted by the language in the standards–thanks for a clue on how to approach this.

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