Fourth Grader Lakiya works on a writing assignment during social studies.

This year marks the first time that all math and English teachers in Mississippi are teaching the new Common Core standards. But the words Common Core aren’t used here anymore — the state has renamed them the Mississippi College and Career Readiness Standards. While lawmakers continue to debate the standards at the Capitol, big changes are happening in the classroom. Jackie Mader has been following the transition in the rural Mississippi Delta; in this piece, she looks at how social studies is getting a creative writing makeover.

Nine-year-old Lakiya is learning about David Walker, a nineteenth-century African American author whose antislavery writing was banned in the south. After reading a short text about his life, she’s writing a story from the perspective of someone living in his time.

“I’m writing about me getting David’s book to the south and the dangers that I would have.” Lakiya said.

Lakiya is a fourth grader at rural Quitman County Elementary school. Over the past few years, her teacher, Ricardo Sacks, has completely changed the way he teaches social studies. He didn’t have to. The new Common Core standards only apply to math and English. But, Sacks felt the new emphasis on writing was so important, he wanted to infuse his class with it. “We’re trying to get them to write more because the test is going to require them to explain some of their answers, and our kids are not used to doing a lot of writing, based on previous assessments,” Sacks said.

Ricardo Sacks teaches a morning remediation class at Quitman County Elementary. Photo: Kayleigh Skinner

The new focus on reading and writing is a far cry from the way social studies used to be taught, says Assistant Principal Sandra Wilborn “Just like rote learning, maybe learning some vocab words, sticking to the book a little bit more, just learning some terms and repeating,” Wilborn said. “I guess just basic level knowledge and now they’re digging a little deeper.”

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That’s important here in the rural Mississippi Delta. Although scores have been increasing at Quitman County Elementary in the past three years, they’re still in the bottom half of the state. And this year’s test is going to be harder and ask for a lot of writing. Principal Cytha Guynes says writing hasn’t always been a priority.

Writing kind of got pushed to the side in the standardized test era with multiple choice, and for a long time it wasn’t really emphasized,” Guynes said. She added that not only is writing a career skill, but it also helps students learn how to think critically and communicate.

It may seem strange to be doing so much creative writing in the middle of a history lesson. But, now that Common Core requires English teachers to focus on nonfiction and using evidence in writing, Principal Guynes says the school staff was worried that creative and narrative writing might be neglected. As Quitman County Elementary has transitioned to Common Core over the past three years, Guynes says they’ve made sure that writing is present in all subject areas, so kids get more practice, and also have some outlet for creative expression.

Guynes said that when social studies, science, and math teachers take on creative writing “…our reading and language arts teachers can focus on the craft and skill in writing and some of those tougher pieces,” so that one teacher “isn’t holding a full load.”

Related: Cramming for Common Core: One Mississippi school district has to make big changes in limited time

It’s a much heavier load for teachers, though. They’ve had to throw out years of lesson plans and write new ones from scratch at a time when legislators are debating whether to even keep the standards.

This spring, Quitman County teachers will be able to see how their new approach is working when students are tested on the new standards for the first time.

[Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

Jackie Mader

Jackie Mader received a bachelor’s degree from Loyola Marymount University and an M.S. from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, where she was a recipient of the 2012 Fred M. Hechinger Journalism Education Award. Prior to attending Columbia, she taught special education in Charlotte, N.C. and trained first-year teachers in the Mississippi Delta.