Getting Creative with the Common Core

A Versatile Form Encourages Creative Writing Across the Curriculum

Teachers & Writers Magazine
(Winter 2013-2014, Volume 45, Number 2)

It is a truth universally acknowledged that we all know how to do stuff.  Whether it’s tying our shoelaces, keeping a houseplant alive, spelling our names, making new friends, speaking French, cooking spaghetti, we all know how to do something.  Lots of things, in fact.  Which is why, when I asked a group of fourth graders in the Bronx to come up with topics for the “how-to” articles we were going to write—things that they were experts in, or that they just knew how to do, I was shocked by the response I received.

“I don’t have anything to write about,” several students insisted.

“I just don’t know how to do anything,” a few others moaned.

“Did your brother dress you and brush your teeth and chew your breakfast this morning?” I asked Angelica.

“No,” she said, smiling.

 “Does your teacher do your homework for you?  Or throw the baseball for you when you are the pitcher at a baseball game?”  I teased Fernando.

 “No way!”

“Well, then, it looks like you might actually know how to do more than you think,” I told them.

“Yeah, but we don’t know how to write it down and make it an article,” Angelica said.

I told them we could work on that part, but that the first step was just to write down at least three things that they knew how to do, or that they liked doing, or that they were good at.

The Common Core standards require students to take what they’ve learned in one subject, and combine it with skills or knowledge from other subjects in order to reinforce learning in ALL subjects.  However, its re-contextualization, re-phrasing, and re-arrangement of skills and knowledge has left many of us feeling the way my students did: as if we don’t know anything, or as if what we know doesn’t translate into what the Common Core requires.  But we teachers know a lot, and meeting the Common Core standards may not be as daunting as it seems.

I teach “how-to” lessons a lot because they are so versatile.  These “how-tos” can be written in the form of instructional articles, essays, recipes, poems, comic strips, or storyboards.  With a little imagination, “how-tos” can be effectively adapted for science, social studies, history, and language arts classes.  They are an excellent means of helping students to develop ordering and sequencing skills, discover and show cause-effect relationships, use transitional and sequential phrasing, and ensure that students can transfer information into their own words.  And when I, as a teacher, have to re-conceive the way I teach “how-to”s to fit the needs and aptitudes of my students, I practice the kind of cross-curricular cross-pollination that the Common Core standards encourage.  “how-to” lessons have Common Core written all over them!

Anatomy of a How-To

Here is the five basic steps of writing  a “how-to.”  You can write this list on the board, or print it out to distribute to students in class:

  1. Introduction: Every “how-to” exercise should begin with a few sentences about what is being taught and why.  The introduction should pique readers’ interest in the “how-to,” and entice them to keep reading.
  2. Ingredients/Materials Needed:  A list of all of the materials needed to complete the “how-to” should be listed before any directions are given.  When writing a “how-to”, it’s often helpful to leave extra space in this area, so that overlooked materials can be added as  students write the directions for their “how-tos.”
  3. Directions:  The descriptions of the steps for completing the “how-to” should be clear, concise, and written in a logical order.  Depending on the grade and subject level, teachers may want to require that a certain number of vocabulary words, mathematical and scientific concepts, historical facts, plot points, etc., be included and explained.
  4. Tips/Suggestions:  Throughout a “how-to”, tips for modifying the activity to suit different needs, tastes, and preferences can be given.
  5. Conclusion: Once the directions have been given, “how-tos” should end with a few sentences of encouragement, and ideas about the possible outcomes, uses, or implications of the “how-to.”

How-To Lesson Plan

Here are the basics steps I follow when I present my “how-to” lesson plan, along with examples of how I used this lesson with my fourth-grade students.  I include some suggestions for modifying this lesson for different subjects and different writing forms at the end of the article, but the possibilities for variation are endless!

Materials needed:

  • A model “how-to” (Try to find one that works with the subject you’re working in.  See the list of ideas for models at the end of this article.)
  • Any materials associated with your model how to (should you choose to do an activity as part of reviewing your model)
  • Blackboard/Smartboard
  • Chalk
  • Writer’s Notebook/Paper
  • Pencils


1. Connect “how-to” lesson to prior lessons/knowledge. 

It’s important to me that students believe that they can be successful in the new tasks I ask them to undertake, and part of my strategy has been to make sure that they are aware of what they already know, or know how to do that will help them in the new task we are undertaking.  I like to ask students to help me review the skills we already have.  In the case of my fourth graders, I asked them to remind me what we had learned in previous classes about details, why they were important, and how to choose which details were important.

2. Review anatomy/ basic steps of “how-tos.” 

After we reviewed the importance of details, I asked my students what they knew about “how-tos”, and we discussed the basic steps, writing them in the correct order on the board.

3. Demonstrate or review a model “how-to”. 

I chose to demonstrate making a peanut butter sandwich and write the “how-to” with my students as I proceeded.  Before I began making the sandwich, I asked students to help me brainstorm a list of materials.  Initially, they said I’d only need peanut butter, bread, and jelly.   But, when we moved on to the directions, we realized that we’d left out a knife, and plate or paper towels, so we added them to our list.

I called on various students to give me directions, and through a comical series of trials and errors, the importance of details was reinforced.  For example, when the first student I called on told me to, “put the peanut butter on the bread,” I smeared a line of peanut butter across the top of an entire loaf of bread.  This led to students giving much more detailed instructions throughout the rest of the demonstration.  “Take one piece of bread and spread a layer of peanut butter over one side of it.” We wrote these instructions on the board, discussing the chronology of the instructions, sequencing and transitional language, clarity and specificity as we went along.

I asked my students to write out this “how-to” in their writer’s notebooks as I made the sandwich, encouraging them to put the instructions into their own words, and add their own details and tips as well.  You can also distribute copies of a model, go over it with students, and have them take notes on it (marking the parts of the how to, underlining good use of details, vocabulary, transitional words, etc.) as you read and discuss it.  I also enjoy doing this demonstration because I get to share the sandwiches I’ve made with students as they write (I make enough for the class in advance).

4. Assign or give students time to choose a topic for a model “how-to”. 

Depending on the subject and desired learning outcomes for this activity you may choose to assign topics to students rather than letting them select their own. Because my demonstration took the majority of the class period, I ended the first class session by asking students to brainstorm and list at least three ideas for their own “how-tos.”  In a class with a briefer model review, it might be possible to move on to the next step in a single class period.

5. Give students time to write their own “how-to.” 

Depending on the grade level and subject, graphic organizers can be used for this.  With my fourth graders, we reviewed the basic anatomy of the “how-to” (Introduction, Materials, Directions, Conclusion, Tips), discussed how to organize the page, and wrote the “how-to” without a graphic organizer.   I like to circulate throughout the room to answer questions, ask questions, make suggestions, and offer encouragement while students write.

6. Invite students to share their “how-tos” with the class. 

This aspect of “how-to”-ing is my favorite.  Students get to share their unique voices, their expertise, and their hard work with their classmates.

We know how to do a lot of things, and we have the capacity to learn to do even more.  The “how-to” is a fun, novel means of helping students to process the stuff that they are learning, organize it, and put it into a new form, using their own words and imaginations.  It’s a great way to add variety to the writing and thinking work happening in a classroom. My fourth grade students wrote basic “how-tos” about everything from throwing a perfect spiral in football, to making scrambled eggs, to making new friends.  They wrote about topics they felt comfortable with while enhancing the informational writing skills emphasized in the core curriculum.  But the “how-to” also offers infinite possibilities for imaginative variations, as well as further cross-curricular work and core curriculum enhancement.

Variations on the How-To Form

Although the “how-to” seems like a straightforward, formulaic genre, its well-known formula actually opens up a wonderful space for play and imagination.  In addition to the standard form, “how-tos” can take the form of:

Using the How-To in Various Subjects

            Science:  Writing “how-tos” can help students master the concepts they are learning in science class and see their applications in the world beyond the classroom.   Students can write step-by-step descriptions of metamorphosis, photosynthesis, chemical reactions, the classification of living organisms, and other scientific processes.  More advanced grades and students can identify the practical applications of what they learn in the classroom and write “how-tos” that demonstrate scientific concepts at work (e.g., the changing states of matter seen when boiling water to make rice or spaghetti).   Writing about scientific experiments and discoveries via the scientific method can also be seen as a “how-to” of sorts.

            Social Sciences: When it comes to the social sciences, writing a “how-to” can help students to understand the relationships the people, places, and, events they are learning about more fully, by asking them to process the information differently. Students can write “how tos” based on political events, movements, and trends (how to start a revolution, how to build a pyramid, how to get the right to vote, how to write a constitution).  These types of “how-tos” can help students to account for connections, chronology, and cause and effect relationships in the topics they are writing about.  Using specific people, events, and eras as a means of describing more general phenomena will help students to find patterns across history, see relationships between the past and present more clearly, and understand the implications and relevance of what they are studying.

            Language Arts:  Because they are such great tools for re-thinking and re-framing information, “how-tos” can be used to re-frame and reinforce what is being taught in the English classroom as well.  They can be assigned as book reports or a means of accounting for the plot of a story (how to solve the mystery of the old clock; how to survive the hunger games), character development studies (how to stop being a wimpy kid; how to grow up), a way of accounting for patterns in literature (how to be an epic hero; how to construct a tragedy), or a means of defining important terms, philosophies, or ideas (how to write a simile; how to be an existentialist).