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Posted at 04:00 AM ET, 03/23/2012

Teacher: One (maddening) day working with the Common Core

This was written by Jeremiah Chaffee, a high school English teacher in upstate New York for the last 13 years. It’s long but worth reading.

By Jeremiah Chaffee

The high school English department in which I work recently spent a day looking at what is called an “exemplar” from the new Common Core State Standards, and then working together to create our own lessons linked to that curriculum. An exemplar is a prepackaged lesson which is supposed to align with the standards of the Common Core. The one we looked at was a lesson on “The Gettysburg Address.”

The process of implementing the Common Core Standards is under way in districts across the country as almost every state has now signed onto the Common Core, (some of them agreeing to do in hopes of winning Race to the Top money from Washington D.C.). The initiative is intended to ensure that students in all parts of the country are learning from the same supposedly high standards.

As we looked through the exemplar, examined a lesson previously created by some of our colleagues, and then began working on our own Core-related lessons, I was struck by how out of sync the Common Core is with what I consider to be good teaching. I have not yet gotten to the “core” of the Core, but I have scratched the surface, and I am not encouraged.

Here are some of the problems that the group of veteran teachers with whom I was with at the workshop encountered using the exemplar unit on “The Gettysburg Address.”

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Each teacher read individually through the exemplar lesson on Lincoln’s speech. When we began discussing it, we all expressed the same conclusion: Most of it was too scripted. It spelled out what types of questions to ask, what types of questions not to ask, and essentially narrowed any discussion to obvious facts and ideas from the speech.

In some schools, mostly in large urban districts, teachers are forced by school policy to read from scripted lessons, every day in every class. For example, all third-grade teachers do the same exact lessons on the same day and say exactly the same things. (These districts often purchase these curriculum packages from the same companies who make the standardized tests given to students.)

Scripting lessons is based on several false assumptions about teaching. They include:

* That anyone who can read a lesson aloud to a class can teach just as well as experienced teachers;

* That teaching is simply the transference of information from one person to another;

* That students should not be trusted to direct any of their own learning;

* That testing is the best measure of learning.

Put together, this presents a narrow and shallow view of teaching and learning.

Most teachers will tell you that there is a difference between having a plan and having a script. Teachers know that in any lesson there needs to be some wiggle room, some space for discovery and spontaneity. But scripted cookie-cutter lessons aren’t interested in that; the idea is that they will help students learn enough to raise their standardized test scores.

Yet study after study has shown that even intense test preparation does not significantly raise test scores, and often causes stress and boredom in students. Studies have also shown that after a period of time, test scores plateau, and it is useless, even counter-productive educationally, to try to raise test scores beyond that plateau.

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Another problem we found relates to the pedagogical method used in the Gettysburg Address exemplar that the Common Core calls “cold reading.”

This gives students a text they have never seen and asks them to read it with no preliminary introduction. This mimics the conditions of a standardized test on which students are asked to read material they have never seen and answer multiple choice questions about the passage.

Such pedagogy makes school wildly boring. Students are not asked to connect what they read yesterday to what they are reading today, or what they read in English to what they read in science.

The exemplar, in fact, forbids teachers from asking students if they have ever been to a funeral because such questions rely “on individual experience and opinion,” and answering them “will not move students closer to understanding the Gettysburg Address.”

(This is baffling, as if Lincoln delivered the speech in an intellectual vacuum; as if the speech wasn’t delivered at a funeral and meant to be heard in the context of a funeral; as if we must not think about memorials when we read words that memorialize. Rather, it is impossible to have any deep understanding of Lincoln’s speech without thinking about the context of the speech: a memorial service.)

The exemplar instructs teachers to “avoid giving any background context” because the Common Core’s close reading strategy “forces students to rely exclusively on the text instead of privileging background knowledge, and levels the playing field for all.” What sense does this make?

Teachers cannot create such a “level playing field” because we cannot rob any of the students of the background knowledge they already possess. Nor can we force students who have background knowledge not to think about that while they read. A student who has read a biography of Lincoln, or watched documentaries about the Civil War on PBS or the History Channel, will have the “privilege” of background knowledge beyond the control of the teacher. Attempting to create a shallow and false “equality” between students will in no way help any of them understand Lincoln’s speech.

(As a side note, the exemplar does encourage teachers to have students “do the math:” subtract four score and seven from 1863 to arrive at 1776. What is that if not asking them to access background knowledge?)

Asking questions about, for example, the causes of the Civil War, are also forbidden. Why? These questions go “outside the text,” a cardinal sin in Common Core-land.

According to the exemplar, the text of the speech is about equality and self-government, and not about picking sides. It is true that Lincoln did not want to dishonor the memory of the Southern soldiers who fought and died valiantly. But does any rational person read “The Gettysburg Address” and not know that Lincoln desperately believed that the North must win the war? Does anyone think that he could speak about equality without everyone in his audience knowing he was talking about slavery and the causes of the war? How can anyone try to disconnect this profoundly meaningful speech from its historical context and hope to “deeply” understand it in any way, shape, or form?

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Here’s another problem we found with the exemplar: The teacher is instructed in the exemplar to read the speech aloud after the students have read it to themselves; but, it says, “Do not attempt to ‘deliver’ Lincoln’s text as if giving the speech yourself but rather carefully speak Lincoln’s words clearly to the class.”

English teachers love Shakespeare; when we read to our classes from his plays, we do not do so in a dry monotone. I doubt Lincoln delivered his address in as boring a manner as the Common Core exemplar asks. In fact, when I read this instruction, I thought that an interesting lesson could be developed by asking students to deliver the speech themselves and compare different deliveries in terms of emphasis, tone, etc.

The exemplar says, “Listening to the Gettysburg Address is another way to initially acquaint students with Lincoln’s powerful and stirring words.” How, then, if the teacher is not to read it in a powerful and stirring way? The most passionate speech in Romeo and Juliet, delivered poorly by a bad actor, will fall flat despite the author’s skill.

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Several years ago, our district, at the demand of our state education department, hired a consultant to train teachers to develop literacy skills in students. This consultant and his team spent three years conducting workshops and visiting the district. Much of this work was very fruitful, but it does not “align” well with the Common Core.

The consultant encouraged us to help students make connections between what they were reading and their own experience, but as you’ve seen, the Common Core exemplar we studied says not to.

Was all that work with the consultant wasted?

At one point during the workshop, we worked with a lesson previously created by some teachers. It had all the hallmarks of what I consider good teaching, including allowing students to make connections beyond the text.

And when it came time to create our own lessons around the exemplar, three colleagues and I found ourselves using techniques that we know have worked to engage students — not what the exemplar puts forth.

The bottom line: The Common Core exemplar we worked with was intellectually limiting, shallow in scope, and uninteresting. I don’t want my lessons to be any of those things.

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