Common Core’s odd approach to teaching Gettysburg Address

Tom Stack and Jill MacKenzie pay their respects at a stone marking the resting place of some of the unknown dead from the battle of Gettysburg, at Soldiers' National Cemetery Monday, Nov. 18, 2013, in Gettysburg, Pa. Nov. 19th marks the 150th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln's short speech that has gone on to symbolize his presidency and explain the sacrifices made by Union and Confederate forces during the U.S. Civil War. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Visitors pay respects at a stone marking the resting place of  unknown dead from the Battle of Gettysburg at Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pa. (Matt Rourke/AP)

Imagine learning about the Gettysburg Address without a mention of the Civil War, the Battle of Gettysburg, or why President Abraham Lincoln had traveled to Pennsylvania to make the speech. That’s the way a Common Core State Standards “exemplar for instruction” — from a company founded by three main Core authors — says it should be taught to ninth and 10th graders.

The unit — “A Close Reading of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address” — is designed for students to do a “close reading” of the address “with text-dependent questions” — but without historical context. Teachers are given a detailed 29-page script of how to teach the unit, with the following explanation:

The idea here is to plunge students into an independent encounter with this short text. Refrain from giving background context or substantial instructional guidance at the outset. It may make sense to notify students that the short text is thought to be difficult and they are not expected to understand it fully on a first reading — that they can expect to struggle. Some students may be frustrated, but all students need practice in doing their best to stay with something they do not initially understand. This close reading approach forces students to rely exclusively on the text instead of privileging background knowledge, and levels the playing field for all students as they seek to comprehend Lincoln’s address.

The Gettysburg Address unit can be found on the Web site of Student Achievement Partners, a nonprofit organization founded by three people described as “lead authors of the Common Core State Standards.” They are David Coleman,  now president of the College Board who worked on the English Language Arts standards; Jason Zimba, who worked on the math standards; and Susan Pimental, who worked on the ELA standards. The organization’s Linked In biography also describes the three as the “lead writers of the Common Core State Standards.”

The unit is listed on the Web site under History/Social Studies Lessons. However, Appendix B of the Common Core English Language Arts standards lists the address under “Informational Texts: English Language Arts.”   The lesson is available for teachers around the country to use;  it is, for example, on New York State’s Common Core Web site, Engage NY, as an exemplar for teaching the Gettysburg Address to ninth- and tenth-grade students. (When you click on the document, the unit is labeled as a “draft.”)

The unit reflects the overall approach to the Common Core standards, which emphasize the “close reading” of text in order for students to be able to analyze and gain meaning for the written word. This mission is clearly stated in the “Revised Publishers’ Criteria for the Common Core State Standards in English Language Arts and Literacy, Grades 3 – 12,” written by Coleman and Pimental to help education publishers create new resources for the standards. It says in part:

At the heart of these criteria are instructions for shifting the focus of literacy instruction to center on careful examination of the text itself. In aligned materials, work in reading and writing (as well as speaking and listening) must center on the text under consideration. The standards focus on students reading closely to draw evidence and knowledge from the text and require students to read texts of adequate range and complexity. The criteria outlined below therefore revolve around the texts that students read and the kinds of questions students should address as they write and speak about them.

The standards and these criteria sharpen the focus on the close connection between comprehension of text and acquisition of knowledge. While the link between comprehension and knowledge in reading science and history texts is clear, the same principle applies to all reading. The criteria make plain that developing students’ prowess at drawing knowledge from the text itself is the point of reading; reading well means gaining the maximum insight or knowledge possible from each source. Student knowledge drawn from the text is demonstrated when the student uses evidence from the text to support a claim about the text. Hence evidence and knowledge link directly to the text.

ran a post last year by an English teacher who was getting professional development in teaching the address to students. Jeremiah Chaffee wrote in part:

 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 “unit summary”  from Student Achievement Partners says:

This unit has been developed to guide students and instructors in a close reading of Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address.” The activities and actions described below follow a carefully developed set of steps that assist students in increasing their familiarity and understanding of Lincoln’s speech through a series of text dependent tasks and questions that ultimately develop college and career ready skills identified in the Common Core State Standards.

This unit can be broken down into three sections of instruction and reflection on the part of students and their teachers, which is followed by additional activities, some designed for history/social studies and some for ELA classrooms.

SECTION 1   What’s at stake: a nation as a place and as an idea

—     Students silently read, then the teacher reads aloud the text of the Gettysburg Address while students follow along

—     Students translate into their own words the first and second paragraphs

—     Students answer guiding questions regarding the first two paragraphs

SECTION 2   From funeral to new birth

—     Students are re-acquainted with the first two paragraphs of the speech

—     Students translate the third and final paragraph into their own words

—     Students answer guiding questions regarding the third paragraph of the Gettysburg Address

SECTION 3   Dedication as national identity and personal devotion                 

—     Students trace the accumulated meaning of the word “dedicate” through the text

—  Students write a brief essay on the structure of Lincoln’s argument

 You can see the entire unit here.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss | November 19, 2013