A “Good” Common Core Lesson?

In a recent NPR article titled “What Does a Good Common Core Lesson Look Like?” Anya Kamenetz takes the reader through a “good” lesson as explained by Kate Gershon, a research fellow at EngageNY, which develops Common Core instructional materials for New York State. Unfortunately, this lesson exemplifies curricular confusion, misunderstanding of the nature of intellectual work, and a dogmatic approach to pedagogy. Kamenetz picks up on none of this; her reporting is unskeptical and cheerful

The lesson–the very first in the year for a ninth-grade ELA course–focuses on a short story by Karen Russell: “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves.” Students begin by reading and discussing the pertinent standards–then spend most of class time circling and looking up unfamiliar words.

Russell’s story looks promising–but the rationale for its inclusion makes me shake my head. According to Gershon, it meets the standards’ criteria in four areas: complexity, “canon” (in that the author was a Pulitzer finalist), contemporaneity (the standards use the phrase “contemporary authors” in numerous places), and diversity. What about its inherent quality., though? What about its form and meaning? What about its relation to the other works in the unit or course?

To be fair, Gershon does mention that this is a “gorgeous text by a young, brilliant writer”–so it would be a stretch to say that she (or the curriculum writers) ignored inherent quality. But shouldn’t that be the first consideration: offering the students something worth reading and rereading over a lifetime? The other criteria–complexity, canon, contemporaneity, and diversity–should be subordinate to this first consideration. (In addition, one might include works for their importance–because other works allude to them, or because they do something unusual with their genre or form. That’s related to “canon” but not identical to it.)

Moreover, a curriculum as a whole should have coherence and meaning. A ninth-grade literature course may well be a survey course–but the works can still be selected to combine in interesting ways. I can’ say for sure that this isn’t the case here–but it’s curious that the article doesn’t touch on curriculum. Without a literature curriculum, a Common Core lesson quickly turns into a lesson on reading skills. That may explain why, on the very first day of the school year, the students begin by reading and discussing the standards, and then turn to their main activity of circling and looking up words.

If this were a literature course, the teacher would give an overview of the works, questions, and problems to be considered. The students might well read something on that first day–in order to start thinking about the substance of the course. The teacher might take them into a passage–reading it out loud, pointing out subtleties, and posing questions. Strangely, the current lesson is based on disparagement of such activity. It rests on the premise that the teacher is not supposed to present much at all, lest her “performance” make the students lazy.

This leads to the next problem. Underlying this lesson is a misunderstanding of intellectual work. According to Gershon and others, students will be hard at work under the Common Core. Teachers will no longer be making things easy for them, as they did in the past when they presented literature to students.

Speaking from her own experience as an English teacher, she said, the tendency all too often has been to instead spend class time “performing” literature — spelling out the subtext, defining tough words before students have a chance to puzzle over them, and advertising key plot points like the voiceover on a Bravo reality show.

That’s a caricature of literature instruction–and I’ll get to that in a minute–but what strikes me here is the assumption that if the teacher is explaining the literature, the students are doing no work. Now, this might be true, if the teacher’s explanation is reductive–that is, if she is handing students basic plot points and other takeaways. But there are many other ways to take students into a text, ways that will get them thinking.

Thinking should be  the essential work of the classroom. Students can and should look up words at home; in class, they come together to hear the teacher and each other, to pose questions, and to test out ideas. Of course, this can vary: there may well be days when the teacher has students write or work with unfamiliar vocabulary. But it takes discipline and concentration to listen, think, and speak in a whole-class discussion–and the classroom is the best place for such work and leisure. Students learn to discern when they do and do not have something to say; in the former case, they may speak up; in the latter, they may listen. Such discernment will serve them well in college and beyond.

Can the Common Core really claim to prepare students for college and career when it equates “hard work” exclusively with visible physical activity–such as annotating a text in class? What about the hard work of listening to the teacher and forming a question or challenge?

Just as the lesson misconceives intellectual work, so it misrepresents teaching.

Common Core advocates are zealously repeating the mistakes of their predecessors: they insist that in the bad old days (or backward regions of current days), the teacher stood at the front of the room and yakked, while the students passively took in plot points and didn’t learn to read. What forgetfulness! For years under Balanced Literary, teachers were told to be a “guide on the side,” not a “sage on the stage.” But teaching is much more complex than these crass oppositions allow. Back to the NPR piece:

[The Common Core's emphasis on actual reading] sounds obvious. We don’t go to school to be able to recite the plot points of an arbitrary short story.

Yet in practice, English teachers often spend their time in conversation with “the three or four highest-performing students in the room,” Gerson says, while others, at best, passively absorb the main ideas of a text.


One major strategy the standards introduce is for teachers to get out of the students’ way and not to make it too easy on anyone. “It’s very common to want to protect, advocate, support and ensure the comfort of students that are struggling,” Gerson says. “What all the research is telling us is that we must create content where there is a productive struggle … where all students are being asked to work toward the same target as everyone else.”

Now, a teacher in dialogue with several students isn’t necessarily ensuring comfort at all. True, if she spoke only with those students for the whole year, a dreary kind of comfort could take over. But often a dialogue like that can inspire others to join. Or a teacher can involve others deliberately–or give them ample time to puzzle over difficult questions. A teacher at the front of the room may be giving students the challenge of their lives. Let us not assume that she should “get out of the students’ way” or that she takes anything away from them by teaching them.

In his essay “Former Teachers” (in his 1943 collection Philosopher’s Holiday), Irwin Edman recalls his English teacher Mr. Michael Kelleher, who “gave us the contagious impression of so liking poetry that he simply had to tell us about it.” Edman may not have known how blessed he was that no one told his teacher to get out of the way.


Note: I made some revisions to this piece after posting it. One of these is a correction: Karen Russell was a Pulitzer finalist, not a Pulitzer Prize winner.

Standards Count as Complex Informational Text, Says Leader

Green Lake, NY–In response to schools’ complaints that they have not yet received a viable, affordable Common Core curriculum with actual texts, district superintendent Mike Vnutri announced that the students should be reading the very standards. “It’s informational text, and it’s complex enough,” he said. “Plus I have it from higher up that everyone’s supposed to be reading the standards several times in every class, so you’re killing two birds with one stone. Sorry about that metaphor; I happen to like birds.”

In a recent model Common Core lesson for a tenth-grade literature class, students spent a lesson reading ELA standard RL.9-10.4: “Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the cumulative impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone (e.g., how the language evokes a sense of time and place; how it sets a formal or informal tone).”

Although this is not in itself a literary text, every literary text should be paired with informational text anyway. According to sources, it is even acceptable to leave the literary text out. This standard satisfies complexity requirements; when fed into text analyzers, it shows an eleventh-grade level and could thus be considered a “stretch” text–too hard for struggling readers, but within reasonable range for many others.

In order to ensure that all students leave the classroom with an understanding of the text, teacher Ernesta Pourtous announced, at the start of the class, that the goal of the lesson was to understand all of the words in the standard, which she then read aloud. She then asked each student in turn to repeat the goal of the lesson. She noted where they stumbled over words.

“Now,” she said, “when you encounter an informational text that has difficult words, there are several strategies you can use. One is to look the words up in a dictionary. That’s not the strategy we’re going to practice today, because we don’t have dictionaries in the classroom. Instead, I am going to teach you a four-step exercise: Identify, Predict, Align, and Define. You can remember it as IPAD.” There were giggles in the class.

For the next activity, she had students copy the standard from the board and carefully circle the words they didn’t know The circles had to be complete (or they would have to start over), and any student who did not circle “figurative,” “connotative,” or “cumulative” would lose a point. She circulated the room, taking photographs so that she could document that every student was hard at work. At the end of the ten minutes, she told students to hold their sheets of paper in the air. Circled words abounded.

Next, she took a minute to touch base about how it felt to succeed at an activity. Tessie Moran, a tall girl with dark bangs in the corner of the room, spoke quietly about how she now knew that she could do it. (There were hidden microphones n various locations.)

After this, Ms. Pourtous instructed them to turn to their partners and predict the meanings ot the words. “At this point, you are allowed to say what you think they mean; there are no wrong answers,” she told them. “But I do want to see everyone talking.” Soon the room was filled with noise. Five minutes later, she called for silence again. A student raised his hand.

“Yes, Jose?”

“Why aren’t we reading a sonnet or something?”

“It’s no use reading a sonnet if you don’t have a Common Core-aligned goal. The purpose of this lesson is to help you get your goals in place. That will make you college and career ready. If you want to read sonnets, you’ve got to do the hard work. Which leads us to the hardest part of the lesson: alignment.” She explained that now their task was to align their definitions with those of their classmates. First, they would compare notes in small groups. Then they would rotate to other groups–three times. Once they had completed all of these alignments, everyone would have an identical list of definitions. Through group influence, she said, these definitions would become more accurate over the course of the activity.

She then circulated as students conferred excitedly on the meaning of “connotative.” “I think it’s like a suggestion,” one student said; the others nodded and copied him. “Now, how do you turn that into an adjective?” Pourtous asked the group. Once they arrived at “suggestive,” she moved on.

At the end of the class, she had them all post their identical definitions on the walls. They had defined “figurative” as “imaginary,” “connotative” as “suggestive,” and “cumulative” as “piled up.” The room was now decorated with words and their approximate meanings.

“You see,” said Superintendent Vnutri, after displaying the video at a principals’ meeting, “every single student was involved in this lesson, and every single student walked out with a better understanding of the standard. Do you see how it was all in their hands? This is vastly more productive and student-oriented than having a teacher stand at the front of the room and yap about Shakespeare, or engage in dialogue with just three or four students.”

“I’d like to hear about the Shakespeare, myself,” a principal ventured.

“Sure you would,” Vnutri retorted. “You’ve just got to remember that this isn’t about you.”


Note: I made some edits to this piece after posting it.



contrariwiseMy students’ philosophy journal, CONTRARIWISE, arrived in big boxes on Friday, and it is beautiful! It has 128 pages of dialogues, essays, letters, diaries, poems, roundtable discussions, questions, commentary, art, and more—on philosophical topics ranging from time to tyranny. (My students’ work has previously appeared on the Core Knowledge Blog and GothamSchools.)

The editors-in-chief (both juniors at the school) defined the journal, insofar as it can be defined. They made creative and editorial decisions, wrote commentary, held contests, solicited work, recruited the cover artist (also a student at our school), examined the proofs, and did more than I can enumerate. The fourteen-member editorial board assisted with the selection and editing of pieces, attended meetings, offered ideas, contributed work, and helped spread the word about the journal. The twenty-five contributors (or thirty, if one counts the honorable mentions) gave us rich material. I provided guidance and support.

To order a copy by mail, please write a check for $10 to Columbia Secondary School and mail it to CONTRARIWISE, c/o Diana Senechal, Columbia Secondary School, 425 W. 123rd St., New York, NY 10027. (The price includes packaging and first-class postage; if you purchase a copy in person, it’s only $5.) Proceeds help us cover printing costs and other expenses. The first issue was funded by donations from generous individuals; the second will rely primarily on sales. Thus, by purchasing a copy, you are not only treating yourself to a wonderful journal but also helping it continue.

This inaugural issue was five months in the making, and here it is. I am honored to have witnessed my students’ inspiration, care, and wit throughout the project—and thrilled to hold and read the book.

Update #1: CONTRARIWISE has a lovely mention on Columbia Secondary School’s Facebook page–as well as a Facebook listing for its May event. We are working on a possible April event as well. See the CONTRARIWISE website for information.

Update #2: CONTRARIWISE has received its first review–on Cynthia Haven’s outstanding blog The Book Haven!

Learning to Govern Oneself

What is Teacher book cover test3Happy New Year (of several kinds) to all!

For the past two days i have been in Dallas, where I spoke at the Education Forum at the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture (and participated in panel discussions, plenary discussions, a seminar, and more). This year’s Education Forum celebrated the 30th  year of the Dallas Institute’s Sue Rose Summer Institute for Teachers, as well as the publication of the Dallas Institute’s wonderful book What Is a Teacher? Remembering the Soul Of Education Through Classic Literature, to which I contributed a chapter. I have just begun reading the other chapters, with great enjoyment. I met many people at the Forum and recognized many others from the Summer Institute and various Dallas Institute events. In addition, I had a chance to work through some ideas that have been on my mind and that I plan to carry into the school year.

This year, in my Ethics and Political Philosophy courses (for tenth and eleventh grade, respectively), I will bring up (and return to) the idea that education prepares a person for self-government. Self-government is not the same as “self-regulation” (a concept that Elizabeth Weil takes apart, with partial success, in a recent essay in The New Republic; more about that another time). Rather, it involves drawing on one’s knowledge and understanding to make numerous choices and decisions. None of us can escape being governed in some ways by others–our political leaders, our bosses, our teachers, and, in childhood, our parents–yet we can come to understand the terms of these arrangements (and question them intelligently).

The difficulty is this: self-government involves what seems its opposite: laying aside our own urges and immediate judgments in order to learn or consider something foreign to us. It may seem unrewarding, at first, to make one’s way through John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, but that treatise opens up rich ideas about intellectual liberty itself. Similarly, it takes great patience to listen to another person in the classroom, be it the teacher, a classmate, or even a musical recording–yet such listening can be a way of adding to one’s resources and treasures.

So, we will be discussing the idea if self-government (intermittently) while reading Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Mill, and many others. It’s a tricky and paradoxical concept–but it plays a role in many texts and has a great deal to do with education.

Knowledge vs. Nonsense

Rarely does an article make me cheer as did Shannon Rupp’s in Salon (about the benefits of studying philosophy). Here’s one of my favorite quotes:

I’ve long thought that the debate about whether universities should be offering trades training or educating citizens is something of a red herring — the discussion should be about whether to study knowledge or nonsense.

A treasure! Thanks to Joanne Jacobs for bringing it to my attention.

It brings me back to my first year of teaching, when I wrote a letter to the New York Times about the misguided focus on “strategies,” especially reading strategies.

“Strategies” of that kind make me queasy (unlike chess strategies, which I enjoy). Yet I fear that the “strategy” nonsense is now being supplanted by other kinds of nonsense (or even wrapped up inside it). At least there are people calling out the nonsense! Here’s another quote from Rupp’s article:

I spent a semester defining ordinary things. Hats. Chairs. It’s harder than it looks. And I remember a classmate’s resistance to it. He kept ranting that it was stupid — everyone knows what a chair is! — before dropping out.

Of course, everyone only thinks she knows what a chair is. Or social justice, for that matter. Politicians, CEOs of questionable ethics, and all PR people count on exactly that. They will say something vague — I find the buzzwords du jour all seem to have some reference to “social” in them — and leave us to fill in the blanks with whatever pleases us.

Voila: we hear whatever we want and they get away with whatever they want.

Yes, and the same can be said about “strategies.” What are they? In many cases, they are methods of evasion. When I taught elementary and middle school, I saw students dutifully look at the picture on the cover, read the blurbs, make predictions about the book’s contents–before even opening the book and reading. They had been taught to do this. Then, once they started reading, they continued dancing around the text–making “text-to-self connections,” using pictures to help with word meanings, and so on. I encouraged them to pay attention to what was actually there.

But now the focus is on “close reading,” and while that’s an improvement, it might get taken too far. For instance, you do need to understand certain things outside the text in order to grasp the text. Try a “close reading” of Aristophanes without any knowledge of mythology, ancient Greek literature, or ancient Greek history! You might as well try to boil a turnip without water (or other suitable liquid).

Also, reading is not always linear; the mind goes here and there, drawing connections and imagining things. When you read Crime and Punishment, for instance, you start to feel the presence of Svidrigailov and Porfiry Petrovich. You can cite textual evidence, of course, when describing these presences, but it’s also good to take them in less rationally, to imagine them in the room. This requires close reading, but not of a strictly analytical kind. Similarly, when reading a poem (such as Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence“), it’s as important to take in its mystery as it is to notice its structure, syntax, and tropes. (This goes for literary nonfiction as well; if you try to read Emerson’s “Experience” in a strictly analytical manner, your mind will end up in knots, and the text will fly away.)

How should one read, then? Well, the thing one reads will often lead the way. If it’s good literature, it calls for careful, thoughtful, imaginative reading. If it’s nonsense, well, then, it calls for the “spot-the-nonsense” strategy, which requires some background knowledge–of philosophy, literature, and other subjects–as well as a salutary allergy to buzzwords and overpuffed ideas.

Why Give Literature an Honored Place in School?

In education discussion and elsewhere, the terms “literature,” “fiction,” and “nonfiction” get jumbled up a bit. I jumble them too—I catch myself talking about “literature vs. nonfiction,” for instance, knowing that there’s overlap between the two. The term “literature” refers to works with lasting artistic merit (except when one is talking about the “literature” on a given topic). Artistic merit is difficult to define, but it involves a certain transcendence as well as mastery. A literary work goes beyond literal meaning; it has hints, metaphors, paradoxes, juxtapositions, ironies. It takes us a bit beyond the information that it presents. Moby-Dick may teach us a thing or two about whales, but that’s only part of what it does.

In that sense, the push for more and more “nonfiction” in classrooms (for instance, through the Common Core Standards) does threaten literature instruction. Those pushing for more “nonfiction” rarely have Emerson, Buber, or Kierkegaard in mind—works that tease us with possibilities. They want students to read argumentative pieces and informational reports: that is, works with a clear thesis supported by evidence. Of course it’s important for students to read such works; the problem lies in privileging them: in hinting, through one mandate after another, that informational text is more useful than literature (for college and career preparation) and therefore more valuable.

“But no one’s saying that!” some will protest. “No one said that informational text was to come at the expense of literature. The ELA standards apply to all of the subjects, not to English class alone.” Well, if this were so, English teachers would not be getting directives to include much more informational text in their curricula. New York State would not be considering a proposal to require high school students to write a research paper (for English class) that draws on at least four informational texts. Make no mistake: the push is for informational text. And it’s destructive as well as misguided.

Should students be reading informational nonfiction? Of course—but they don’t have to do this in English class. From elementary school onward, they should read on scientific, historical, and other topics. They should have a chance to read ancient mathematical proofs, musical scores, biographies, letters, historical documents, and more. Where should this take place? In the most appropriate classes. At times, students might read a work of fiction for history, or study a song for English. In the early elementary years, some of the courses may be combined into “literacy blocks”—so that students may find themselves reading poetry and historical narratives in the same class. But overall, each course should have readings for its domain—and English class should be the place for literary works.

An English course in expository writing might be an exception here. If a school’s English department offered a specific course in writing a research paper, then the other English courses wouldn’t have to be eroded. My high school had such a course—and many students reported years later that it was the most important course they took. Nonetheless, the other English courses were devoted to literature, excellent literature, and no one apologized for that. It was in middle and high school that I first read Sophocles, Euripides, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Hardy, Faulkner, O’Connor, T. S. Eliot, and others. No one doubted that such works were important; no one suggested that we were deficient in information. (We read a range of historical works and wrote research papers for history class.)

Now, there are big gaps in my education, including my literary education, but I found myself prepared not only for college, not only for a range of workplaces (even in the 21st century), but for a life that I want to lead, a life that involves pondering words, listening to music, and sifting through thoughts. I was not prepared in all ways, but who can be? Either one enters predictable situations with skills and knowledge to match them, or one enters the unknown, with the risk that one may not always know what to do. Who on earth would want the former? I’ll take the uncertainty and the risk any day, again and again. That said, one shouldn’t be foolhardy about risks; one shouldn’t enter the adult world defenseless. I have been foolhardy at times, defenseless at times, but not in relation to academic or vocational knowledge. I had what I needed in order to learn more; I had, moreover, a store of things to recall and reread.

Reminiscence aside, what is at stake here? Why stick one’s neck out for literature? It isn’t always beautiful (beauty is a complex topic), meaningful (try to find a stable meaning in Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground), or even likable (I find 100 Years of Solitude irritating at times). It is easy to slip into sentimentality about literature, but sentimentality is not the point. Literature deserves an honored place in schools for many reasons, including its ability to open up areas of life that we might not otherwise face. There is room in it for bravery and uncertainty. When reading “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” one does not have to be snappy and polished; one does not have to put on a good face or rattle off talking points. One can roam for a while in the lovely and perplexing mess. (It isn’t mess itself, by any means–but it allows for a bit of the messy, and takes us out of the realm of the pat.)

Today’s students learn skills like “speed networking”—making a quick, flawless impression. What they don’t learn, often, is the practice of mulling, of staying with something they don’t immediately understand, and of allowing themselves their own mysteries too, and allowing themselves time. Not all students have lost this; some know how to sit with uncertainty, difficulty, questions, pain. Sadly, these very students get faulted for being “off-task,” since the tasks have become quick and shallow. Our priorities have gone off kilter; things that can keep us mindful and soulful get shorter and shorter shrift.


Note: I made a few edits to this piece after its initial posting.

Teacher Reprimanded for Assigning Book

Genomsnitt, MN—A high school English teacher faces public scolding and possible dismissal for assigning a book to her students, Superintendent Harry Billiard announced on Friday. “Let this be a warning to all,” he said. “To assign a book is impositional. The kids aren’t there yet. Plus, how do you know they’ll like the book?” Billiard explained that the specific book (To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf) wasn’t the issue; the problem lay in assigning any book at all.

According to anonymous sources, the teacher had assumed presumptuously that a literature course should feature works of literature. Moreover, she had fickly concluded that, since the current Common Core standards emphasize the importance of reading complex texts, she should actually include them in her curriculum.

“Students should read them, yes, but that doesn’t mean teachers should assign them,” explained Billiard. “Students should be empowered to make their own choices. Then, if they don’t, the teacher will be held accountable for the situation.” Students are expected to read at least twenty complex texts, of their own free will, over the course of the year. If they fail to do so, it means the teacher has neglected to incorporate best practices—in particular, the software.

“What software?” asked the teacher, who requested anonymity for the time being, knowing that her picture would be plastered over the papers within the next 24 hours. “I didn’t know there was software for my course on modernism, and I’m not sure I’d want any.”

“There isn’t software for modernism yet, that’s right,” Billiard responded. “But there’s software for the skills that students would be using when reading something modernist like, um, who’s a good modernist writer? I’m drawing a blank right now.”

If the teacher had been doing her job, she would have had the students practice their skills during class time with the aid of the software, which would provide a variety of short texts geared to their interests. After they passed a multiple-choice test at a given level, the software would recommend further reading on the basis of their preferences and performance. “That way, you’re letting them get creative,” said Billiard. “They have some ownership of the books they read. It isn’t just some teacher telling them ‘you’ve got to read this,’ when it’s got nothing to do with where they are.”

“I’m kind of glad we did start to read To the Lighthouse,” countered Jeremy Pembek, a senior. “When the father says ‘it won’t be fine,’ it’s like everything crashes down on me, because I know that voice. I wanted to read more in class, so we could discuss it.”

“You can’t take Jeremy seriously, or at least you can’t let him distract you from best practices,” commented Hilda Moran, a literacy coach who had started to observe the literature classes at the school. “He’s obviously from an educated family, so he’ll read books like this on his own. It’s the other kids we’ve got to worry about. That’s why we’ll be installing the software next week.”

“I’m glad we’re ditching that book,” concurred Betty Neznam, Jeremy’s classmate. “I totally could not relate to it. I didn’t even get past the first sentence. ‘Up with the lark?’ Who talks like that? Why are they making us read this stuff? I mean, I’ve got more important things to do. I’m down with skills, though. I know I need skills.”

If the renegade teacher complies with the mandates, uses the software in every lesson, and abandons all discussion of literature, there will be no further disciplinary actions taken against her, Billiard said. “We’re about goodwill here. We recognize that teachers can change. But she’s got to start doing what works.”

Testing official Vance Verveen noted that, according to readability formulas, To the Lighthouse scored well above the post-college-graduate level. “We’re all for challenge,” he said, “but this was beyond the pale. You can see for yourself,” he added, displaying an interface on a screen and pasting in the novel’s second paragraph. “You see that the Flesch-Kincaid grade level—which is research-based, mind you—comes to 26.7. Twenty-six point seven! And we’ve got kids three years behind grade level. Granted, it’s an honors class, and those kids are more advanced, but still, they’ve got to be made to feel successful. That’s what our tests are for. I wouldn’t feel successful if someone made me read that.”

To feel successful, according to Verveen, students should take daily multiple-choice tests at their current level, which gradually increases as they practice the requisite skills. “You’ve got to let them know that they’re good at what they know how to do,” he said. “That’s the ultimate message. Then you coax them into doing just a little more, and a little more. Little steps toward big gains,” he said, patting his pocket. “Little steps.”

Literature Courses and the Common Core

Will the Common Core State Standards push schools to emphasize “informational” over literary text, even in English class? Many educators worry that they will. The CCSS document states that, by grade 12, the proportion of informational to literary text in the curriculum should be 70 to 30—just like the ratio in the 2009 NAEP Reading Framework. Granted, this ratio applies to the entire curriculum, not specifically to English Language Arts. Yet English teachers in many districts have been told to include more “informational text” in their courses.

Carol Jago’s piece “What English Classes Should Look Like in the Common Core Era” (The Answer Sheet, Washington Post, January 10, 2013) offers a refreshing view of the matter. She begins by clarifying this matter of “informational text.” No, English teachers are not supposed to stop teaching poetry, drama, or fiction. Instead, they should teach more of all of this, as well as literary nonfiction; students should get used to reading a lot. They should read attentively at home, so that they can take part in lively class discussion:

To reverse this trend [toward heavy entertainment media use in place of reading--DS] we need to make English classrooms vibrant places where compelling conversations about great works of literature take place every day. They need to be spaces where anyone who didn’t do the homework reading feels left out. … I’m not talking about force-feeding students but rather inviting them to partake of the richest fare literature has to offer. One thing I know for sure. The teenagers I taught were always hungry.

In addition, according to Jago, students should read history books and write research papers for history class. They should not only become adept at reading different kinds of texts, but also come to understand why these texts are worth reading.

I applaud these ideas, yet I have some qualms as well. First, if the point is to introduce students to compelling literature, then shouldn’t curriculum and courses take precedence over standards? A curriculum specifies the actual literature; standards do not. A curriculum need not be uniform across schools, districts, and states—but it holds more meaning and coherence than generic standards do.

One standard reads: “Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain.” That is fine and well—but it matters a great deal what the text is. Ambiguities and uncertainties in Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge are quite different from those in James Merrill’s “Lost in Translation,” yet here they are treated as one and the same. A student’s “growth” in relation to this standard could be uneven, yet he might be learning a great deal.

Second, the standards bring a spate of new assessments that we have not yet seen or tried. What happens if the tests conflict with good curricula? Will teachers come under pressure to defer to the tests? Will the technology companies start hawking software that supposedly helps students boost their scores? Will teachers be expected to use it? Teachers are understantably anxious about the new assessments; much will ride on them, yet we do not know to what degree they will reflect the contents of a literature or history course. The sample test items available for scrutiny (for example, a “task” regarding Ovid’s “Daedalus and Icarus,” from his Metamorphoses) offer little if any assurance; the Ovid passage is full of meaning and suggestion, yet the multiple-choice question does it poor justice.

Third, how will schools foster the sort of environment that Jago envisions (and that I support), where students come to class eager to discuss the texts? Many students will do this right away. Others will resist at first but will eventually come around. Still others will resist for a long time—maybe all the way through school. Jago suggests that the students who come to class unprepared, or unwilling to participate, will recognize that they have excluded themselves from something exciting. This is possible when the course has integrity: when the works selected for the course are inherently compelling and combine in an interesting way, when the teacher takes students into these works with verve and care, and when neither the standards nor the assessments distract from the  daily practice of delving into the texts. Students must care about more than their grade and test score; they must take interest in what they are learning, or at least glimpse something of importance in it.

In essence, Jago is talking about cultivating an intellectual environment. This comes when the teachers’ and students’ attention is not continually deflected toward peripheral things. It matters much more what John Stuart Mill says about the danger of squelching unpopular views, than how much On Liberty counts toward the “informational text” ratio, or even (after a certain point) the “growth” that students supposedly show or do not show on a test of reading skills. Of course students should be learning things that are testable (as well as things that are not), but will these tests capture what they have learned in a good class? If not, will we all be expected to set aside our better judgment and bow to the test?

Standards, too, can distract when held up too high. What standard can hold a candle to the following passage from Mill? What standard approximates a discussion of it?

But it is not the minds of heretics that are deteriorated most, by the ban placed on all inquiry which does not end in the orthodox conclusions. The greatest harm done is to those who are not heretics, and whose mental development is cramped, and their reason cowed, by the fear of heresy. Who can compute what the world loses in the multitude of promising intellects combined with timid characters, who dare not follow out any bold, vigorous, independent train of thought, lest it should land them in something which would admit of being considered irreligious or immoral?

The answer: none. Standards can serve as reminders and gauges; they can help us see areas of excess or deficiency. But the substance of the courses must come first; students should be reading a given work not because it meets grade-band complexity criteria, not because it is “informational text,” not (primarily) because the reading of it will help them address standards X, Y, and Z, but because it is worth reading and pondering, and because this reading and pondering will help them think on their own. Any standards, any tests should be subordinate to this principle; the Common Core can help direct our efforts but is not our ultimate guide.

Teaching and Physical Presence

I don’t comment on blogs and online articles as much as I once did. But when I do, I am still left with a feeling of dissipation, which starts with the knowledge that I spent time and thought on comments that, in retrospect, seem limited, even foolish, and that did not get through to the other participants. I am left with the sinking thought, “Oh no, why did I do that?” The most recent example is the comment thread on Leon Wieseltier’s column “The Unschooled” (online title: “Education Is the Work of Teachers, Not Hackers”).

One of the main points of his piece is that students need actual teachers—not virtual teachers, not scripted teachers, not stand-ins for teachers, but teachers themselves, in the same room with the students. They are essential precisely because they give us something that daily life (online and offline) does not. Once we leave school (be it high school, college, or graduate school), we make our way through life without formal teachers, for the most part. It is our teachers who help us prepare for this independence.

Most of what I learned from teachers, I owe to their physical presence as well as their intellect. What sets the classroom apart from other situations is, first of all, of someone who not only knows the subject well but strives to bring the students into it; second of all, a focus on something interesting in itself, whatever its applications may be; and, third, the allowance for thoughts in formation. I will focus here on this last point and its usual absence from online discussion.

In the classroom, you can say something that is incomplete, flawed, or utterly incorrect. This can contribute to the overall discussion, as the goal is not to score points but to arrive at greater understanding. A teacher or professor welcomes errors or limited assertions as an opportunity to probe further. (This requires, of course, that the students participate conscientiously and thoughtfully, instead of speaking haphazardly or bluffing.) What’s more, once you have said something in the classroom, it vanishes; unless you have made a particularly memorable point, or unless the teacher has picked up on it, it does not follow you around. (This is a good thing.) It is possible, in such a discussion, to clarify terms on the spot; to interject questions; to return to the text or problem; and to glean things in the speaker’s tone and facial expressions. The teacher, who has a longer and broader perspective on the subject than the students do, is able to bring together seemingly disparate points and take the discussion further. Sometimes the teacher does most of the talking—in some of my favorite courses, this was so—and that does not degrade the discussion.

In everyday face-to-face conversations, many of these features may be present. Two or more people may well learn from each other in person. There is room for tentativeness, as most of what is said gets left behind. The point is not only to learn but to enjoy each other’s presence. The teacher in such settings may well be absent—and so topics may be broached lightly or in depth, with or without accuracy or probing.

Online discussions are a different matter. There, the participants often do not know each other; often they hide behind fake names. Aware that their comments may remain on the website forever, they try to be right and to defend what they say. Because this can be extremely time-consuming with little reward, they also try to do it swiftly, without too much thought. Such commenting is different from letter or email correspondence, which is based on mutual regard, including the regard of adversaries. In far too many online discussions, mutual regard is absent. Worse, a great deal of online discussion is about nothing at all, or about a dizzying cascade of topics.

I am glad that I spent years in classrooms with teachers. When online discussions discourage me (and they often do), I remember that there is a different way of discussing things, a different way of handling ideas that are in formation. This has to do with examining and correcting oneself, sharpening one’s language, and finding the right mixture of integrity and openness. It is similar to what George Kateb describes as “self-possession” in Human Dignity:

By that term I mean the awareness of oneself as susceptible to intimidation and mental capture. One must catch oneself if one is not to conform thoughtlessly to codes, customs, and practices; if one is not to yield to the self-imposed tyranny of compliant habit; if one is not to give in to the inevitable pleasures of simplifying ideologies and the agitation of shifting fashions. One’s dignity rests on the ability to resist being too easily ensnared, and to avoid being a target of solicitations. One has to engage in self-examination in order not to succumb to false needs and wants; one must struggle hard and with only a modicum of hope to discover what one truly needs and wants and thus to approach somewhat more closely to being oneself rather than being a poor imitation of oneself and hence an unconscious parody of oneself.

Such self-possession is far removed from self-justification or self-insistence; to catch oneself, one must have guides to one’s own folly. One can find such guides in books, but one also needs their voices and gestures and faces; the nod, the quizzical look, the ability to pick up on thoughts in the room and show where they might go. Physical presence is not a good in itself, but it contributes to the “spirit of liberty” (in Learned Hand’s sense).

This good is too important a gift to give up. If students do not know what a class discussion or lecture is, they may confuse online bickering, or even face-to-face shouting, with true exchange. Many already do.

“They Guided Me in My Sense of What Is Significant”

Thanks to Leon Wieseltier for his splendid column “The Unschooled” (The New Republic, December 31, 2012). He begins boldly:

WHEN I LOOK BACK at my education, I am struck not by how much I learned but by how much I was taught. I am the progeny of teachers; I swoon over teachers. Even what I learned on my own I owed to them, because they guided me in my sense of what is significant. The only form of knowledge that can be adequately acquired without the help of a teacher, and without the humility of a student, is information, which is the lowest form of knowledge. (And in these nightmarishly data-glutted days, the winnowing of information may also require the masterly hand of someone who knows more and better.)

The piece builds from there and speaks for itself. I want to take a little time with these first five sentences.

The very act of teaching has become taboo. A teacher is supposed to “drive” results–or else “empower” the students to initiate their own learning. A teacher who wants to teach something substantial is told, directly or indirectly, “that’s not how it works.” Students, too, are swept up in this credo; they don’t think they have to pay attention unless there’s a palpable payoff. Some regard listening to the teacher as a passive and outdated activity (or, rather, non-activity).

Not all students, educators, and policymakers have fallen for this. Many understand that education requires voluntary and persistent attention, the kind that William Wordsworth and Charles Darwin considered a virtue. In A Choice of Inheritance, David Bromwich describes this kind of attention:

[Darwin] gives attention to objects whose use is as yet inconceivable, and he cannot help exemplifying the value of such attention. As with Wordsworth, it seems to me difficult to do more than connect this with a virtue like patience. One watches an object closely, even when it does not fit an available story, because one trusts that it will matter. The practice is not a wager or a sound investment but the pursuit of a calling.

What if you do not have such a calling? Can anyone push you to exhibit patience that is not there? Can it be created artificially? My answer would be no and yes. Ultimately no one can be forced to take interest in something. On the other hand, attention itself can open up the interest, and impatience can close it off. To listen to a teacher is, at the very least, to consider a possibility. It is a good habit.

I have been impatient at various times in my life. In the first semester of my junior year of college, I plunged into political activity and social service. I thought my classes were remote from the crises and demands of the present. I was taking a fascinating lecture course on the history of the American West, but decided that it didn’t speak to current problems. I stopped doing the work.

Jay Gitlin, the teaching assistant, whom I revered (and who is now a professor and author), approached me in the snack area of the library one day. “You should read these books,” he said. “You will find them interesting. Read Cabeza de Vaca.”

“But–” I tried to explain to him that I was worried about various pressing problems of the moment.

“These books have more to do with your concerns than you may think,” he said. “Just read them and see.”

He was wise and kind, and he let me make my own choices. I chose to do the wrong thing (slip impossibly behind in the class) but knew that I was wrong and appreciated his gesture. I must have recalled this conversation hundreds of times over the years.

Even then, at the nadir of my general patience, I wanted to listen to him, my teacher. I treasured his advice although I didn’t follow it; over time, I treasured it even more. Today I am indebted to him for the understanding that came out of that conversation, which led to the understanding that things may matter in oblique ways, or show their mattering slowly (and that Cabeza de Vaca is well worth reading).

This brings me back to Wieseltier’s words: “Even what I learned on my own I owed to them, because they guided me in my sense of what is significant.”


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