Rush and Lack: The Common Core’s Foreseeable Fall

In 2011, 45 states had signed on to the Common Core State Standards; by the fall of 2016, only 20 states were still planning to use the Common Core-aligned assessments. While only a few states have officially revoked the Common Core, the general support has visibly and audibly crumbled.

What went wrong here? Much has already been said about the great expense, the swell of resistance to excessive testing, the longstanding resentment of federal mandates in education, the confusion around implementation, and much more. I will highlight the effects of rush and curricular lack.

I was briefly involved with the development of the CCSS. In 2009 I served on the English Language Arts Work Team; in this role, I proposed titles for the list of suggested books, reviewed drafts of the standards, and provided commentary here and there. I was not part of insider discussion, nor did I commit to supporting the standards in my writing. (In fact I stated outright that I would need to retain the freedom to say whatever I wanted about the standards; this was never contested.) I supported aspects of the standards in principle but was wary of possible corruptions, all of which came true.

First of all, states were rushed and pressured, through President Obama’s “Race to the Top” initiative, into adopting the standards. (I admire President Obama but consider this one of his biggest presidential mistakes.) The problem with such rush is that it strips you of the ability to act wisely. In 2010 I wrote an op-ed,”The Problem with ‘Race to the Top’ Is the Race,” for the Washington Post; I stand by those words today. The third paragraph reads,

Indeed, we should be willing to shake things up to improve the schools. All depends on what we shake and how. We may well be shaking up the wrong things, or the right things in the wrong way. There is great danger in the rush of Race to the Top. To compete for funds, states must embrace reforms that haven’t been fully tested, reforms rife with problems, reforms in which they may not even believe. In other words, thoughtfulness and integrity are pushed aside. This is deadly for education.

Second, the whole initiative was conducted backwards. You can’t have standards until you establish what you are going to teach. Standards outline the abstract skills–but those abstractions mean little out of context, especially in English language arts. I do not mean that there should have been a national curriculum; that probably would have been dreadful. Rather, any standards should have been grounded in an understanding of the subject matter that would be taught over the K-12 years.

If you do not ground the standards in subject matter, then your tests, too, will be ungrounded; instead of testing what the students have learned, they will test generic skills. Schools will have to scramble to figure out what might be on the test and how to approach it.

How do you establish subject matter for an entire country? Well, perhaps you don’t–but you can start by publishing a few model curricula as examples. By “curriculum” I do not mean the typical mess of lengthy descriptions, unit plans, lesson plans, and so on, but rather a clear and simple outline of the content and sequence of instruction.

How did this curricular lack come about? I imagine that the Common Core leaders realized that a national curriculum would be politically doomed. So instead of putting forth a curriculum, they simply stated, within the standards, that a curriculum was necessary. Curriculum proponents frequently quoted those words–but unfortunately (as Robert Pondiscio has noted) it isn’t enough to say “you gotta have curriculum, folks.” People have wildly different understandings of–and experience with–the word, concept, and practice.

This equivocation led to a big mess regarding nonfiction. The standards stated that by grade 12, 70 percent of students’ reading in school should be “informational.” The standards clarified that this applied to the students’ reading across the subjects, not in English class–but English teachers were receiving the message, from many directions, that they should include much more “informational text” in their classes.

When the type of text (here “informational”) precedes its very substance, something has gone awry. Why not focus on choosing excellent texts for students–fiction, drama, poetry, literary nonfiction, according to the content of the courses? Why the pressure to include more “informational” text per se? (Not all nonfiction is “informational”; I would not call Mill’s On Liberty “informational text,” for instance, but that does not diminish its value.)

There were certainly political reasons for the emphasis on “informational text.” In 2012, the Council on Foreign Relations issued a report titled “U.S. Education Reform and National Security,” which called for education reform that would serve national security. This conspicuously  included greater emphasis on “informational text.” In Forum, no, 5 (2012), I joined Rosanna Warren, Lee Oser, David Bromwich, John C. Briggs, Robert Alter, Helaine Smith, and others in challenging the assumptions and recommendations of this report.

The standards’ two problems–rush and curricular lack–go together. The standards’ glaring flaws were not worked out prior to their implementation; thus states, districts, and schools had to bear the brunt of the confusion. Here we are, with a lesson learned and unlearned again and again: Like subject matter itself, education policy requires careful thought, open dissent, and dialogue.

Note: I made minor edits to this piece after posting it. I later changed “dissension” (in the last sentence) to “dissent.”

Missing the Mark

The other day, on the train to school, I overheard an extended conversation among three high school students (two girls and a boy) who were talking about their classes. They were bright, interested kids–and from their demeanor and journey it seemed that they attended a selective school in Manhattan. (I have a pretty good guess which school it is, but I don’t want to “out” them.)

They had to read Hermann Hesse’s Demian (or the first chapter) for English class. One of the girls had read it; she said it was very long. The boy began reading it on the train.

This was one of my favorite books when I was thirteen. I read and reread it. My writing was influenced by it. I read as much Hesse as I could. The book still has great meaning for me; I have brought in passages to my students over the years. (In particular, the break  between Sinclair and Pistorius has come back to mind many times.) I often think back on the prefatory words:

“I wanted only to try to live in accord with the promptings which came from my true self. Why was that so very difficult?”

For a few minutes, the boy seemed absorbed in the reading. His copy was an worn hardcover with a brown canvas cover–maybe a library book. He stopped talking and just read and read. I imagined reading it too, and in doing so, I remembered phrases, cadences, and details.

Then he looked up and asked one of his classmates, “What’s a mark?”

In the first chapter, Kromer,  a bully, tries to intimidate Emil Sinclair (the protagonist and narrator) into giving him two marks. Terrified, Sinclair breaks into his own piggybank on the sly and procures sixty-five pfennigs. Of course that doesn’t satisfy Kromer.

“I don’t know,” one of the girls answered. “I was confused about it too. I think a pfennig is like a penny, and a mark is like a dollar.”

“But they use euros in Germany,” the boy replied.

I held back from saying anything, but I found the conversation puzzling. First, how did they not realize that the book was written long before the adoption of the euro? Second, why did this particular detail stall them? Even if they weren’t sure what the mark was, couldn’t they “mark” that question and proceed?

Beyond that, why the attention to the mark and not to Sinclair’s struggle between two worlds? There is a dichotomy he can’t accept: between the pure, innocent world of light and the sordid, crime-ridden, unspoken world of darkness. He wants something besides these two worlds but doesn’t know yet what it is. Isn’t that something most teenagers can recognize: the longing for way of life that they haven’t found yet?

The mark is important, of course; Sinclair thinks he has to get the money but has no way of doing so without stealing. The incident seems to push him out of his former world. It matters that the mark is much more than a pfennig and that two marks is about three times his piggybank savings (which he does not even consider his own to take). To overlook these details would be to miss a great deal of the meaning. Yet the meaning exists beyond these details and gives them their proper place. If you understand what’s happening with Sinclair, then you figure out the significance of the mark, even if you don’t know German pre-Euro currency.

It would be wrong of me to blame what I saw and heard on the Common Core or “close reading.” I have no way of knowing whether it had anything to do with their instruction. Also, it was good to pick up on the mark; it is an important detail, after all. Still, something was amiss. How could these students have difficulty with the first chapter of Demian? Why did it strike them as “long”?

This may speak to a larger cultural tendency: a weakened capacity to relate to (or even imagine) other times and places, unless they are presented in a way that matches us. Curiously, a number of seemingly opposite educational tendencies play into this. The Common Core is in some ways a response to the extremes of Balanced Literacy, which emphasized “reading strategies” and personal connections to the text. Under Balanced Literacy, students were encouraged to make “text-to-self” connections, which immediately removed them from the text. The Common Core standards demand a focus on the text itself.

What’s curious is that students would even need help making connections between the texts and their lives.  When I was in school, that was the part that came easily. I could relate to just about anything I read, if it was good. The challenge lay in separating myself from the text–in seeing differences between the characters and myself, or between the text’s language and my own. The last thing I needed was practice in making a “text-to-self connection.”

But if I (and my peers) were too attached to what we read, too ready to find ourselves in it, today the tendency is toward detachment. (People read very little, or they read with quick and specific goals.) Like Balanced Literacy, the Common Core attempts to address this problem. But instead of encouraging students to connect the text to their own lives, the Core stresses the importance of reading and making sense of it. Find out what’s actually in it before you start connecting it with yourself.

Yet if people read with absorption and openness, then they would both take in the actual text and relate it (subtly, not crassly) to their own lives. They would need neither “text-to-self connections” nor laborious lessons in close reading. The reading would be the starting point; in class, they would discuss and probe the text further in a variety of ways.

This requires more than an instructional shift; it requires a shift of culture. We are trapped in the lingo of the latest–of updates and takeaways. Students learn to view reading as a form of possession; they must “get something out of it” in order for it to be worth their time. There needs to be more allowance for things that come slowly, for meanings that reveal themselves over time, and for stories that do not match us at first glance but may offer lasting correspondences.

The Elephant in the Reform

Elizabeth Green’s recent article and book excerpt “Why Do Americans Stink at Math?” has drawn keen responses from Dan Willingham, Robert Pondiscio, and others.Still, one problem needs more emphasis: the lack of focus in the classroom. Math, like most other subjects, requires not only knowledge, but concentrated and flexible thinking, on the part of teachers and students alike. With this in place, a number of pedagogical approaches may work well; without it, pedagogy after pedagogy will flail. The ongoing discussion has upheld a false opposition between old “rote” methods and (supposedly) new methods devoted to “understanding.” It is time to see beyond this opposition.

By “focus,” I mean concerted attention to the topic at hand. This is not the same as perfect behavior; I have known some “wiggly” students who were clearly thinking about the lesson. Nor does it mean passive intake; to the contrary, it can involve a great deal of questioning, comparison, imagination, and so forth. Such focus is largely internal; in this way it differs from what people commonly call “engagement.” A student may be highly focused while doing nothing physically; a student may be visibly active (in lesson activities) but not thinking in depth about the subject.

After leading into her discussion with a story, Green asserts that reforms such as the Common Core will fail if teachers have not been properly trained to implement them. “The new math of the ‘60s, the new new math of the ‘80s and today’s Common Core math all stem from the idea that the traditional way of teaching math simply does not work,” she writes. Improperly trained teachers will turn them into nonsense or, at best, a set of rote procedures:

Most American math classes follow … a ritualistic series of steps so ingrained that one researcher termed it a cultural script. Some teachers call the pattern “I, We, You.” After checking homework, teachers announce the day’s topic, demonstrating a new procedure: “Today, I’m going to show you how to divide a three-digit number by a two-digit number” (I). Then they lead the class in trying out a sample problem: “Let’s try out the steps for 242 ÷ 16” (We). Finally they let students work through similar problems on their own, usually by silently making their way through a work sheet: “Keep your eyes on your own paper!” (You).

Green contrasts this with a “sense-making” method used by the elementary school teacher and scholar Magdalene Lampert:

She knew there must be a way to tap into what students already understood and then build on it. In her classroom, she replaced “I, We, You” with a structure you might call “You, Y’all, We.” Rather than starting each lesson by introducing the main idea to be learned that day, she assigned a single “problem of the day,” designed to let students struggle toward it — first on their own (You), then in peer groups (Y’all) and finally as a whole class (We). The result was a process that replaced answer-getting with what Lampert called sense-making. By pushing students to talk about math, she invited them to share the misunderstandings most American students keep quiet until the test. In the process, she gave them an opportunity to realize, on their own, why their answers were wrong.

Like many others, Green confuses the outer trappings of the pedagogy with its internal intent and sense. A teacher at the front of the room, doing a great deal of the talking, could push the students’ thinking much more than a teacher who has them struggle on their own. Within each of these approaches, there can be variation. What makes the difference is the teachers’ and students’ knowledge of the subject, their willingness to put their mind to the topic at hand, and their flexibility of thought. (Willingham does address teachers’ knowledge and flexibility–but more needs to be said about the students’ own attitudes toward the lesson.)

The “elephant in the room” is our devotion to damage control in the name of something lofty. We are trying to repair situations where students are not doing all they can to master the material. Likewise, we are shaping the teaching profession to be more managerial, athletic, and social than intellectual. There’s a lot of mention of “collaboration”–but nothing about thinking about the subject on one’s own.

If students in a classroom are all putting their mind to the topic at hand (not because the teacher has “engaged” them but because this is what they do as a matter of course), and if the teacher knows the topic thoroughly and has considered it from many angles, then the learning will come easily–if there is a good curriculum, and if the students have the requisite background knowledge. That sounds like a lot of “ifs,”–but it comes down to something simple: when you enter the classroom, you have to be willing to set distractions aside and honor the subject matter. Honoring it does not mean treating it as dogma. It means being willing to make sense of it, ask questions about it, and carry it in your mind even when class is over.

If the above conditions are absent, then that is the problem, period. It is not a question of who is doing the talking, or how well or poorly the teachers have been trained.

Suppose I am a math teacher. (I am not and never have been; I currently teach philosophy.) Suppose I am teaching students to solve a problem of the following kind: “A train travels an average of 90 miles per hour for the first half of its journey, and an average of 100 miles per hour for the entire trip. What was the train’s average speed for the second half of the journey?” First I must establish that by “half” I mean half of the distance traveled. Then I must start to anticipate errors and misunderstandings. (Someone will likely offer the answer “10 miles”; another might offer “110 miles.”) I must be able to get other students to explain why these are not correct.

Then how to proceed? I ask the students what information we have, and what we are trying to find out. We know that the journey consists of two equal parts. It doesn’t matter how long each one is, since we are looking at speed, not distance traveled. So, we will call it d, but we are not going to try to find out what d is. It does not matter here.

Let t1 designate the time taken (in hours) by the first half of the trip; t2, the time taken by the second half, and t the total time.

So, we know that d/t1 = 90 mph for the first half. Thus, t1= d/90.

We don’t know what d/t2 is for the second half, since we don’t know the train’s speed, or rate (r) for the second half. Thus, t2 = d/r.

We know that 2d/t (total distance divided by total time) = 100 mph. Thus, t = 2d/100.

We know that t = t1 + t2.

Thus, t = 2d/100 = d/90 + d/r. (One could call on a student to perform this step.)

Thus, 2d/100 = (d/90 + d/r).

Thus, 2/100 = 1/90 + 1/r. (Divide both sides by d.)

Thus, 1/50 = 1/90 + 1/r.

Thus, 1/r = 1/50 – 1/90.

Thus, 1/r = 4/450. (Some students might arrive at 4/45–important to be alert to this.)

Thus, r = 450/4 = 112.5 mph.

As I lay this out, I can see some of the misconceptions and confusion that might arise. Some students might remain convinced that we need to find out what d is. Some might assume that t1 and t2 are equal. Some might grasp the steps but not know how to go about doing this themselves. Some might not know how to check the answer at the end.

But if I go to class prepared to address these issues, and if the students continually ask themselves (internally) what they understand and what they don’t, then even this amateur lesson will get somewhere–unless the levels in the class are so disparate that some students don’t know what an equal sign is. Of course, doing this day after day is another matter; a teacher needs extensive practice in the subject matter in order to prepare lessons fluently.

I am not proposing a magic solution here. Attention is not easily come by, nor is flexible thinking. Nor is curriculum or background knowledge. (Math teachers will probably point out errors of presentation and terminology in my example above.)

But if we ignore students’ obligation to put their mind to the lesson (in class and outside), teachers’ obligation to think it through thoroughly, and schools’ obligation to honor and support such thinking, we will continue with confused jargon and hapless reforms. Moreover, classrooms that do have such qualities will be dismissed as irrelevant exceptions.

 

Note: I made a few revisions to this piece after posting it.

Update 8/23/2014: In response to a reader’s comment, I changed “elementary school teacher Magdalene Lampert” to “elementary school teacher and scholar Magdalene Lampert.” It was not my intention to understate her academic credentials–or to comment on her work.

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 in 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.

 

Education Without “Stuff”

In many areas of life, the less “stuff” we have, the better. A person learning a musical instrument works toward simplicity. Technique that at first seems cumbersome and complicated later becomes easy; it is ultimately meant to be easy, so that one can do what one wishes with it. An actor goes “off book” as early as possible so as not to be encumbered by the book. In relationships and friendships, the less “baggage” we carry, the more open we are to others–and so on. The principle “get rid of unnecessary stuff” has exceptions and qualifications, but overall, it’s sound.

Yet education reform tends to pile the “stuff” on. That’s one of my main criticisms of the Common Core: that it results in extraneous work that has little to do with what’s important. But this problem is not limited to the Common Core. One sees it in everything from pedagogical mandates to bulletin board requirements to tenure applications to writing instruction. There’s a prejudice against brevity and simplicity, and a great push for more, more, more.

I do not envy colleagues who have to put together massive tenure portfolios. (I was tenured when the rules were different, so I haven’t been subjected to this.) In these portfolios, they must not only demonstrate the range and quality of their work, in accordance with a set rubric, but also demonstrate that they are demonstrating it, with labels, reflections, explanations, and so on. Even those who have worked assiduously on their portfolios–and who have plenty to show–may worry that they haven’t included enough. Recently a teacher told me that she keeps all of her students’ work (after showing them their grades and comments), just in case she needs to document what she has done.

Now, granted, there is value in keeping track of what one has done as a teacher–but does it need to be done in such volume? That leads to another area of bulk: the Common Core.

The Common Core State Standards are neither terrible nor spectacular. They have some decent ideas, imperfectly articulated. As a gesture, the Common Core is a valuable document. As a mandate, it complicates good work. Teachers of literature courses, for instance, must now document their implementation of the standards–with lengthy lesson and unit plans, “tasks” matched to standards, and so on. That would not be so onerous if they could take the standards at face value, but instead they must prepare students for assessments that reflect questionable (and sometimes even bizarre) interpretations of the standards. Thus their work is tripled: they must teach their courses, demonstrate explicitly that they are addressing the standards, and contend with official interpretations of what that means.

What’s lost here is a sense of economy, of keeping one’s basic duties as simple as possible so that one can do interesting things. Instead, teachers learn to produce volume: long, elaborate lesson plans, even longer justifications of these lesson plans, and still longer lists of evidence that the lesson plan attained the desired goals.

Students, too, face pressure to substantiate their statements with copious “evidence.” Now, using evidence is a worthy practice–but one must take care not to overdo it. More evidence does not automatically make for a better argument, nor do all arguments require “evidence,” strictly speaking. Machiavelli uses numerous historical examples to justify the points he makes in The Prince–but one can question his interpretation of these examples. John Stuart Mill uses very few concrete examples in On Liberty, but this is appropriate for his mode of speaking. In order to determine the proper use of examples, one must know what one wishes to say in the first place.

Standardized writing assessments (and, by consequence, writing instruction) rarely focuses on what one has to say, or even how well one says it. Instead, it emphasizes adherence to a rubric, where more is better (“at least two textual details to support your point,” etc.) Students get into the habit of making a statement, supporting it with two examples, stating that the two examples support the statement, and concluding that the statement is true. There’s a lot of faulty logic and excess verbiage in that. Here’s a made-up example:

John Donne’s “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” suggests that love can survive separation. For example, in the second stanza, he says, “So let us melt, nor make no noise.” This means that he is telling his wife that they shouldn’t cry when they have to part from each other. He says this because the love is stronger than the separation. Another example is in the fifth stanza, where he says, “Our two souls, therefore, which are one, / Though I must go, endure not yet / A breach, but an expansion.” This means that when lovers are separated, their love remains and is even expanded by the distance. He says this because he believes their relationship is strong enough to survive. In conclusion, Donne is saying in this poem that when lovers are separated, their love can continue and even get stronger.

This would meet the criteria of many a writing test–but there is much waste in it, and many missed insights. The idea that “love can survive separation” is fairly trivial; it’s the metaphors that make the idea rich. Wouldn’t it have been more interesting to examine the word “melt”–in its immediate context and in relation to the final line of the fifth stanza, “Like gold to airy thinness beat”? Yet a student who did so might receive a lower score–because the essay didn’t include enough “evidence” (or seemed to go “off topic”). An essay that stays “on topic”–but states the topic over, and over, and over again–will often receive a higher score than an essay that follows the wit.

There is much more “evidence” that education places inordinate value on “stuff”–but I believe I have made my point.

On a tangent (but speaking of “stuff”): I am dismayed to see the new “look and feel” of poets.org It used to be one of my favorite websites, as it allowed for focus on the poetry itself. It didn’t try to look like the flashy websites. It didn’t try to get all social. Now you have to scroll through a frame to read a whole poem, and you’re surrounded by “easy reading” font and social media icons. Someone on the staff must have persuaded others that rhinoceroses are in fact beautiful.

Noise and Its Discontents

A few weeks ago, during a lesson on Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, I played my students a DVD of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra performing the fourth movement of Mahler’s Symphony no. 3, which has “Zarathustra’s Roundelay” as its lyrics. At first, the students were somewhat giggly; then a hush came over the room. We were all taking part in something extraordinary. Afterward, I felt rested and restored; weeks later,  I carried the music in my mind.

It’s a truism to say that we live in a noisy world—but noise has become the default in our lives. We acquiesce to having many conversations and activities at once; to focus on a single thing seems brazen. Yet something like Mahler’s Symphony no. 3 requires full focus; insofar as we have pushed such focus away, we have pushed away the music too.

Lately I have read, on blogs and in magazines, various insinuations that certain people—classified as Highly Sensitive People—are especially affected by noise. To me, that’s a diversion of the problem. Yes, noise affects some more acutely than others, but it affects everyone; it scatters our thoughts, work, conversations, meals, commutes, and sleep. As we (as a society) lose the practice of quieting down, we also break up others’ quiet.

But let’s backtrack a little and take a look at what noise and quiet actually are. The words are often used loosely to encompass visual stimuli as well as sounds. This is legitimate; I will explain why.

The word “noise” apparently derives from the Latin nausea (“disgust, annoyance, discomfort”). That is one theory, anyway. Another is that it derives from the Latin noxia (“hurting, injury, damage”). Let us think of it as something cacophonous to the ear or eye or mind—a pile of clashing stimuli. So, if I am reading an article online and am interrupted by flashing ads and popups, I consider the experience noisy. If I am at a concert, and my neighbor is checking messages on her illuminated handheld device, I am bothered by what I would call noise. You can have a chorus of a hundred and no noise; you can have two people interrupting each other—and noise aplenty.

The opposite of noise, then, is not silence, but harmony and integrity. A focused class discussion is harmonious in that the people listen to each other, build on each other’s points, and refrain from distraction. The harmony need not be perfect. In a concert hall, there will be sounds of rustling programs and feet, or even the occasional squeak of the bow on the string. That doesn’t turn the performance into noise. Nor do dissonant musical intervals, necessarily. You can have a dissonant piece that is nonetheless harmonious in a larger sense. Noise destroys the harmony and integrity of something.

Quiet is not silence; it is a kind of rest. You can be quiet while giving an animated speech; the quiet underlies the speech. It is that which allows you to collect your thoughts and perceive the audience. Without the quiet, it’s difficult to collect or perceive.

So, what are the intrusions on the quiet? What accounts for the rise of noise?

One of the biggest culprits is acquiescience: the attitude that “that’s just the way it is today.” I often hear people say that because we live in a world of multitasking and constant digital communication, we should simply go along with it, in the classroom and everywhere else. Stop holding on to the old ways. Adapt to the new. Have more group work. Have kids text about Shakespeare. Have many conversations going on at once. Even explicators of the Common Core—or many of them–tell teachers not to be the “sage on the stage” but instead to “facilitate” while the students work in groups.

I have never advocated for lectures as a primary pedagogical format in secondary school. When I defend lectures or the “sage on the stage,” I defend them as part of a larger collection of approaches. That said, they merit defense. One great benefit of the lecture is that it allows students to listen to something, make sense of it in their minds, come up with questions and counterpoints, etc. Also, there are some true sages in the classroom. I don’t claim to be one—but I have had teachers to whom I wanted to listen for hours because they inspired me so much.

When the quiet and focus are in place, a host of possibilities arises. The teacher can shape the presentation; she has the latitude to approach a question obliquely, since she doesn’t have to meet the a demand for instant entertainment and sense. The students start to see how one idea leads to another; the sustained thought enters into their reading and writing. This makes room for serious joy and accomplishment.

Outside of school, whoever reads a book for an hour or two without interruption, practices an instrument with full concentration, or stays away from email for a full day, not only has a treasure, but holds it out for others to take as well.

For these reasons, I will continue to fight the noise on many fronts, external and internal. It may be a losing scrimmage, but if I can win here and there, it will be worth it.

 

I made a few revisions to this piece long after posting it.

A Common Core Lesson Gone Wrong

I have seen many lessons that purport to implement the Common Core but botch the subject matter in the process. I ask: is this due to faulty implementation of the Common Core, a fault line within the Common Core itself, or something else altogether? A lesson on Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” (commonly known as “The Daffodils”) serves as a good test case here. The lesson left me queasy; that’s a sign that my stomach is working well, so I am hopeful.

The main problem with this lesson (featured in video on the front page of LearnZillion.com) is that it has little or nothing to do with Wordsworth’s poem. You could take the same lesson, adjust only a few words, and slap it on any of a thousand poems. Second, it gives bad advice: it states that when tackling a difficult poem, one should proceed one stanza at a time, summarize the stanza in one’s own words, and write that summary on a sticky note. (No, no, no!)

The lesson begins: “What happens if you get stuck when you start reading a difficult poem?” The answer: “In this lesson, you will learn to analyze each section of a poem by rereading and restating in your own words.”

I question the premise that this is a helpful activity. Poetry is worth reading because it makes singular use of language; it cannot be translated into prose. Restating a stanza in your own words takes you away from the language of the poem itself. Yes, some poems have complex constructions that need to be teased apart, but that does not have to involve restatement; or when it does, one can restate the specific construction, not an entire stanza. To restate a stanza is to stop it at the border and say, “You may not cross over into my mind with your own goods; you must exchange them for mine.”

After this, the speaker makes a few generic statements about the poem: “The poet William Wordsworth used lots of imagery in his poem ‘Daffodils.’ Imagery is the use of vivid language that describes something so well that readers see the images playing in their minds like a movie.” Well, that isn’t quite right, but let’s leave that aside. It gets worse: “When we see images in our mind as we read, we can visualize to help us understand the poet’s words.” Maybe—but images can also be puzzling, even confounding. They do not make things pat for us, nor do they have to do with sight alone. “Visualization” is a much-abused concept; I see no need to invoke it. “Imagination” is more to the point.

The speaker then addresses the common assumption that poems are easy to understand because they are short. She counters that they take a great deal of concentration. (This is a good point—but it’s still generic.) She goes on to say that  readers often focus on what they don’t understand, rather than what they do. Instead, she says, they should focus on what they do understand. (This is not necessarily so.) From here, she explains the process of summarizing, which culminates in a sticky note. Along the way, she makes passing mention of the imagery in the first stanza—but otherwise does nothing to bring out the poem itself.

What would I do instead? I would have the students take in the language of the poem—without turning it into anything else. Have them listen to it several times, and maybe, on the third time, make note of things they found striking. Some might point to “I wandered lonely as a cloud”; others, to “a crowd, / A host, of golden daffodils.” Some might be drawn to the lines, “The waves beside them danced; but they / Out-did the sparkling waves in glee.” Many, I think, would find something in the final stanza, maybe in “that inward eye / Which is the bliss of solitude.” After they had brought up specific things that struck them, we could start to look at how the poem fits together as a whole, listening to it again along the way. In particular, we would look at the shift to the “inward eye” in the final stanza.

Now I will return to the initial question: are the flaws of this lesson (and many others like it) due to faulty implementation of the Common Core, a fault line in the Common Core itself, or something else? I would say all three.

The lesson seems to target a standard along the lines of CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.5.4: “Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative language such as metaphors and similes.” Some might interpret this as a call for strategy instruction: for instruction on ways to approach texts in general. Yet the same standard, a few grade levels higher, calls for attention to specific texts. CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.8.4 reads: “Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone, including analogies or allusions to other texts.” Thus it seems likely that the author of this lesson misinterpreted the standard.

Yet the ELA standards themselves are worded generically and thus encourage generic approaches to literature. Granted, they call for attention to the specifics of the text, but they mention no texts except as examples, in passing. I am not suggesting that there should be a national literature curriculum; the chances are too great that it would turn out mediocre. My point is that the Common Core ELA standards are removed from the subject matter itself. This, in my view, is their main fault line. Because of this, they should be taken down a few notches; they should be secondary to curriculum. Even that isn’t a solution; the curricula must be good.

There seems to be still another problem: a tendency, stretching far beyond the Common Core, to avoid the subject matter, whether out of fear, ignorance, or deference to mandates. The author of the Wordsworth lesson takes pains to say that poems are difficult, that this poem is difficult, and that there are specific procedures one can follow in order to make sense of a difficult poem. Yet “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” is not, at the surface level, a difficult poem. One can quickly grasp what is going on, until the final stanza. The challenge lies in the subtleties, which must be met on their own terms.

These problems have no quick solution, but they don’t have to mire us. The first step, as I have said elsewhere, is to insist on teaching important, compelling, beautiful, lasting things. Yes, this requires that we exercise discernment; but what else is education for? By exercising discernment, we help students do the same.  I do not mean that the curriculum should be up to every individual teacher, or even every individual school. I mean that listening to literature, reading it, thinking about it, discussing it should be part of the schools’ practices and among their highest priorities. There should be faculty meetings about works of literature, mathematical proofs, historical eras—the subject matter itself, not instructional strategies. Schools with this kind of intellectual culture could stand strong against the winds of nothing, which do great damage through their emptiness.

Three updates:

1. It turns out that this lesson is one in a series of seven. The others are at least as distracting and misleading. See comments below.
2. Joanne Jacobs blogged about this post. There have been interesting responses. Update: Diane Ravitch blogged about it as well.
3. LearnZillion no longer features this lesson on the front page. Instead, it features an array of lessons that, like this one, emphasize a skill over a work of literature. Some go into the literary work more than others–but from what I can see, all of them stick to formula and refrain from the idiosyncrasy and flexibility that literature demands.

The Great Sin of Introducing a Text

Yesterday I had some of the liveliest classes of the year. My eleventh-grade students are about to read John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, an intensely beautiful and challenging philosophical essay. In preparation for this, I devoted a lesson to Mill’s life and thought.

I began by asking my students whether happiness could be measured, and, if so, how. (Many students jumped into the discussion.) Then I told them about Mill’s life—his upbringing, early work in utilitarianism, intellectual crisis, emergence from the crisis, relationship and collaboration with Harriet Taylor, and more. I brought in excerpts from his Autobiography and the first three stanzas of Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood” (which he had read during his crisis). I asked them to consider what Mill might have found in this particular poem. At the end of the lesson, I posed the question: if there were a mean between utilitarianism and romanticism, what might it be? Throughout the lesson, hands were flying up and dialogues mounting.

Under the Common Core, teachers are admonished against providing background for a text before the students actually read it. The rationale is that background information can interfere with the students’ direct reading and interpretation of the work. Supposedly, if you tell them too much up front, they will rely on what you told them instead of focusing on what the text actually says.

I understand this concern–but it doesn’t hold in all cases. For instance, nothing I told my students, and no ideas I drew out of them, will help them comprehend and interpret the following:

Like other tyrannies, the tyranny of the majority was at first, and is still vulgarly, held in dread, chiefly as operating through the acts of the public authorities. But reflecting persons perceived that when society is itself the tyrant—society collectively, over the separate individuals who compose it—its means of tyrannizing are not restricted to the acts which it may do by the hands of its political functionaries. Society can and does execute its own mandates: and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practices a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life and enslaving the soul itself.

When reading this passage, we will focus on the words and phrases and their logical interrelation. We will examine the contrast Mill draws between social tyranny and tyranny at the hands of government. We will discuss the very concept of the tyranny of the majority—and ask why Mill considers it so insidious, pervasive, and dangerous. Almost all of the discussion will focus directly on the text—but we will draw important ideas and questions out of it.

Why, then, would I introduce students to Mill’s life in the first place, if there’s so much to be found in the text itself? Am I not wasting precious instructional time?

I would say no, for several reasons. First, Mill’s life is downright interesting—his strict classical education, his contact with Jeremy Bentham, his early work in utilitarianism, his crisis, his ultimate synthesis of utilitarianism and romanticism, his relationship and collaboration with Harriet Taylor, and much more.  Why shouldn’t students learn about something as intriguing as this? His intellectual crisis and emergence are intriguing in themselves—especially for teenagers, who may have experienced crises of their own.

Second, David Bromwich refers to Mill (in his essay “The Life and Thought of Mill,” which appears in the Yale University Press edition of On Liberty) as “the thinker of all the nineteenth century in whom romanticism and utilitarianism were most nearly joined.” It’s a great philosophical exercise to imagine how romanticism and utilitarianism might be joined—and that’s part of what we did yesterday. (One student suggested, strikingly, that they could be joined in optimism.) Later, after they have read On Liberty (or most of it), we can reread certain passages, and consider how they might contain a synthesis of romanticism and utilitarianism. That will come after students have seen and discussed what’s actually in the text, and it just might bring things around full circle (though it won’t be complete, as there will still be open questions).

Third, this is not a literacy class, but a philosophy course. Its content includes texts, ideas, and some intellectual history. I don’t think anyone would fault my course for lack of complex texts or careful textual analysis—we have spent entire lessons working through Locke’s syntax, for instance—but the course holds more than that. This is normal for a course in a subject; it needs no special justification. College courses focus on subject matter. Professors present and interpret the subject, and students must still read and think a great deal on their own. If part of the goal of the Common Core is to prepare students for college-level work, shouldn’t there be room to teach a subject?

Third, part of the point of education is to foster the exercise of good judgment. How do we show students how to exercise good judgment, unless we ourselves strive for the same?

Literature Class Is Not Reading Class

The StudentOne of my greatest concerns about the Common Core is that it will do what so many other reforms have done: drag everything toward an average, be it a high or low one. This may well happen if literature class is turned, once again, into reading class.

Reading class emphasizes the process of reading. The Balanced Literacy versions focused on “reading strategies” and “just-right” books. A Common Core version goes something like this: During class, the students read a “complex text.” Then they answer “text-dependent questions.” Then they write an argumentative piece that uses concrete textual evidence.

In reading class, the teacher is not supposed to give presentations—or, if she does, she is to keep them brief. Instead, she assists the students as they read and write. Class time is work time.

In literature class, by contrast, students do the reading at home and come to class to discuss it. The teacher does give presentations, the length and substance of which will vary. Class discussion may focus closely on certain passages or relate different passages to each other and to the whole. Questions may move from simple to complex, and they may also take unexpected directions. For the most part, basic comprehension is assumed;  the class discussion focuses on interpretation. Of course there are exceptions; certain texts present exceptional difficulties and must be read slowly in class. On the whole, though, one assumes that the reading has been done and that the class can now tackle the subtleties of the text.

In a literature class, it is understood that the teacher will offer knowledge and insights. She presents context, background, interpretations that illuminate class discussion (without taking anything away from the students). She poses questions that build on each other and that draw on past discussions. She uses judgment in this regard, weighing the good of presentation against the good of elicitation. The proportion will vary from lesson to lesson, text to text, and course to course.

That’s how it works in college courses (in literature, history, and philosophy). You don’t spend time reading in class, unless you are focusing on a particular passage. Nor do you expect the professor to refrain from offering knowledge. Some professors choose to talk very little. Others give extended (and brilliant) lectures even in seminar. The different styles provide different angles on the subject. Certain lecture courses and lecture-style seminars are continually oversubscribed because (gasp!) the students value what the professor has to say.

Now, many students in grades K-12 (and even in college) lack the practice of reading for class. They may benefit initially from classes where the main task is to read and write. Yet this is a state of disrepair. In a more robust situation, students (from middle school onward) would be responsible for poring over the reading, on their own, until they understood it. Where, when, and how they did it would be up to them. True, many students don’t have a quiet place to study. Yet it isn’t that difficult to make quiet places available (in libraries and even in the schools), provided students shut off their devices and actually study.

Poring over the reading! That is one of the most important things a student can learn how to do. I have had English-language-learner students who made drastic progress in a single year, mainly because they had grappled for hours with difficult texts at home.  Every day they came to school with more vocabulary, grammar, and grasp of idiomatic and figurative language. This enhanced their speaking in class; they were thoroughly acquainted with the subject of the lesson and could thus join the discussion.

Maybe schools need two kinds of classes: reading classes for those who don’t have the practice of reading on their own, and literature classes for those who do. If this is so, then there should be a sturdy bridge from one to the other, so that the students in reading class don’t get stuck there.

After all, liberal education involves the exchange of ideas. You can’t exchange ideas until you have ideas about something. To have those ideas about something, you need to have spent time thinking about the subject. To think about it, you must know what it contains. Not all of this can take place during class time—so, for students to exchange ideas in class (in a way that isn’t superficial), they must study more on their own.

Independent, “unscaffolded” reading—one of the end goals of the Common Core—should be the starting point, whenever possible. Provide the “scaffolds” for those who aren’t there yet, but don’t make the advanced students descend.

P.S. (June 15, 2017) People continue reading this post, four years after I posted it. Please feel free to leave a comment.