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.