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.

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.

The Eensy, Weensy Spider in the Universal Crisis

When reciting Robert Frost’s poem “One Step Backward Taken,” I am strongly reminded of the children’s song “The Eensy, Weensy Spider” (or “The Itsy-Bitsy Spider”). I do not think this association is accidental or mine alone. Rather, it figures in the play of Frost’s poem. I have not read this observation anywhere, but I imagine that it has been made many times.

Here is the poem:

Not only sands and gravels
Were once more on their travels,
But gulping muddy gallons
Great boulders off their balance
Bumped heads together dully
And started down the gully.
Whole capes caked off in slices.
I felt my standpoint shaken
In the universal crisis.
But with one step backward taken
I saved myself from going.
A world torn loose went by me.
Then the rain stopped and the blowing
And the sun came out to dry me.

According to Jay Parini (on p. 360 of Robert Frost: A Life), Frost wrote this poem in 1945, in recollection of his experience of a flood in 1927. Traveling by train across Arizona on his way back to Amherst, he saw a bridge washed out; in Parini’s words, a car on one bank was “edging backward carefully each time a slice of earth fell away.”

It is also usefully tempting to hear, in the final two lines, a suggestion of “up came the sun and dried up all the rain, so …” (“…the eensy weensy spider went up the spout again”). Even the rhythms are compatible: one could superimpose one on another and hear a counterpoint there.

If this is so, then this “universal crisis” could be something as tiny as a spider on a dirt mound in the rain (or as large as a world falling apart). That may be part of its universality: you can find such crises everywhere, in spiders and in men.

Here is a counterpoint of large against small and of shape against shape. Not only does one hear the nursery song playing against the poem, but one also hears various parts of the poem playing against each other.

Consider the poem’s structure, first of all. In terms of rhyme, it consists of three couplets, AA, BB, and CC, followed by the interweaving DEDE FGFG. Thus it consists of two parts: the first six lines, and then the next eight, an inversion of a sonnet. One would expect, then, a volta, or turning point, around the seventh line. Instead, it occurs at line 10, “But with one step backward taken.” This leads the reader to hear the first nine lines as one part, and the next five lines as the other. The two parts interlock, since the “-aken” rhyme ending occurs in both.

So one can think of the poem in terms of two parts: the crisis, and the stepping backward from it. But there are more ways of breaking it down.

Look at sentences. The first six lines comprise one sentence and describe the scene, but the seventh line belongs to the description as well. Then, in the eighth line, the poem turns to the speaker’s experience, “I felt my standpoint shaken.” One could thus see the first seven lines as the first part of the poem, and the next seven lines as the second.

The various divisions of the poem play against each other in the mind–maybe a little like capes caking off in various ways. There is also the subtle wit of the line “bumped heads together dully,” which brings something comic and human into the natural scene. Maybe we are dealing in part with a crisis of bumbling fools.

In any case, what’s remarkable about this poem is the way it sets rhythm against rhythm, shape against shape, meaning against meaning. The poem raises the possibility that it is dealing with something enormous on the one hand and something minuscule on the other. It’s the play of the two that makes this so much fun.

Of course, there’s serious meaning in this too. It has to do with stepping back when everything seems to be falling away. Maybe it has also to do with detaching oneself from the supposed urgency of the moment. But there’s quite a bit of jest in the poem, as I hear it, and hints of paradox, too.

At one (or more) of his readings, Frost commented on the title of the poem. (I have a recording of one such reading; I don’t know when or where it took place.) He said that he had originally given it the title “I Felt My Standpoint Shaken.” (My guess is that he did no such thing, but it doesn’t matter here; the whole story is told in jest.) A few people approached him and asked, “So, you mean you’ve been reading Karl Marx too?” Then he changed the title to “One Step Backward Taken”; a few people asked him, “You think we ought to back out on the bomb, don’t you?” At a reading at Dartmouth College (according to Frost, in this same story), a student spoke up and said,“Why don’t you call it ‘Bumped Heads Together Dully’?” (Roars of laughter from the audience.)

They laugh—but maybe “Bumped Heads Together Dully” really is the most fitting title. When I read a lesson plan for the teaching of this poem, I had to take one step backward to save myself from going. I have seen and criticized many a “strategy” lesson (I find the emphasis on “strategies” distracting and downright stupid), but this one takes the cake. Here, the teacher presents the poem in order to illustrate the “think-aloud” strategy. He or she “thinks aloud” (or, rather, blunders) through the poem, relating it to the unit’s overarching theme of “transitions and change,” and then puts the students in groups (for a “socially constructed learning environment”) to practice “think-alouds” with song lyrics. No more Frost; the point here is the strategy. No more thinking, either, but there wasn’t much to begin with. (I don’t fault the teacher entirely; she is doing what she was taught to do.)

Whole capes caked off in slices, indeed.

Note: I made some changes to this piece after its initial posting.

Why Do Teachers Stay?

We hear a lot about why teachers leave the profession. What makes them stay?

There are surveys and studies of this topic, but they focus on general tendencies and gloss over some important points. To understand what causes people to stay in the profession, you have to consider what teaching is, what the current teaching profession looks like, and how well the two match up.

Last week I received my professional teaching licenses in English Language Arts and English as a Second Language. (I had “initial” licenses up to this point.) This is no momentous event; the professional licenses aren’t effective until September, and I could have obtained them a few years ago if I had applied. Nonetheless, it felt like a crossing of some kind. I realized that I was in teaching for the long term, although I might take breaks now and then.

My story may seem atypical on the surface. I will tell it briefly in order to bring up two conditions that keep me in teaching at this point: substance and time. Teaching is an intellectual endeavor, among other things; a school that makes room for intellectual life will likely retain many teachers.

Before teaching in New York City public schools, I taught as a graduate student, as a Mellon Fellow, and in various other capacities. I came to public school teaching with a Ph.D. in Russian literature. I had already decided against an academic career (that is, at a college or university) and had worked in fields as diverse as counseling, publishing, and computer programming. In my own time, I had written stories, poems, and songs, translated poems from the Lithuanian, written computer programs, and played music alone and with others.

I was drawn to teaching because I had enjoyed it in the past and because it drew on my interests and experience. On a given school day I might be teaching my students to sing in harmony, leading a discussion of Antigone, explaining the logic of subordinating conjunctions, and speaking Spanish, Russian, and English. In this regard, I have not been disappointed. But the work was consuming and exhausting (with classroom control, paperwork, meetings, numerous mandates, and so forth), and the citywide curriculum, especially in ELA and ESL, had little to do with subject matter. There was inordinate emphasis on process (group work, creation of “graphic organizers,” use of technology, and so forth) and so-called reading strategies. No one cared what you taught (within reason), as long as you used these strategies and processes. This meant a degree of freedom on the one hand and skewed priorities on the other.

Wanting to write about this, and not having adequate time, I left teaching for two years. I wrote and published a book: Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture. Now I am back in the classroom, part-time, as a curriculum adviser and philosophy teacher. This spring I put together and co-taught a unit on the question “What is the good life?” in which students read Seneca, Chesterton, Plato, and Tolstoy. I have been shaping the philosophy curriculum as a whole and will be the philosophy teacher for the high school grades next year. I will still teach part-time but will add one day to my schedule.

There is much more to all of this, but I want to emphasize what a difference it makes to teach something interesting, to have time for my own work and projects, and to be reasonably well rested. All of this, for me, is worth the part-time salary, but it is not a viable option for many. (It’s difficult to support yourself on a part-time salary, and part-time positions are scarce.) It may not be viable for me over the long term. This leads to the larger question: how could we make teaching intellectually stimulating and physically sustainable? Such a change would attract people to the field and would likely keep them in it.

Let us look first at how schools could take the exhaustion (or at least a good part of it) out of teaching. First, principals and other leaders should distinguish the essential from the inessential. Do not come into classrooms with checklists of items that teachers must have on the wall and words you expect to hear uttered. Do not insist on pedagogical models that might not suit the lesson. Instead, focus on the subject matter, the students, and how the teacher is bringing them together.

Second, recognize that teachers cannot be and do everything. In many schools, teachers are expected, on top of their regular loads (which are already grueling) to teach electives, run evening and weekend events, call parents every day, and even go to students’ homes. In addition, they are supposed to participate in meeting after meeting: department meetings, grade-level meetings, “inquiry team” meetings, faculty meetings, and more. They are also supposed to be “lifelong learners” in the officially sanctioned sense of the term—attending professional development sessions, taking approved courses, and so on. As if that weren’t enough, they must collect “data” on their practice: lesson plans, student work, tests, conference notes, and videotapes. There’s too much crammed in here—too many activities, too many roles. In the meantime, many of the treasures of education get sent to the storage room.

What’s neglected here, besides health and sanity, is the quiet mulling over the subject and the lessons. Thinking about mathematics, thinking about literature—that’s a luxury, even a frivolity, in the current system. But if you want to attract teachers who are devoted to their subjects, then you have to make room for thinking about these subjects. Subject matter cannot be an afterthought; it cannot be relegated to the summer weeks.

In connection with that, a school needs a substantial, challenging, beautiful curriculum. The difference between teaching Plato’s Republic and teaching “reading strategies” is like the difference between taking people to see a superb  play and selling a fake theater ticket to “whatever.” Schools must not sell fake tickets to “whatever.” They must have a curriculum worth teaching and make room for teaching it.

This is only a fraction of the conditions that could keep a teacher in the field. Teachers often cite an orderly environment, parent involvement, supportive leadership, and more. I bring up curriculum, appropriate priorities, and time for thinking and mulling because they don’t get enough attention. Too many pundits enjoy postulating that if you just paid teachers enough or dangled bonuses before them, you could get the best ones into the classroom and keep them there. They forget that teachers don’t want to sell their souls—or, for that matter, their minds.