Responding to NYT Editorial

Today’s New York TIme’s editorial read “Advertisement for the Common Core,” and it was. You should read it.

There are two key things to consider, however:

1. This is all based on a reliance and appreciation for tests and test data. What do tests truly measure? What are the costs and benefits of tests? Do tests mirror and assess what is best and needed in American education?

2. The editorial asserts “the nation as a whole still has a long way to go to match high-performing school systems abroad,” again leaving out the key fact that if you remove scores associated with poverty, we already are at and often surpass those schools’ levels.


Getting into Gettysburg, but not the Core’s Way

The Gettysburg Address appeared in my classroom today.  It is near its 150th anniversary, but the origination was not associated with that mark.

Rather, I used the Gettysburg Address to launch a discussion on sentence variety.  My class is culminating a long week of  examining revision as they work through their first AP Literature analysis essay, and we are at aspects of local revision, including sentence variety.

I first show this Google Doc of the Gettysburg Address, highlighting sentence length.  Kids quickly note that 86-word sentence, but I also ask them to pay attention to the 10 and 11-word sentences.  Then I read it out loud before leading a discussion on the purpose and effect of those sentences, a beautiful discussion centered on writer’s craft, and because the students are required to have tricolons in their writing, we also note Lincoln’s, as well as some of his other magical moves.  My main purpose, then, is sentence variety.

But before leaving them to count their own words and to evaluate their own choices, there are two more purposes for the Gettysburg.  One is to dispel the rumor that Lincoln hastily penned this masterpiece on an envelope on the train; this is not true, though my students said they wished it were, for then I would have no reason to badger them on revisions, the power of which Lincoln proves in his magnificent oratory.

But the third reason was to point out that Lincoln’s remarks weren’t universally loved, and in fact, some panned them.  I talk to students about writer’s choice, and how while I always have more to teach them, sometimes they need to stand by their choice if there is a reason behind the choice.

Three good reasons to incorporate the Gettysburg Address, all of which looked deeply into writing and reading and had clear objectives in mind.

Tonight, I examined how the Common Core would teach the Gettysburg Address, included HERE.   The lesson writers instruct teachers to “refrain from giving background context or substantial instructional guidance at the outset,” which didn’t surprise me, as I had recently watched David Coleman give the same instructions on how to teach Letter from a Birmingham Jail, HERE.   And while David Coleman’s video and the “Achieve the Core” handout had some good questions and pointers for both texts, I object to much of their lesson planning.  First, if the singular objective is a close reading of the text, I can see why no background would be given, but these texts demand more than that.  They demand a context, and without that context, we can hardly engage kids.  Knowing the context, seeing the text, and hearing about the writer’s process— ALL these have value.    The complete absence of background knowledge does more than bore kids; it is bad practice (or Marzano has it all wrong, and I don’t think so.)

I also object to the tedium that teaching the Common Core would require, particularly when you look at the instructions to go word by word through the text. I do not object to close reading; I teach it, I model it, and I live it.  However, there is a balance, and the Common Core does not illustrate that balance.  It may be, of course,  the lesson plans are jam-packed in order to let teachers choose which words to light upon, but I doubt that. It is more a singular philosophy, and one I simply cannot hold.

Dear Representative… first installment against the Common Core

My state representative, Dianne Hesselbein, sent out a message to constituents asking for feedback on the Common Core.  This is installment #1.

Dear Dianne,

Over a month ago you asked for insight on the Common Core, and the request has lingered.  Ironically, demands of the classroom kept me temporarily from writing to defend the classroom.

Common Core Standards offer some assets: they give educators across states a common framework and a common language, which, given the mobility of America, is a boon; they set expectations for student achievement, which, given the diversity of American education processes, can help lower achievement gaps, particularly those across states; and they include curricular items that other standards and movements, such as No Child Left Behind, omitted.  Pointedly, the Common Core includes writing standards, an essential skill and a very means of thinking.

An example of a benefit of Common Core is that in my previous school district, we floundered to develop scope and sequence of grammatical skills.  The Common Core provided a framework, and we wrote an excellent sequence of skills, clarifying grade-level expectations. It was beautiful.

However, I have dire worries about the Common Core, and the foremost one relates to that “beautiful” set of grammatical skills.  Writing is developmental.   Good writing comes in steps, where one skill must be in place before another can develop.  It is not particularly useful, for instance, to teach semi-colons and colons to students who primarily use simple sentences.  The ability to use semi-colons is not dependent on the writer’s age, as the Common Core would assert; the ability to use semi-colons effectively depends on the writer’s ability.  To be taught is one thing.  To understand another.

The Common Core demands all students in a grade meet a standard, believing in age-based skills rather than developmental.  The Common Core founders, in the interviews and literature I read, dodge that issue, implying if kids are raised on standards, gaps will not occur.

This attitude alternatively frustrates or outrages me. It assumes teachers who have gathered in and loved kindergartners who did not yet know colors did not have high standards.  It assumes that teachers who welcome students who haven’t spoken English before did not have high standards.  It assumes that teachers who empathetically listen and problem-solve for kids in crisis do not have high standards.

The Common Core groups all kids by grade level, but we as educators know better.  The children we teach and love are diverse, and that diversity must be accounted for.  The Common Core blames teachers, inferring a lack of standards causes current and real issues.  I assert the culprit is generational poverty, social-fragmentation, and situational crises.

I do not abhor the Common Core;  I refer to them as a touchstone.  But overall, I question them, their process, and their effects.

This is installment one; more objections to the Common Core to come.

Thank you so much for reaching out for feedback and for listening,

Kris Cody-Johnson

Twenty-year veteran teacher and

Mother of two school-aged children