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.

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