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Tag Archives: The Common Core Standards

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Recently I came across this article by Anthony Esolen in Crisis magazine.  I was impressed with the author’s impassioned explanation of why we read to children. He shares with us a letter from Theodore Roosevelt to Kenneth Grahame, author of The Wind in the Willows, in which Roosevelt thanks Grahame for his delightful book.   And that is the point.  The book is a delight to the Roosevelt children and even to the president himself – which is, of course, exactly what a book should be.   When my children were small, I sought out books that would be a pleasure to read, not only for them, but for me as well. That weeded out a lot of what early 20th century educator, Charlotte Mason called twaddle.   However, we were left with a treasury of wonderful works of beautiful literature. Fortunately,  the list of  Common Core Exemplar Texts contains some of these great works (for the paltry 30% of fictional reading the standard allows).

Unfortunately, the CC approach to reading will likely make reading these great literary works a soul-sucking drudgery.   Take for example the 3rd grade standards. They seem fairly simple and age-appropriate.  Children are expected to recount stories and key detail of stories from a variety of genres and cultures.  Among other things, they are expected to articulate the central idea or moral of a work and to describe characters and their actions.   All of this sounds like it could be achieved by an engaging reading followed by a lively discussion and maybe some fun activities.  But nooooooo. Here’s an exerpt from the website Achieve the Core.  This is the objective for a 3rd grade (3rd grade!!!) lesson on Grimm’s The Fisherman and his Wife.  

Learning Objective:  The goal of this five-day exemplar is to explicitly model the process of searching for and interpreting intra-textual connections. In this lesson sequence, the teacher poses an analytic focusing question and then guides students in gathering and interpreting evidence from the text in order to come to a deeper understanding of the story. Simple word play and art activities give students practice in closely attending to language and word choice, and in visualizing and recording their interpretations. Discussion and a short writing exercise help students to synthesize what they have learned. 

How’s that for psuedo-sophisticated language!  But wait!  There’s more!  After five days of reading and re-reading the story and picking it apart to make intra-textual connections,  students are asked to complete a writing assignment.

Writing Task: As a culminating activity, students synthesize their findings in an opinion paragraph, using specific references to the text. In this lesson, writing helps the children to organize and make sense of their thinking. For most third graders, writing is a relatively new tool for processing thought and one they will need to learn to use. Therefore, this task is highly guided and instructional, providing a model that can be used more independently on subsequent writing tasks.

Fun huh?  I’m not suggesting that school children not be held in some way accountable for what they’ve read.  But since 70% of their reading is what the CC calls “informational texts,” one would hope that what little fiction they are allowed not be ruined over-intellectualization and joy-killing assignments.

As Esolen so brilliantly points out, the whole point of reading should be for pleasure.  When we rob children of that pleasure, we kill their love of reading.  And when we kill their love of reading, any further attempts to encourage what Common Core calls a “close reading” will be fruitless.  By high school, their eyes will glaze over, and they will see very little point in Shakespeare, Austen, Keats, or any of it.  I know this because I see it now.  Of course the current group of high school students wasn’t raised on Common Core, but they were No Child Left Behind kids.  And where NCLB perhaps watered down their readings, the CCS hyper-intelleculizes them.  Different standards, different vocabulary, different texts, but in the end, both NCLB and the CCS have the same goal – to create good test takers.  The best way to insure children will score well on the test is to train them to get the right answer.  Sadly, this training often comes at the expense of a greater outcome – a love of stories.

So in a perfect, untested, non data-driven world, what would else could children gain from stories besides pleasure?  Well, nothing if pleasure is lost, but children, and people in general, who love books are graced with a world of gifts.

A LOVE OF LANGUAGE

Children who read The Jabberwocky  or hear a heartfelt reading of it might not be able to tell you what a stanza is or identify the rhyme scheme, but they know that it is fun to say jubjub bird.  They will shout, “Calhooh Callay Frabjous the day!”  They will experience the joy of nonsense and the fun of things that mean nothing but sound funny.  In time, when they write they will naturally want to use language  that captures the imagination and delights the senses. And they will know how.

On the other hand children who study The Jabberwocky are apt to say things like, “This is stupid.”  “This doesn’t even make sense.”  “What’s the point of this, anyway?”  How sad.

KNOWLEDGE

I never set out to teach my children about bull fighting in Madrid or about the life on the Yangtze River, but thanks to Ferdinand and Ping, they not only learned about these things, they wanted to know more about them.   Johnny Tremain introduced them to our founding fathers, and Laura and Mary showed them what it was like to live off the land.   Funny, we never did a single worksheet or critiqued a single passage.

IMMAGINATION

Fairies.  Knights.  Dragon.  Talking pigs.  Little boys who never grow up.  Little girls who grow to be the size of a house.   Flying monkeys. Giants.  Castles. Worlds of Ice.  Wicked queens.  Christmas Ghosts.  Is there really anything Common Core could or should add to these wonders to make books any sweeter?  Of course not.

ATTENTION SPAN

I haven’t gathered any data to prove it, but I think I could walk into any 1st grade classroom at story time, and tell you, with a startling degree of accuracy,  which children have been read to since birth and which have not.  I could do it again in 10th grade.

FRIENDS

Anyone who has ever been sucked into a story knows what it is to cheer with our heroes’ victories and cry at their defeats.  I earnestly hope our school children aren’t so busy picking apart the “texts” that they don’t have time to make friends with the characters.

I have always read to my children and will continue to do so as long as they’ll let me.  I won’t test them or require them to defend their opinions of a story in writing (although there is certainly a place for that in the upper grades).  I will simply laugh with them and cry with them and wonder with them and pray that all children are given this same great pleasure in life  – the pleasure of reading for the sheer joy of it.

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Welcome to Common Core Monday where each week we will take a look at a work of literature found in the  Common Core Standards list of exemplar texts.  Many of the works found on the list are beloved treasures from classic literature.  Others, such as Cristina Garcia’s  Dreaming in Cuban and Sherman Alexi’s  The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, raise serious questions about what kids are reading.

TITLE:  Eleven

AUTHOR:  Sandra Cisneros

GENRE: Short story

GRADE LEVEL RECOMMENDED: 6-8

Eleven is the kind of story that makes you remember exactly what it is like to be in the 5th grade – on your worst day in the 5th grade.  It’s Rachel’s birthday, but she doesn’t feel eleven.  She knows that inside she is still 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, ,3, 2, and 1… Because the way you grow old is kind of like an onion or like the rings inside a tree trunk or like my little wooden dolls that fit one inside the other, each year inside the next one. That’s how being eleven years old is.

So, on her birthday when her teacher, Mrs. Price, insists that, not only does Rachel own, but that she must also wear a ratty old sweater found in the coat closet, Rachel feels 3.  And she cries in front of everyone like she is 3.  Her birthday is ruined.

That’s it really.  That is the basic plot of Eleven.  It is a very simple yet very powerful story. It is powerful because Cisneros takes her readers back in time – back to a time when being forced to wear an ugly sweater in front of your entire class was unbearably humiliating.  It is powerful because, through Mrs. Price, we see the devastating impact a seemingly meaningless and careless error can have on a child.  Eleven is powerful because through Rachel, in only three short pages,  we see that we are all eleven – at least sometimes.

My own daughters were not required to read Eleven in school, so I required it at home.  Kids need stories like this one for two reasons.  1.  It shows them that they arent’ the only ones who have felt 3 even when they were much older.  2. Eleven teaches empathy. We are allowed to glimpse inside someone else’s humiliation.  We ache for Rachel.

Sometimes now when I look back on things that mortified me in middle school, I can laugh.  The melodrama of it all is so funny. But every time I read Eleven, I cry.  I cry even though I am 44.  Because deep down I guess I’m also 43, 42, 41, 40,… well, you get the idea.

Note:  To read Eleven, simply Google a free PDF copy of the story.  You’ll be glad you did.

From the YouTube video of the story

From the YouTube video of the story

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If you are a parent, you have likely heard of the Common Core Standards, especially if you live in one of the 46 states that have adopted these new national standards. But if you are like most parents, you probably know very little about CCS or how these will affect your children.  As an English teacher and literature lover, I was thrilled when first introduced to the CCS, mainly because I liked what I saw (for the most part) on the list of exemplar texts.  As time has passed, and I’ve seen the Common Core implemented in my school and my children’s schools, my initial joy has faded.  In fact, I have some serious concerns about these standards and how they were developed and implemented.  I cannot say that I am opposed to the CCS, but I do have reservations.  I’ve compiled a list of pros and cons about these standards, so that you can judge for yourself.  This is by no means an exhaustive list.  My research has been minimal and much of this is just my opinion.  Still, I hope this will at least serve as a starting point to help you understand a bit more about this massive shift in the American education system.

But first, let me explain what the Common Core is.  Up until recently, each state was responsible for developing it’s own set of standards for what constituted a sound education in that state.  With the new Common Core, those standards will no longer vary but be nationalized.  Adoption of the CCS is technically voluntary, but not really (more about that below).  The Common Core is not a curriculum per se.  Rather it is a set of standards that tells us what a well-educated person should have studied, mastered, read, or written.  Text book companies and testing companies have scrambled to rewrite their materials to be sure they are common core aligned.  Individual states and schools are free to choose any curriculum or texts aligned with the Common Core Standards.  However, CC does not rely heavily on text books.  Also, the Common Core does not mandate a specific list of books.  Rather there is a list of CC exemplar texts for each grade level.  This list is meant to serve as a guide for teachers as to the types of books that meet the rigorous standards of the Common Core.  However, I think it is safe to assume that a lot of school districts will default to the exemplar texts list rather than choosing literature based on the specific needs and interests of their community.

PROS

1. Standards are national.  It is hard to argue with the idea that a uniform set of standards is a good idea.  This means that the expectations for children in New York will be the same as those in Arkansas.  The Common Core creates a more level playing field.

2. This level playing field is good for kids who move frequently.  Again, states have some flexibility as to what they teach, but generally speaking the concepts will not vary.  So, if a third grader moves from California to Maine in the middle of the school year, he may or may not have read the same books as his new classmates (good chance he will have), but he will have studied the same general set of skills.

3.  The level playing field is good for standardized testing.  It just makes sense that if the test scores of students in Kentucky are going to be compared to those of students in Arizona, that those children should go into the test with the same base of knowledge.

4. CCS is heavy on classic literature.  Sort of.   Common Core places a huge emphasis on nonfiction and informative texts, however many of the exemplar texts are classics. Yay!

5. The Common Core encourages critical thinking.  Well, that’s the idea anyway.  Under these new standards, students will spend less time memorizing and engaging in the “choke and puke” method of learning (choke down the information and puke it up for the test).  Instead, they will be engaging in learning that more closely resembles “real world” situations. There will be a greater emphasis on problem solving, creating, and even working cooperatively with others to reach goals.  All of these skills are considered important skills for 21st century employment.

6.  Under the CCS student evaluations will be more varied. To be sure the Common Core will not put an end to standardized testing.  In fact in some states, like my home state of Arkansas, testing is going to get considerably more intense. However, teachers in every CC state will be expected to evaluate students using method other than testing – writing assessments, portfolios, projects, and presentations.

7.  The CCS emphasize the use of primary documents.  This means that rather than reading everything out of a text book, students will read the actual documents written by founding fathers, great men and women of history, scientists, great thinkers, and scholars.

CONS

1.  Adoption of the Common Core is not voluntary – not really. Why is this a big deal?  The United States has always left control of public schools primarily to the states and to local school districts. This is to ensure that those who pay the bulk of the taxes that support the school retain control over their schools.  In other words, the best interest of the community and the state should be served first.  In fact, federal law prohibits the U.S. Department of Education from intrusive control over public education.  So while adoption of the Common Core is not mandatory, only schools who do adopt the standards will be eligible for their share of 4.35 billion dollars of Race to the Top Funding.   In her letter to the Roman Catholic hierarchy in the U.S., Phyllis Shlafly reports that schools were also warned that by not adopting the new standards, they would lose Title I funding.  In other words, it seems as though the federal government has found a way to skirt around federal prohibitions on federal mandates for public education by resorting to old fashion bribery.

2. The Common Core Standards are the product of big corporations.  This is not to say that educators and education experts had no role in the creations of the standards, but in her blog post Why I Cannot Support the Common Core Standards, Diane Ravitch, educational policy analyst and New York University Research Professor said,  They [the standards] were developed by an organization called Achieve and the National Governors Association, both of which were generously funded by the Gates Foundation. There was minimal public engagement in the development of the Common Core. Their creation was neither grassroots nor did it emanate from the states.  Personally, I am uncomfortable with the Gates Foundation’s heavy hand in my children’s education.  But there is more heavy handedness…

3.  The primary architect of the CCS, David Coleman, is now the head of The College Board.  This is the organization responsible the SAT, the AP program, and the PSAT.  In other words, one man has immense control over the education our children grades K-college.  Check out his ideas and associations by clicking above to see if you are okay with that.

4.  The Standards have been implemented nearly all across the nation with no field testing. In other words, these standards have been adopted without any idea of how they will affect students or teachers.  They might be successful, but we don’t really have anyway of knowing.

5.  Seventy percent of all student reading will be non-fiction.  How sad.  It might be tempting to think that no one cares about poetry and literature except nerdy English teachers, but good literature teaches lessons and starts conversations about life, love, death, hope, belonging, sin, faith, hate, and so much more in a way that most non-fiction, especially the technical writing being pushed by Common Core, cannot.   A good education should teach students to recognize truth and beauty and give them the tools to choose what is true and beautiful.  Education is about so much more than career training.  That has been true throughout the history of the world.  Great minds are formed by great books not by technical manuals.  Unfortunately, the CC seems to be more about training students for careers rather than educating  them in the truest sense.

6. Like No Child Left Behind, The Common Core ignores the developmental age of children.  One of the main purposes of the CCS is to make US students globally competitive.  That sounds great, but at what cost?  Traditionally American education has been geared toward and even respected the developmental age of children.  Most of us attended kindergartens and primary schools that had play centers and three recesses a day.  We memorized our state capitols and the list of US presidents.  We did these things because both play and memorization are pleasurable and beneficial for young children.   They form the mind in a way that makes later critical thinking possible.  They are appropriate and they create hooks on which to hang later knowledge.  But now there is no time for play or silly rote memorization.  With the CCS emphasis on critical thinking, students are being expected to engage in much more rigorous learning at a much younger age.  They are expected to do what is not developmentally appropriate.  It is sad, and it is costing our children some precious years.  Even sadder, I don’t think it works.  When appropriate developmental steps are skipped, it makes later learning harder.  To create critical thinkers in high school, we must have creative players in grade school.  Play teaches thinking.

And it isn’t just elementary age children who are suffering through developmentally inappropriate work. This 7th grade teacher explains to her students that she opposes Common Core, in part because it asks her students to do things that are at a high school level.

7.  According to this website, the CC does not allow for modifications.  If this is true, it’s news to me and to every other teacher I know.  We are constantly reminded of the importance of modifying for students with special needs. If the new standards do not allow for such modifications, there is no doubt a number of students will suffer.

8.  There are significant privacy concerns with the Common Core Standards.  Seriously, this is worth looking in to.

9.  The Common Core ignores the dignity of certain careers.  I might be wrong about this, but the vibe of the Common Core seems to be all about college.  Vocational classes are expected to have their students do more writing, as if learning to weld or fix a car isn’t good enough on it’s own.  It’s not like kids aren’t writing in other classes.  But now their vocational classes must be intellectualized to have value.

Whew!  I’m sorry.  I know that is a lot of information.  My goal was to simply list some pros and cons of the Common Core, but that’s not as easy as it sounds.  This is a complex issue with a multitude of implications for our children and for the future of our country.  I don’t have it all figured out, but I am trying to stay informed. Below are some helpful links:

Privacy and the Common Core

Pros and Cons of the Common Core Standards

The Washington Post lists pros and cons

More pros and cons

Teachers Against Common Core

Catholic Scholars Blast Common Core

A Guided Exploration on Common Core

Common Core Sexualized American Education

nsp-1606-300x300 Photo fromNational School Products Blog

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