Prelude: Happy May 9th! My goal of always posting no later than Tuesday of each week was superceded by miles of work travel, a happy graduation event, and an in-law invasion. (Margie, that does not make you an alien.) I also debated between writing about a friend’s description of early Bruce Springsteen and my own recent thoughts on 13-year-old boys, specifically, my 13-year-old boy. Upon remembering that this is Teacher Appreciation Week, however, all of those stories were set aside for another time. Teachers, how very much I appreciate all you do and the sea-change you are currently navigating. This week’s thoughts are on one of those changes. SRV
Obviously my head has been in the sand for the past several months as I am just now encountering the divisive public debate swirling around the Common Core State Standards. I must admit I find the hullabaloo perplexing. Having studied the standards in-depth since 2010, they do not confuse, upset, or scare me; in fact, I am excited at the potential they hold for students and educators everywhere. I cannot help but wonder if the folks crying doom and gloom have actually read each of the standards or if they are merely parroting others’ interpretations.
Let’s take a moment and look at a few of these “controversial” standards . . .
- CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL*.7.1 Cite several pieces of textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text. (*RL = Reading Literature)
- CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI*.7.1 Cite several pieces of textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text. (RI = Reading Informational Text)
The standards cited above are the first two Reading standards for 7th grade English Language Arts Literature and Informational Text. I’ve personally seen highly effective educators in my district teach these standards through a variety of methods and an assortment of texts. (Note: Common Core is not a curriculum and therefore does not mandate what types of texts are used. Remember that standards – the skills we want students to achieve – are different from curriculum.) The goals of the particular standards above are for students to be able to read a range of texts – novels, historical documents, technical manuals – and then analyze what each text explicitly communicates as well as what is inferred.
The example I use to explain the difference is one I affectionately call “Sally’s Yellow Dress.” Consider the following passage:
It was a bright, sunny morning. Sally sat up in bed, remembering that today was a special day; today was her mother’s birthday. Whenever Sally thought of her mother, images of yellow roses, bright sunsets, and butter-colored kitchen curtains immediately came to mind. Her mother loved all shades of yellow. Sally reached for her favorite yellow dress, knowing it would make her mother smile.
An example of a question that requires very little thinking and has a definitive answer is “What color was Sally’s dress?” This type of question can be answered by straightforward reading. “Sally reached for her favorite yellow dress . . .” The answer is right there, little thinking required. However, the type of question students need to be able to answer requires a bit more thought. “Why did Sally choose to wear a yellow dress?” At first students may say, “I have no idea. The passage doesn’t say why.” Those students are looking for the word “because,” as in, “Sally wore a yellow dress because . . .” Even at a young age students need to be able to picture the words, think of the implications and be able to say, “I believe Sally wore a yellow dress because she wanted to make her mother happy on her birthday by wearing something in her mom’s favorite color.” While simplistic, this example illustrates the need for students to be able to consider more than what is plainly stated. The ability to make logical inferences is a critical literacy skill, whether reading a pleasurable book, a complex voter ballot, or a detailed legal contract.
As a writer I appreciate the fact that the effective use of grammar and punctuation enhances clear communication. One misplaced modifier can wreak havoc. (She served sandwiches to the children on paper plates. What in the world were the children doing on paper plates?) I am therefore encouraged that Common Core State Standards include, but are not limited to, the following:
- CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L*.7.1 Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage when writing or speaking. (L = Language)
- CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.7.1b Choose among simple, compound, complex, and compound-complex sentences to signal differing relationships among ideas.
- CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.7.1c Place phrases and clauses within a sentence, recognizing and correcting misplaced and dangling modifiers. (Dangling modifier = a word or phrase that modifies a word not clearly stated in the sentence. Dangling is not a positive position for anything, whether boyfriends or modifiers.)
- CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.7.2 Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English capitalization, punctuation, and spelling when writing.
- CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.7.2b Spell correctly.
- CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.7.3 Use knowledge of language and its conventions when writing, speaking, reading, or listening.
- CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.7.4b Use common, grade-appropriate Greek or Latin affixes and roots as clues to the meaning of a word (e.g., belligerent, bellicose, rebel).
- CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.7.4c Consult general and specialized reference materials (e.g., dictionaries, glossaries, thesauruses), both print and digital, to find the pronunciation of a word or determine or clarify its precise meaning or its part of speech.
- CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.7.5 Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in word meanings.
I did not rewrite the standards listed above in order to hide underlying or sinister meaning. In fact, I cut and pasted them straight from the Common Core website available to the public at www.corestandards.org/. Can a standard be any more direct or non-threatening than Spell correctly? Demonstrate the ability to use standard English grammar when writing or speaking? Know how to use a thesaurus or dictionary? These are skills I would expect students, and my own children, to master.
Yesterday I met with 17 educators who gave up an entire day for the purpose of researching the Common Core Standards, discussing effective strategies and selecting appropriate texts. At no time were the teachers given a list of books and told, “You must select one of these.” The debate was lively as teachers discussed the merits of speeches by Winston Churchill, George W. Bush, Martin Luther King, and John F. Kennedy. Would a standard best be taught through Homer’s classic Odyssey or Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Paul Revere’s Ride? They passionately discussed the merits of To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, The Noble Experiment by Jackie Robinson and Alfred Duckett, and John Adams’ Letter on Thomas Jefferson. (Please know that the word “passionately” does not even come close to describing the way in which English teachers debate their love of certain texts. Separating an English teacher from his or her beloved novel is a bit like separating a mama bear from her cub. You do not want to come between them.) These teachers discussed ways of imbedding important and lasting American documents, documents that form the foundation of our democracy, into their lessons on comprehension, themes, and even grammar. As these colleagues discussed the pros and cons of various selections, they were eventually able to come to consensus on what text-types to use. How I wish that those brandishing torches and pitchforks toward all things Common Core could have spent the day in that room, engaging with dedicated educators who are committed to their students in spite of increasingly challenging jobs and countless off-the-clock hours.
As I left yesterday’s meeting I stopped for a moment to chat with an educator recently honored for being one of our district’s most effective educators. A mother of 4 whose husband is currently deployed in Afghanistan, I asked her to share her thoughts on the Common Core debate. “People who criticize these standards have never been in my classroom. They haven’t seen the prose and poetry written by my 7th graders and haven’t heard those same students intelligently reflect on complex pieces of text. They haven’t participated in our thoughtful conversations on the foundational theories of literacy. There is nothing scary there. The standards promote the quality of teaching that effective teachers have always provided.”
Public education is not perfect. There are components of the system that are damaged and must be addressed and repaired. Common Core Standards will not magically fix all that is broken, but I believe they provide a path in the right direction. I have made the choice to be a part of the solution. My husband and I have also made the decision to be active participants in our sons’ public school education; supporting their teachers as we work together to do what we feel is best for our children. So far our boys are turning out okay. Other families may choose differently. Not all can afford private schooling and in families where two incomes are necessary in order keep children clothed and fed, homeschooling may not be an option. The reality is that public schools continue to provide schooling for the vast majority of Americans. (Note: Nine of my nieces and nephews are, or were, homeschooled. I have a cousin who homeschools his two children and another cousin who sends his 4 children to a Classical Christian school. We have many friends who homeschool their children, some have gone the private route, most partner with public education. My husband is a public school teacher, as is his brother. My mom is a retired educator. My oldest son, a public school graduate, is one of the most spiritually minded young men I know, a man who longs to make a difference in the world. These different paths for different people represent choices that were made for a variety of reasons.) My personal belief is that the Common Core Standards, when implemented by caring and effective educators, will challenge our public schools to do what is necessary to prepare all students for paths beyond the classroom, whether those paths lead to college or straight to a career. Fear, at least for me, is not a part of the equation.
The public school debate is one that stirs strong emotions, especially among Christians of various stripes. I’ve read a number of views and want to share a few of my favorite.
A good review of an interesting book . . www.crosswalk.com/blogs/challies/going-public-your-child-can-thrive-in-public-school.html/
One homeschooling mom, not a Common Core fan, is concerned over what she sees as another “camp” war that can evoke un-Christian attitudes. http://www.freelancehomeschoolmom.com/the-common-core-standards-homeschooling-and-the-christian/
More food for thought http://www.huffingtonpost.com/austin-carty/christianity-public-education_b_918287.html