Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Common Bore Standards

There seems to be an effort on the part of education policy-makers in this country to transform the American public school classroom into a laboratory of boredom.  Places where youngsters focus principally on "foundational skills" and "anchor standards" and "key ideas"--places where we relentlessly test students (and teachers) to make sure that everyone is--quite literally--on the same page, maybe even on the same day at the same time.

It's all based, of course, on the daffy notion that we can measure anything.  All we need to do is identify a topic, break it down into smaller components, measure them.  Simple!  What we never seem to acknowledge is the great difficulty of measuring all the things in life that really matter--like hope and loyalty and devotion and love.  And learning.

No, measuring in education is not simple.  But it is simple-minded to think so.  It seems to equate education with the eating of a jar of pretzels--those little barrel-sized ones.  First, you weigh each student.  Then give each a jar of the pretzels.  Announce: "It's time to eat one pretzel now."  You watch; they eat one pretzel.  You weigh them again.  See a weight gain?  Progress!  It never seems to occur to anyone that there are kids who need two pretzels--or three or more.  Or some who need none--or want none.  Or hate salt.  Or react to gluten.  Or burn every calorie with a blast-furnace metabolism.  Or whatever.  Doesn't matter: Pretzels are the only item on the menu.  Barrels, the only shape.  Weight-gain the only measure.

I've looked recently at the Common Core Standards in literature for 8th graders.  I taught literature at that level for about thirty years, so I was curious to see what I should have been doing all that time. First, though, maybe I should tell you what I did do ...

  • We read stories by Washington Irving, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., O. Henry, Shirley Jackson, and numerous others.
  • We read (even memorized) poems by Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, William Shakespeare, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Stephen Crane, Edgar Poe, and numerous others.
  • We read Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew (and, in later years, Much Ado about Nothing).
  • We read the Goodrich and Hackett dramatization of The Diary of Anne Frank.
  • We read The Call of the Wild.
  • We saw films related to our reading.  Wrote essays of all sorts about our reading.
  • Among other things ...
All right, now what should I have been doing all that time--at least according to the Common Core Standards?  Well, I checked the "Text Exemplars" (even the language of all of this is ugly, isn't it?) appended to the Standards and saw that I was doing some things they recommend--e.g., The Diary of Anne Frank, "The Road Not Taken."  But that was about it.  The texts they listed were relentlessly multi-cultural (a good thing, mostly) and PC (Tom Sawyer is there--not Huckleberry Finn).

Of course, the authors of the Text Exemplars (that term gets uglier each time I write it!) are quick to note that their lists are "suggestive."  Oh yes.  We know what that means.  Lists become numbered stone tablets; suggestions become imperatives.  (Can't you hear the arguments now?  The kids in Yourtown read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer ... do we want them to have an advantage over the kids of Ourtown?)

I don't really object to the standards themselves, by the way.  They're innocuous enough.  Here's one of them (under the category Integration of Knowledge and Ideas

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.8.7 Analyze the extent to which a filmed or live production of a story or drama stays faithful to or departs from the text or script, evaluating the choices made by the director or actors.

What's to object to there?  Teachers have always done that.  Isn't it a good thing--at least initially--to talk about how a filmmaker has changed the text he or she is working from?  Sure.  A good thing.  But also a very low-level thing--a starting point only.  A film is not just a transformation of a text; it is an art form in its own right, with its own elements and goals and techniques and whatevers.  Applying this Standard strictly is a bit like focusing principally on the variety of apple Van Gogh painted in his Still Life with Apples.  It's mildly relevant, sure.  But widely aside the point.

My main objections to all of this, though, are born of a long history with this sort of thing.  As any educator knows, minimum standards become the maximum curriculum--especially when the standards are linked to testing students--and to evaluating a teacher's effectiveness.  If the Common Core Standards are what matters--what really matters--then what incentive is there for a teacher to deviate from them in the slightest?

To me, it's a horrifying thought, everyone doing the same thing at the same time, reminding me of painting-by-numbers or putting together a jigsaw puzzle of Frank Lloyd Wright's Falling Water and thinking you've designed the house.

In my career as a student--and as an educator--the greatest teachers I ever had--the greatest I worked alongside (and there were many)--were manifestly not like everyone else.  They were not doing what everyone else did, and they were not teaching in the same fashion as everyone else.  No, they were teaching about their passions in ways that fit with their personalities and with their habits of mind.  Some kids related; some didn't.  But the good thing?  During the day, a kid was going to find someone who was like him or her.  As a teacher I saw youngsters get excited in places that would have bored me as a kid, saw them bored in places that would have dazzled me.

I learned along the way, you see, that there are all kinds of ways to be effective in the classroom.  By watching my colleagues, I learned a lot, and I imitated like crazy--but I also learned that not everything I saw--as great as it was--fit me.  Over the years I had to create my own style--something that accommodated my personality, my mind, my passions.

We know, too, that students will remember very little of the specific content we teach--not unless they use it frequently or want to remember it.  But what they will remember is the human being they met in that classroom--that unique person who looked at the world in his or her own way, who was enthusiastic about the subject, who revered the life of the mind, who loved nothing more than being in the room with wacky kids like you.  A teacher's enthusiasm--genuine enthusiasm--can ignite kids who never would have believed they could catch fire, not in that class, that subject.

Of course, there are some teachers who are duds (as there are folks who are duds in every human enterprise--think of your own workplace), but we need to do everything we can to attract exciting young people into the profession of teaching--intelligent, creative, passionate, hard-working young men and women.  And the surest way not to do that?  Offer them on Day One some jars of pretzels and tell them how to dispense them (specific day and time).  Show them the scale in the room where you'll be measuring their "success."

You'll probably have to chase them out into the parking lot because they'll be driving off in search of a real career.


  1. Oh how I wholeheartedly agree! I know my Mom will be beaming when she read this, you two are quite like minded in this regard. I was told during a "prep your kids for State testing" parents meeting, "we Teacher's now unfortunately have to teach to test. What a shame.