Dawn Reader

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

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

More on Common Core

The other day this publication came in the mail--an ad (and a sample) for a classroom news magazine, a joint publishing project of the New York Times and Scholastic, Inc. (full disclosure: Scholastic published my YA biography of Jack London in 1997).

Of course, what leapt out at me was the phrase Common-core ready. The Core is so omnipresent now that companies of all sorts are naturally looking for ways to profit from it. We already know who the big money-makers will be: companies who publish classroom materials and tests--and test-scoring and data-handling outfits. We are talking billions.

By the way, I have no real objection to core experiences for kids. I think it's a good thing that kids all over the country learn some common terms, some common concepts--maybe read some texts in common, as well. When I taught junior English at Western Reserve Academy (2001-2011), the English Department required four common texts, one each marking period. We usually read Hamlet first, then The Scarlet Letter, The Awakening, and The Great Gatsby. (We also had "summer reading" texts in common; most recently, these were classic American plays, like The Glass Menagerie and The Crucible.) But beyond that, we WRA teachers enjoyed something called "academic freedom." Radical term these cookie-cutter days.

I also have no objection to Up Front, the magazine. I always loved Weekly Reader back in my own elementary school days, and there were years in my public school career (1966-1978, 1982-1997) when I had kids subscribe to--or I had a classroom set of--Scholastic's Scope magazine, a periodical designed for English teachers to use with students.

Up Front is a more "contemporary" publication--i.e., more pictures, fewer words--but there are informative articles about a wide assortment of things, from the design of the Supreme Court to South Africa to electronic trash to Tiananmen Square (1989). (Okay--some of the headlines are silly: What's the Deal with Iran? for example.) My only serious complaint really (beside the paucity of words, the prominence of pictures) is an inattention to the arts.

 I also can't really blame the publishers for their Common-Core marketing strategy: The Core is here and isn't going away anytime soon. Might as well use it to make a few (more) bucks.

No, what I object to--fiercely--is more and more standardization in education. And testing. High-stakes tests enforce conformity in the curriculum; indeed, the tests become the curriculum. And why not? If we are going to judge "competence"--of children, of teachers, of school districts--on standardized tests, well, it's foolhardy for a district to say, "You know what? We're going to do what we think is best for kids--tests be damned." That requires more courage than most of us are equipped with.

I ended my public school career just as statewide testing was hitting its stride in Ohio. (In fact, that movement was a principal reason I retired: I had become less teacher, more trainer.) A kid (an 8th grader) actually said this to me during our time studying Shakespeare and Much Ado about Nothing. Let's put it in the form of dialogue--appropriate!

KID: Is this going to be on the proficiency test?


KID: Then why are we doing it?

TEACHER: Because I'm bigger than you and could smash your face.

Okay, I didn't say that last thing. But when we have kids genuinely wondering why we're learning some things about Shakespeare, genuinely wondering why we "get off the subject" to pursue something interesting that just flew into our minds, then we should realize we're on a road we should not have taken. We should have gone the road less traveled by. It would have made all the difference. And still could ...

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