Archives For Common Core

When Erik Larson was interviewed by the NY Times for his latest book Dead Wake about the sinking of the R.M.S. Lusitania, he Screenshot 2015-03-11 23.14.19expressed his purpose for choosing to write in the narrative non-fiction genre:

“It is not necessarily my goal to inform. It is my goal to create a historical experience with my books. My dream, my ideal, is that someone picks up a book of mine, starts reading it, and just lets themselves sink into the past and then read the thing straight through, and emerge at the end feeling as though they’ve lived in another world entirely.”

There is nothing of analysis in his stated purpose for writing, but there is a desire to have a reader engulfed by a narrative that ends in the reader “feeling.”

In contrast, in the first three anchor standards for reading (grades k-12), the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for English Language Arts spell out the expanse between their objectives and Larson’s expression to use narrative non-fiction to connect viscerally with the readers:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.1
Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.2
Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.3
Analyze how and why individuals, events, or ideas develop and interact over the course of a text.

The anchor and grade level standards were written purposely to be devoid of any reference to reader’s feeling or connection. These standards were carefully articulated not to be confused with the popular  Reader Response Theory supported by Louise Rosenblatt that focused “on the reader rather than the author or the content and form of the work.”

“Reading closely” in the CCSS has been spun as “close reading”, defined by the The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) as:

Close, analytic reading stresses engaging with a text of sufficient complexity directly and examining meaning thoroughly and methodically, encouraging students to read and reread deliberately. Directing student attention on the text itself empowers students to understand the central ideas and key supporting details. It also enables students to reflect on the meanings of individual words and sentences; the order in which sentences unfold; and the development of ideas over the course of the text, which ultimately leads students to arrive at an understanding of the text as a whole. (2011, p. 7)

Analyzing the definition of close reading (above) through analysis in a WORD SIFT highlights the CCSS emphasis on ideas and meaning for the student:Screenshot 2015-03-11 22.02.36

Missing from this definition? The word “author.”

This word sift analysis illustrates how the “close reading” advocated by the CCSS requires students to read for meaning, with no consideration to the intent of an author.

The NYTimes interview with Larson provided him the opportunity to state that he does not write to a standard; he says nothing about “meaning” and “ideas”. Instead, Larson poetically defined his goal for writing. He writes for the reader to have an experience, and that experience is ” his “dream” or “ideal.”

While the language of the Common Core contrives to eliminate the author’s role in creating texts, those same texts students will be expected to “close read”, Erik Larson reminds us that authors do not write to meet a standard.

Authors write to create feelings in their readers, whether those readers are reading closely or not.

There are advertising campaigns that successfully employ the technique of “advertised ignorance” or “false authority” where an individual proudly declares that he or she is not an expert  just before rendering an expert opinion. An example for this form of advertising was from a series of promotions for Vicks Formula 44 cough syrup starring actors who portrayed doctors on popular soap operas. Here is the 1986 TV commercial starring Peter Bergman:

This commercial was the second in a series of successful TV doctor endorsements for over the counter medicines; people responded well to taking medical advice from a celebrity who admitted he was not an expert.

The broad acceptance of this logical fallacy may explain why the creators of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) were successful promoters.  With minimal experience as educators or certifications in K-12 education, a handful of individuals convinced the National Governors Association that a set of national achievement standards was necessary to improve education.

These “Architects of the Common Core”, David Coleman and Jason Zimba, founded The Grow Network, an internet-based consulting organization before joining with Sue Pimentel to found Student Achievement Partners (SAP), a non-profit organization which researched and developed “achievement based” assessment standards. These three were not experts in education through research or practice, but like the doctor who plays an expert on TV, they were confidently endorsing the Common Core as the cure for all of the nation’s education ills.

The exorbitant cost for their diagnosis and cure was the topic of an article that ran in The Federalist (January 2015) by   titled Ten Common Core Promoters Laughing All the Way to the Bank. The tagline:

People intimately involved with creating or pushing Common Core are making a lot of money despite having demonstrated exactly zero proven success at increasing student achievement.

In addition to Coleman, Zimba, and Pimental, the article lists other who have endorsed the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for profit. Former New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein; Former New York Education Commissioner John King;  Joanne Weiss, Chief of Staff to Education Secretary Arne Duncan; Idaho State Superintendent Tom Luna; Former Education Secretary Bill Bennett; and Dane Linn, Vice President for the Business Roundtable. The lone educator William McCallum, head of the University of Arizona’s math department, has begun a nonprofit curriculum company, Illustrative Mathematics, to generate materials for Common Core.

In her article, Pullman lists the credentials for each of the ten promoters and details how much they have financially gained, or still stand to gain, for supporting the Common Core. What these ten individuals collectively lack in education experience, they make up in business acumen. Like the handsome pretend doctor in the Vicks 44 commercials, who was paid handsomely for his marketing, these quasi-educators endorsing the Common Core will reap profits whether the CCSS initiative is successful or not.

Of course the irony of this form of endorsement is that one of the key shifts in education for the English Language arts standards is that students should place an emphasis on evidence whenever they make a claim:

The Common Core emphasizes using evidence from texts to present careful analyses, well-defended claims, and clear information.

If this key shift in the CCSS had been considered when the standards were in their genesis, there might have been an emphasis on requiring evidence for the claims of these CCSS promoters. However, once the standards were announced in 2009, 44 states rapidly moved to adopt the CCSS. Many of these states were spurred on by the Race to the Top federal funding deadlines that awarded extra points to applications completed by August 2010.

The nationwide rush to adopt the standards had been spurred on by non-educators or policy wonks that represented businesses that stood to profit as state after state swallowed what has turned out to be costly, even bitter, medicine.

Whether that CCSS medicine will be effective is yet to be determined, but twelve states who had initially signed on have filed to opt out….A decision not to follow the “doctor’s” orders.

Teachers are looking to include informational text in their English Language Arts classrooms, but what about informational space?

The hard copy of the NYTimes Saturday Sports section on Saturday, July 12, 2014, was an opportunity to teach how space can be information.

full page_edited-2-1

My photo; photo also featured in Deadspin blog

The photo above shows the front page of Sports Saturday. Students can note the banner is in the same location, floating at the top of the page with teaser photos for the content inside. Under the banner and centered on the page is  a feature that is usually on the inside of the sports section, a column of player trades and transactions in the different sports leagues for the day. The column is actual size, straddling the paper’s fold and surrounded by white space. Below the fold, one transaction in the column is highlighted in bright yellow. The rest of the page is blank.LeBraun trade(22)

 

Why the single highlighted line? What was the reason for all the white space? 

The Cleveland Cavaliers signed LeBron James.
Yes, during the same week when the semi-finals and finals for the 2014 World Cup riveted millions, the only news that mattered to sports fans was a short declarative sentence, “Cleveland Cavaliers signed F James LeBron.”

That was the purpose of the white space….to provide emphasis.

The other transactions listed from Major League Baseball, National Basketball Association, and the National Hockey League, however significant in the future, were not as significant at this moment.

That was the purpose of the yellow highlighted line, “Cleveland Cavaliers signed F James LeBron.”

In determining an author’s purpose, which in this case was the layout editor’s purpose, the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) offers a methodology to have student review the craft and structure of a text. Teachers use these these standards to frame questions about the text:

English Language Arts Craft and Structure Anchor Standards

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.4
Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.5
Analyze the structure of texts, including how specific sentences, paragraphs, and larger portions of the text (e.g., a section, chapter, scene, or stanza) relate to each other and the whole.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.6
Assess how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text.

The front page of this Sports Saturday provides multiple opportunities to discuss the difference between denotation (what is on the page) and connotation (what is implied). In helping students to consider the craft and structure of this particular layout, a teacher could use questions based on Webb’s Depth of Knowledge (DOK) that might be:

• How would you summarize what you read in the written text? (denotation)
• How would you summarize what you see in the white space in contrast to the written text? (denotation)
• What do you notice about where the highlighted information is placed? (denotation)
• What conclusions can you draw about the layout editor’s choice to highlight only one player transaction? (connotation)
• What is your interpretation of the use of the white space ? (connotation)
• Can you formulate a theory for the layout ? (connotation)
• Can you elaborate on a reason the editor used the small font in the player transaction column for this news? (connotation)

Of course, the story of the LeBron signing was also inside the Saturday Sports section. Michael Powell wrote the feature article  Star Reconnects With a Special Place in His Heart where the news of LeBron’s return was celebrated:

“The man knows his region, and his audience, and his life. Even as the news broke on television, you could hear out your window Cleveland residents loosening more or less random whoops. Car horns beeped. Strangers exchanged bro-hugs and palm slaps” (Powell-NYTimes)

Students could read Powell’s article to extend their thinking about the impact of this one player’s return to a team he left several years ago. Then, there is LeBron’s own essay, co-authored by Lee Jenkins, in Sports Illustrated. In this essay, LeBron explains the reasons for his return:

“But this is not about the roster or the organization. I feel my calling here goes above basketball. I have a responsibility to lead, in more ways than one, and I take that very seriously. My presence can make a difference in Miami, but I think it can mean more where I’m from. I want kids in Northeast Ohio, like the hundreds of Akron third-graders I sponsor through my foundation, to realize that there’s no better place to grow up. Maybe some of them will come home after college and start a family or open a business. That would make me smile. Our community, which has struggled so much, needs all the talent it can get”  (LeBron/Jenkins Sports Illustrated).

In this essay, LeBron anticipates (and connotes) the level of commitment that will be necessary for continued success:

In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have” (LeBron/Jenkins Sports Illustrated).

These other two informational texts could also provide opportunities to have students practice denotation and connotation:

  • How would you summarize what you read in these written texts? (denotation)
  • What conclusion can be drawn after reading these three texts? (connotation)
  • What is your interpretation after reading these texts? Support your rationale. (denotation/connotation)

A final exercise? Have students research the cost of a full page spread in the NYTimes ($70,000 non-profit; up to $200,000 for profit). Have students discuss or make arguments on the use of white space in this layout once they know the expense of the layout editor’s choice.

The best part of these exercises is that the reader does not need to know basketball to appreciate how this information is communicated: through layout, through a feature story, and through a personal essay.  I do not follow basketball, and I am only peripherally aware of LeBron’s role in the NBA. I was intrigued, however, about the use of white space to convey information. I also considered the different size of spaces related to the text. The size of a basketball court in the NBA is  94′ by 50′ or 4700 square feet. In another measurement, LeBron has a rumored vertical leap the size of 40 inches or so (the average NBA player can jump 28 inches). Finally, the size of the NYTimes page  is 24″ x 36″ or 864 square inches.

In each case, size matters. In this context, space matters as well.

Since I write to understand what I think, I have decided to focus this particular post on the different categories of assessments. My thinking has been motivated by helping teachers with ongoing education reforms that have increased demands to measure student performance in the classroom. I recently organized a survey asking teachers about a variety of assessments: formative, interim, and summative. In determining which is which, I have witnessed their assessment separation anxieties.

Therefore, I am using this “spectrum of assessment” graphic to help explain:

Screenshot 2014-06-20 14.58.50

The “bands” between formative and interim assessments and the “bands” between interim and summative blur in measuring student progress.

At one end of the grading spectrum (right) lie the high stakes summative assessments that given at the conclusion of a unit, quarter or semester. In a survey given to teachers in my school this past spring,100 % of teachers understood these assessments to be the final measure of student progress, and the list of examples was much more uniform:

  • a comprehensive test
  • a final project
  • a paper
  • a recital/performance

At the other end, lie the low-stakes formative assessments (left) that provide feedback to the teacher to inform instruction. Formative assessments are timely, allowing teachers to modify lessons as they teach. Formative assessments may not be graded, but if they are, they do not contribute many points towards a student’s GPA.

In our survey, 60 % of teachers generally understood formative assessments to be those small assessments or “checks for understanding” that let them move on through a lesson or unit. In developing a list of examples, teachers suggested a wide range of examples of formative assessments they used in their daily practice in multiple disciplines including:

  • draw a concept map
  • determining prior knowledge (K-W-L)
  • pre-test
  • student proposal of project or paper for early feedback
  • homework
  • entrance/exit slips
  • discussion/group work peer ratings
  • behavior rating with rubric
  • task completion
  • notebook checks
  • tweet a response
  • comment on a blog

But there was anxiety in trying to disaggregate the variety of formative assessments from other assessments in the multiple colored band in the middle of the grading spectrum, the area given to interim assessments. This school year, the term interim assessments is new, and its introduction has caused the most confusion with members of my faculty. In the survey, teachers were first provided a definition:

An interim assessment is a form of assessment that educators use to (1) evaluate where students are in their learning progress and (2) determine whether they are on track to performing well on future assessments, such as standardized tests or end-of-course exams. (Ed Glossary)

Yet, one teacher responding to this definition on the survey noted, “sounds an awful lot like formative.” Others added small comments in response to the question, “Interim assessments do what?”

  • Interim assessments occur at key points during the marking period.
  • Interim assessment measure when a teacher moves to the next step in the learning sequence
  • interim assessments are worth less than a summative assessment.
  • Interim assessments are given after a major concept or skill has been taught and practiced.

Many teachers also noted how interim assessments should be used to measure student progress on standards such as those in the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) or standardized tests. Since our State of Connecticut is a member of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC), nearly all teachers placed practice for this assessment clearly in the interim band.

But finding a list of generic or even discipline specific examples of other interim assessments has proved more elusive. Furthermore, many teachers questioned how many interim assessments were necessary to measure student understanding? While there are multiple formative assessments contrasted with a minimal number of summative assessments, there is little guidance on the frequency of interim assessments.  So there was no surprise when 25% of our faculty still was confused in developing the following list of examples of interim assessments:

  • content or skill based quizzes
  • mid-tests or partial tests
  • SBAC practice assessments
  • Common or benchmark assessments for the CCSS

Most teachers believed that the examples blurred on the spectrum of assessment, from formative to interim and from interim to summative. A summative assessment that went horribly wrong could be repurposed as an interim assessment or a formative assessment that was particularly successful could move up to be an interim assessment. We agreed that the outcome or the results was what determined how the assessment could be used.

Part of teacher consternation was the result of assigning category weights for each assessment so that there would be a common grading procedure using common language for all stakeholders: students, teachers, administrators, and parents. Ultimately the recommendation was to set category weights to 30% summative, 10% formative, and 60% interim in the Powerschool grade book for next year.

In organizing the discussion, and this post, I did come across several explanations on the rational or “why” for separating out interim assessments. Educator Rick DuFour emphasized how the interim assessment responds to the question, “What will we do when some of them [students] don’t learn it [content]?” He argues that the data gained from interim assessments can help a teacher prevent failure in a summative assessment given later.Screenshot 2014-06-20 16.50.15

Another helpful explanation came from a 2007 study titled “The Role of Interim Assessments in a Comprehensive Assessment System,” by the National Center for the Improvement of Educational Assessment and the Aspen Institute. This study suggested that three reasons to use interim assessments were: for instruction, for evaluation, and for prediction. They did not use a color spectrum as a graphic, but chose instead a right triangle to indicate the frequency of the interim assessment for instructing, evaluating and predicting student understanding.

I also predict that our teachers will become more comfortable with separating out the interim assessments as a means to measure student progress once they see them as part of a large continuum that can, on occasion,  be a little fuzzy. Like the bands on a color spectrum, the separation of assessments may blur, but they are all necessary to give the complete (and colorful) picture of student progress.

At the intersection of data and evaluation, here is a hypothetical scenario:Screenshot 2014-06-08 20.56.29

A young teacher meets an evaluator for a mid-year meeting.

“85 % of the students are meeting the goal of 50% or better, in fact they just scored an average of 62.5%,” the young teacher says.

“That is impressive,” the evaluator responds noting that the teacher had obviously met his goal. “Perhaps,you could also explain how the data illustrates individual student performance and not just the class average?”

“Well,” says the teacher offering a printout, “according to the (Blank) test, this student went up 741 points, and this student went up….” he continues to read from the  spreadsheet, “81points…and this student went up, um, 431 points, and…”

“So,” replies the evaluator, “these points mean what? Grade levels? Stanine? Standard score?”

“I’m not sure,” says the young teacher, looking a bit embarrassed, “I mean, I know my students have improved, they are moving up, and they are now at a 62.5% average, but…” he pauses.

“You don’t know what these points mean,” answers the evaluator, “why not?”

This teacher who tracked an upward trajectory of points was able to illustrate a trend that his students are improving, but the numbers or points his students receive are meaningless without data analysis. What doesn’t he know?

“We just were told to do the test. No one has explained anything…yet,” he admits.

There will need to be time for a great deal of explaining as the new standardized tests, Smarter Balanced Assessments (SBAC) and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), that measure the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are implemented over the next few years. These digital tests are part of an educational reform mandate that will require teachers at every grade level to become adept at interpreting data for use in instruction. This interpretation will require dedicated professional development at every grade level.

Understanding how to interpret data from these new standardized tests and others must be part of every teacher’s professional development plan. Understanding a test’s metrics is critical because there exists the possibility of misinterpreting results.  For example, the data in the above scenario would appear that one student (+741 points) is making enormous leaps forward while another student (+81) is lagging behind. But suppose how different the data analysis would be if the scale of measuring student performance on this particular test was organized in levels of 500 point increments. In that circumstance, one student’s improvement of +741 may not seem so impressive and a student achieving +431 may be falling short of moving up a level. Or perhaps, the data might reveal that a student’s improvement of 81 points is not minimal, because that student had already maxed out towards the top of the scale. In the drive to improve student performance, all teachers must have a clear understanding of how the results are measured, what skills are tested, and how can this information can be used to drive instruction.

Therefore, professional development must include information on the metrics for how student performance will be measured for each different test. But professional development for data analysis cannot stop at the powerpoint!   Data analysis training cannot come “canned,” especially, if the professional development is marketed by a testing company. Too often teachers are given information about testing metrics by those outside the classroom with little opportunity to see how the data can help their practice in their individual classrooms. Professional development must include the conversations and collaborations that allow teachers to share how they could use or do use data in the classroom. Such conversations and collaborations with other teachers will provide opportunities for teachers to review these test results to support or contradict data from other assessments.

Such conversations and collaborations will also allow teachers to revise lessons or units and update curriculum to address weakness exposed by data from a variety of assessments. Interpreting data must be an ongoing collective practice for teachers at every grade level; teacher competency with data will come with familiarity.

In addition, the collection of data should be on a software platform that is accessible and integrated with other school assessment programs. The collection of data must be both transparent in the collection of results and secure in protecting the privacy of each student. The benefit of technology is that digital testing platforms should be able to calculate results in a timely manner in order to free up the time teachers can have to implement changes suggested because of data analysis. Most importantly, teachers should be trained how to use this software platform.

Student data is a critical in evaluating both teacher performance and curriculum effectiveness, and teachers must be trained how to interpret rich pool of data that is coming from new standardized tests. Without the professional development steps detailed above, however, evaluation conversations in the future might sound like the response in the opening scenario:

“We just were told to do the test. No one has explained anything…yet.”

capt As the 10th grade English teacher, Linda’s role had been to prepare students for the rigors of the State of Connecticut Academic Performance Test, otherwise known as the CAPT. She had been preparing students with exam-released materials, and her collection of writing prompts stretched back to 1994.  Now that she will be retiring, it is time to clean out the classroom. English teachers are not necessarily hoarders, but there was evidence to suggest that Linda was stocked with enough class sets of short stories to ensure  students were always more than adequately prepared. Yet, she was delighted to see these particular stories go.
“Let’s de-CAPT-itate,” we laughed and piled up the cartons containing well-worn copies of short stories.
Out went Rough Touch. Out went Machine Runner. Out went Farewell to Violet, and a View from the Bridge.
I chuckled at the contents of the box labelled”depressing stories” before chucking them onto the pile.
Goodbye to Amanda and the Wounded Birds. Farewell to A Hundred Bucks of Happy. Adios to Catch the Moon. We pulled down another carton labeled  “dog stories” containing LibertyViva New JerseyThe Dog Formally Known as Victor Maximilian Bonaparte Lincoln Rothbaum. They too were discarded without a tear.
The CAPT’s Response to Literature’s chief flaw was the ludicrous diluting of Louise Rosenblatt’s Reader Response Theory where students were asked to “make a connection:”

What does the story say about people in general?  In what ways does it remind you of people you have known or experiences you have had?  You may also write about stories or other books you have read, or movies, works of art, or television programs you have seen.

That question was difficult for many of the literal readers, who, in responding to the most obvious plot point, might answer, “This story has a dog and I have a dog.” How else to explain all the dog stories? On other occasions, I found out that while taking standardized test in the elementary grades students had been told, “if you have no connection to the story, make one up!” Over the years, the CAPT turned our students into very creative liars rather than literary analysts.

 

The other flaw in the Response to Literature  was the evaluation question. Students were asked,  

How successful was the author in creating a good piece of literature?  Use examples from the story to explain your thinking.

Many of our students found this a difficult question to negotiate, particularly if they thought the author did not write a good piece of literature, but rather an average or mildly enjoyable story. They did manage to make their opinions known, and  one of my favorite student responses began, “While this story is no  Macbeth, there are a few nice metaphors…”

Most of the literature on the CAPT did come from reputable writers, but they were not the quality stories found in anthologies like Saki’s The Interlopers or Anton Chekhov’s The Bet. To be honest, I did not think the CAPT essays were an authentic activity, and I particularly did not like the selections on the CAPT’s Response to Literature section.

Now the CAPT will be replaced by the Smarter Balanced Assessments (SBAC), as Connecticut has selected SBAC as their assessment consortium to measure progress with the Common Core State Standards, and the test will move to 11th grade. This year (2014) is the pilot test only; there are no exemplars and no results.  The SBAC is digital, and in the future we will practice taking this test on our devices, so there is no need to hang onto class sets of short stories. So why am I concerned that there will be no real difference with the SBAC? Cleaning the classroom may be a transition that is more symbolic of our move from paper to keyboard than in our gaining an authentic assessment.

Nevertheless, Linda’s classroom looked several tons lighter.

“We are finally de-CAPT-itated!” I announced looking at the stack of boxes ready for the dumpster.

“Just in time to be SBAC-kled!” Linda responded cheerfully.

An ad supporting the Common Core State Standards posted by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation featured a Missouri Teacher of the Year, Jamie Manker, saying, “I support the Common Core because it’s asking kids to think.”

Screen Shot 2014-05-03 at 7.31.27 AM

My immediate reaction was, “Good Heavens! What did Manker’s students do before the implementation of the Common Core? Thinking should have been happening all along!”

Of course her students had been thinking or she would not have been a teacher of the year. Her statement may have been truncated to fit on on the #SupporttheCore poster. Yet, she is not alone in making such statements. There have been a number of teachers of the year who state that their students are doing better work because of the Common Core:

From Nancie Lindblom Arizona 2013 Teacher of the Year, The new standards provide the opportunity to do this by increasing the expectations for all students, allowing me to challenge my students to think analytically.”

From Ms. Sponaugle 2014 West Virginia Teacher of the Year, “My students are engaged, they’re motivated, and they’re learning, and that’s what the common core standards are all about-preparing our children to be confident and capable in an ever-more competitive world.”

Again, these admissions are puzzling. Why would a teacher whose credentials and instructional practice are exemplary enough to warrant a state award wait for an “opportunity” to challenge students to think analytically? Or how would a teacher of the year not already be engaging students in order to prepare them for an ever-more competitive world? Did they not already use a set of standards before the Common Core in their classrooms?

Without context, these teachers’ statements make them appear less competent. In an ironic twist, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s use of teachers of the year as promotional tools has the unfortunate effect of leaving them open to the following line of criticism: What kind of teachers were they B.C.C.(Before the Common Core) when they admit their students were not being challenged?

Their overstatements on behalf of the Common Core contribute to the unfortunate generalization that B.C.C.(Before the Common Core) students were not engaged. They were not being prepared for a competitive world. They did not think.

Collectively, their statements open up a single tricky question for these teachers of the year…..Why not?

The 4th period senior Advanced Placement Literature class watched Hamlet die four times on Friday. Four times was all the time we had.

These students have been reading and annotating the great soliloquies in Hamlet, but since this is a drama, they have benefitted much more from watching scenes from several film versions of the play. The closed caption feature is on so the students “read” the play while the actors in each cast attempt to, “Fit the action to the word and the word to the action,” per Shakespeare’s directions.

Watching the different film productions complements the study of literary critical theory. These students have been analyzing works of literature through a psychoanalytic, historic, or Marxist lenses, and they are familiar with New Criticism which is so similar to the Common Core State Standards. They know there is more than one way to read a text. Watching the different versions of Hamlet illustrates there are different ways directors and actors interpret and act the text as well.

Moreover, watching the different versions meets the Common Core State Standard:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.11-12.7
Analyze multiple interpretations of a story, drama, or poem (e.g., recorded or live production of a play or recorded novel or poetry), evaluating how each version interprets the source text. (Include at least one play by Shakespeare)

This year, I used the 1996 Franco Zefferelli version, which stars Mel Gibson as Hamlet, as the “spine” of analysis for the class. His version is also the shortest, but that is what happens when Zefferelli’s interpretation means he rearranges the order of scenes and drops Fortinbras from the plot entirely.

For “speaking the speech trippingly on the tongue,” I showed  selections from the Kenneth Branagh version (1996) in which he plays the title role. I also used scenes from the much praised 1948 classic starring and directed by Laurence Olivier, as well as the most recent BBC production directed by Greg Doran with David Tennant as Hamlet. To provide contrasts to these versions, the students also watched short scenes from the Hallmark production directed and acted by Campbell Scott and Michael Almereyda’s 2000 modernization with Ethan Hawke as Hamlet.

The scenario of film clips went in this order:

Act I; scene i: The “Who’s there?” opening:

  • Branagh (Note: Jack Lemmon as Marcello is woefully miscast)
  • BBC (Patrick Stewart plays both Ghost and Claudius)
  • Olivier (students thought the graphics and set were amazing for 1948)

Act I; scene v: In order to have students appreciate the complexity of the Ghost’s request, I showed different versions of the Ghost scene with Hamlet. I started with Zefferelli, and then moved to the Branagh version.  I added two more versions to the line-up: short clips from the 1964 Grigori Kozintsev‘s version and a nightmarish version (2007) by Alexander Fodor. To have a sense, here are some clips to compare of the Ghost meeting Hamlet:

Kenneth Branagh
Grigori Kozintsev

Alexander Fodor

I had asked the students to consider the origin of the Ghost-from Heaven (“spirit of health”), from Purgatory (“till my sins were purged”), or Hell (“goblin damned”). Where did they believe the Ghost originated? After watching the clips, they decided:

  • Zefferelli: Heaven or Purgatory (“The ghost looks so sad..”)
  • Branagh: Hell (“there’s fire coming out of the ground! it’s Hell unlashed,” said one.)
  • Hallmark: Hell (“there is a hand that comes from the ground!” “He’s wounded by the Ghost!”)
  • Fodor: Hell (“That’s an abusive dad!”)
  • Grigori Kozintsev: Hell or Purgatory (“Darth Vadar!”)

Act III; scene iv: The students also watched the stabbing of Polonius in Gertrude’s bedchamber where Zefferelli’s version veers into a disturbing Oedipal psychoanalysis akin to Olivier’s version. Students compared that version with the more toned down version from Branagh before moving onto Act IV.

Finally, when we arrived at Act V; scene ii, I lined up the five different versions moving between the Smartboard and a small projector. This year, I followed this order and have summarized the student responses:

  1. Starting with Zefferelli’s authentic combat, Hamlet is both clown and avenger. The three bouts are elaborate and full of suspense; my students were amazed at the hand-to-hand combat that would have been for “entertainment.” Glenn Close’s Gertrude dies in pain with wonderful contortions, and one student noted hearing “a satisfying “crunch” when Claudius is finally stabbed. As the camera pulls away, four bodies litter the stage, and the “rest is silence.”
  2. Branagh wisely kept Fortinbras in the play (all four hours of it!) using the setting of Blenheim Palace in England, which could serve as a substitute for the Russian Winter Palace of the Tsars in his Marxist take on the play. The students did not care for the elaborate staging in the death of Claudius who is “fed” poison after he has been lanced by a foil and crushed by a falling chandelier. They did, however, give “thumbs up” to the editing which juxtaposes the combat between Laertes and Hamlet with the invasion of the palace by Fortinbras. One of the open-ended questions I had asked was to choose “Fortinbras or Hamlet: The soldier or the scholar?” This film put most student squarely in Fortinbras’s corner as the man of action.
  3. The BBC version switches between security camera feed and with a single-camera setup giving the impression that the action recorded will be later viewed in some criminal investigation. Patrick Stewart returned to the BBC as Claudius where played the same role in 1980 with Derek Jacobi as Hamlet. In the final scene, confronted by Hamlet, Stewart’s Claudius takes the cup and with a resigned shrug, drinks the remaining poison and falls dead a few inches from his beloved queen. My students thought this version was hilarious, a dark and cynical twist on justice.
  4. The Almereyda version suggests that Gertrude, played by Diane Venora, willingly drinks from the cup in order to protect Hamlet and that Laertes played by Liev Schreiber is not Claudius’s dupe. As Hamlet remarks to Laertes, “You do but dally. I pray you, pass with your best violence,” Schreiber’s brutish and vengeful son of Polonius stands up with a concealed weapon and, in the scuffle that follows, shoots Hamlet in the abdomen before being wounded in the same way himself. My students reacted in shock:”didn’t see that coming!”  Once avenged, Schreiber’s next act is one of brotherhood towards Hamlet as he hands the weapon off for Hamlet to kill Claudius. Viewers should note that Horatio has something useful to do in this version, as he holds the dying Hamlet upright to hunt Claudius.  

Watching these four Hamlets die took all the time we had in our block schedule (80 minutes). A few more minutes, and I could have offered a fifth? Which one? I never did get to Kevin Kline’s Hamlet (1990), or Richard Burton’s (1964) filmed rehearsal.  There are so many excellent choices from directors, and each has a different way “to draw thy breath in pain. To tell my story.”

Die again, Hamlet, please, die again.

Screen Shot 2014-04-06 at 11.16.51 AMNot so long ago, 11th grade was a great year of high school. The pre-adolescent fog had lifted, and the label of “sophomore,” literally “wise-fool,” gave way to the less insulting “junior.” Academic challenges and social opportunities for 16 and 17 years olds increased as students sought driver’s permits/licenses, employment or internships in an area of interest. Students in this stage of late adolescence could express interest in their future plans, be it school or work.

Yet, the downside to junior year had always been college entrance exams, and so, junior year had typically been spent in preparation for the SAT or ACT. When to take these exams had always been up to the student who paid a base price $51/SAT or $36.50/ACT for the privilege of spending hours testing in a supervised room and weeks in anguish waiting for the results. Because a college accepts the best score, some students could choose to take the test many times as scores generally improve with repetition.

Beginning in 2015, however, junior students must prepare for another exam in order to measure their learning using the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). The two federally funded testing consortiums, Smarter Balanced Assessments (SBAC) or the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) have selected 11th grade to determine the how college and career ready a student is in English/Language Arts and Math.

The result of this choice is that 11th grade students will be taking the traditional college entrance exam (SAT or ACT) on their own as an indicator of their college preparedness. In addition, they will take another state-mandated exam, either the SBAC or the PARRC, that also measures their college and career readiness. While the SAT or ACT is voluntary, the SBAC or PARRC will be administered during the school day, using 8.5 hours of instructional time.

Adding to these series of tests lined up for junior year are the Advanced Placement exams. There are many 11th grade students who opt to take Advanced Placement courses in a variety of disciplines either to gain college credit for a course or to indicate to college application officers an academic interest in college level material. These exams are also administered during the school day during the first weeks of May, each taking 4 hours to complete.

One more possible test to add to this list might be the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB test) which, according to the website Today’s Military,  is given to more than half of all high schools nationwide to students in grade 10th, 11th or 12th, although 10th graders cannot use their scores for enlistment eligibility.

The end result is that junior year has gradually become the year of testing, especially from the months of March through June, and all this testing is cutting into valuable instructional time. When students enter 11th grade, they have completed many pre-requisites for more advanced academic classes, and they can tailor their academic program with electives, should electives be offered. For example, a student’s success with required courses in math and science can inform his or her choices in economics, accounting, pre-calculus, Algebra II, chemistry, physics, or Anatomy and Physiology. Junior year has traditionally been a student’s greatest opportunity to improve a GPA before making college applications, so time spent learning is valuable. In contrast, time spent in mandated testing robs each student of classroom instruction time in content areas.

In taking academic time to schedule exams, schools can select their exam (2 concurrent) weeks for performance and non-performance task testing.  The twelve week period (excluding blackout dates) from March through June is the nationwide current target for the SBAC exams, and schools that choose an “early window” (March-April) will lose instructional time before the Advanced Placement exams which are given in May. Mixed (grades 11th & 12th) Advanced Placement classes will be impacted during scheduled SBACs as well because teachers can only review past materials instead of progressing with new topics in a content area. Given these circumstances, what district would ever choose an early testing window?  Most schools should opt for the “later window” (May) in order to allow 11th grade AP students to take the college credit exam before having to take (another) exam that determines their college and career readiness. Ironically, the barrage of tests that juniors must now complete to determine their “college and career readiness” is leaving them with less and less academic time to become college and career ready.

Perhaps the only fun remaining for 11th graders is the tradition of the junior prom. Except proms are usually held between late April and early June, when -you guessed it- there could be testing.

Opening speeches generally start with a “Welcome.”
Lucy Calkins started the 86th Saturday Reunion, March 22, 2014, at Teacher’s College with a conjunction.

“And this is the important thing” she addressed the crowd that was filling up the rows in the Riverside Cathedral, “the number of people who are attending has grown exponentially. This day is only possible with the goodwill of all.”

Grabbing the podium with both hands, and without waiting for the noise to die down, Calkins launched the day as if she was completing a thought she had from the last Saturday Reunion.

“We simply do not have the capacity to sign you up for workshops and check you in. We all have to be part of the solution.”

She was referring to the  workshops offered free of charge to educators by all Teachers College Reading and Writing Project (TCRWP) staff developers at Columbia University. This particular Saturday, there were over 125 workshops advertised on topic such as “argument writing, embedding historical fiction in nonfiction text sets, opinion writing for very young writers, managing workshop instruction, aligning instruction to the CCSS, using performance assessments and curriculum maps to ratchet up the level of teaching, state-of-the-art test prep, phonics, and guided reading.”

“First of all, ” she chided, “We cannot risk someone getting hit by a car.” Calkin’s concerns are an indication that the Saturday Reunion workshop program is a victim of its own success. The thousands of teachers disembarking from busses, cars, and taxis were directed by TCRWP minions to walk on sidewalks, wait at crosswalks, and “follow the balloons” to the Horace Mann building or Zankel Hall.

“Cross carefully,” she scolded in her teacher voice, “and be careful going into the sessions,” she continued, “the entrances to the larger workshops are the center doors, the exits are to the sides. We can’t have 800 people going in and out the same way.”

Safety talk over, Calkins turned her considerable energy to introducing a new collaborative venture, a website where educators can record their first hand experiences with the Common Core State Standards and Smarter Balanced Assessments (SBAC) or the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) testing.

And, as unbelievable as this sounds, Calkins admitted that, sometimes, “I get afraid to talk out.”
That is why, she explained, she has joined an all-star cast of educators (including Diane Ravitch, Kylene Beers, Grant Wiggins, Robert Marzano, Anthony Cody, Kathy Collins, Jay McTighe, David Pearson, Harvey “Smokey” Daniels and others-see below) in organizing a website where the voices of educators with first hand experience with standardized testing can document their experiences. The site is called Testing Talkhttp://testingtalk.org/) The site’s message on the home page states:

This site provides a space for you to share your observations of the new breed of standardized tests. What works? What doesn’t? Whether your district is piloting PARCC, Smarter Balanced, or its own test, we want to pass the microphone to you, the people closest to the students being tested. The world needs to hear your stories, insights, and suggestions. Our goal is collective accountability and responsiveness through a national, online conversation.

Screenshot 2014-03-31 21.56.01 Calkin’s promotion was directed to educators, “This will be a site for you to record your experience with testing, not to rant.” She noted that as schools “are spending billions, all feedback on testing should be open and transparent.” 

Winding down Calkins looked up from her notes. “You will all be engaged,” she promised. “Enter comments; sign your name,” she urged before closing with the final admonishment, “Be brave.”

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