Literally….David Coleman

August 24, 2013 — 2 Comments

Literally added a new meaning this past month….literally.

A quick look at the Cambridge Dictionaries Online indicates that while the meaning of literally as ” having the real or original meaning of a word or phrase” will now include use of the word “to emphasize what you are saying”. A similar entry from an authority across the pond, Oxford Dictionaries notes:

In recent years an extended use of literally (and also literal) has become very common, where literally (or literal) is used deliberately in non-literal contexts, for added effect, as in they bought the car and literally ran it into the ground. This use can lead to unintentional humorous effects (we were literally killing ourselves laughing) and is not acceptable in formal contexts, though it is widespread.

This chatter about literally and literalness came to mind when I read the Frizzleblog on the Scholastic website ten “takeaways” from a presentation given by David Coleman, an architect of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and the current College Board president, to a group of New York City teachers. The blog entry was titled 10 Things Worth Doing in Your Classroom by  Suzanne McCabe, Editor in Chief at Scholastic, and she listed ten summaries from Coleman’s presentation on how to enrich classroom instruction.

Her summary statement #4 stopped me cold…literally.
4. Only draw conclusions that can be substantiated by the words on the page. Scrape away terms like “metaphorical,” and talk as simply as possible. Once you bring up metaphor and meaning, kids are out of the game.
McCabe may be misrepresenting Coleman in this statement, however, the Common Core State Standards promoted by Coleman centers on textual evidence, so the “conclusions substantiated by the words on the page” summarizes his preferred reading strategy.  In addition, his lack of classroom experience at any grade level explains why he may have said something akin to “kids are out of the game” when metaphors are discussed.
To the contrary, children of all ages understand metaphor according to Maria Popova in her post The Magic of Metaphor: What Children’s Minds Teach Us about the Evolution of the Imagination on her Brain Picking’s blog:

During pretend play, children effortlessly describe objects as other objects and then use them as such. A comb becomes a centipede; cornflakes become freckles; a crust of bread becomes a curb.

The combination of life experience and practice with similes (“pancakes are like nickels,”  “A roof is like a hat,”“Plant stems are like drinking straws,”) builds a student’s understanding of metaphors that are more complex (“”I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me” John 10:14). 

So why would a teacher want to “scrape” away metaphorical terms at this important stage in developing a student’s understanding of more sophisticated metaphors?
Furthermore, how could Coleman reconcile an author’s choice in using a metaphor if that metaphor is scraped away in order to talk as “simply as possible”? McCabe’s summary of Coleman’s position reduces students to reading “literally”, rendering them unable to appreciate an author’s craft .
For example, if students had to scrape away the  metaphorical ideas in some of Shakespeare’s most recognized literary comparisons, what would they say?

“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances.” As You Like It

Students may determine through textual evidence that Shakespeare was literally referring to the stage.

Night’s candles are burnt out, and jocund day
Stands tiptoe on the misty mountain tops.” Romeo and Juliet

Students may determine through textual evidence that Shakespeare was literally writing about candles.

Smiling sunStudents are more creative than Coleman recognizes in his untested design of the CCSS. From the beginning of their academic careers, they draw their metaphors: smiling suns, hearts in hands, trees with large red dots. They start simply “Freddie is a pig when he eats,” before moving to more sophisticated constructs on their own such as “Love is a chocolate fountain that never runs out.” They are capable of sustaining elaborate metaphors to explain the writing process:

I choose my audience very carefully when playing for an audience for the first time. I want constructive criticism, and therefore I prefer to have my peer musicians as well as my conductor or private instructor hear me play aloud for the first time. . . .When I have read and reread [the paper] so many times that I am unable to find any mistakes, I then like to read my paper aloud to my family or a group of my close friends in order to get their reactions. Maria, National Writing Project website

These students knew they were not writing about a pig, chocolate fountains, or conducting music. If Coleman had classroom experience, he would have first hand evidence about student creativity.

Finally, many of the most beloved children stories are saturated with metaphor.  Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland is filled with metaphors that address life’s absurdities, and one specific metaphor brings me back to an entry I wrote titled  David Coleman, the Cheshire Cat of Education.

While I did not mean that Coleman is a cat literally, I do mean that his philosophy of education is as contradictory as the character in Carroll’s imaginative classic. “Curiouser and curiouser,” wonders Alice, when the enigmatic Cheshire Cat appears and reappears at critical moments in the story. Likewise, Coleman’s curious contradictions may be the reason for any inaccuracies in McCabe’s summary of his presentation. On the other hand McCabe may have accurately recorded these contradictions and illustrated how Coleman’s inexperience makes his statements about how to teach in a classroom ridiculous…literally.

2 responses to Literally….David Coleman


    Mr. Coleman should follow the ground-breaking work of George Lakoff and Mark Turner, both of whom suggest metaphor is the mechanism the brain employs to make and hold on to meaning. We live in metaphor; we cannot strip it away! Metaphors We Live By (Lakoff and Turner, 1980) would be a great place to start.

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