Archives For Common Core State Standards

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) were released in 2009. They are now seven years old.

I will admit that I was not initially enthusiastic about the English Language Arts literacy standards. (see post)

I felt they were heavy in non-fiction…(no, wait.. heavy in “informational texts”).

The CCSS suggested a typical student should have a reading diet filled with informational texts because of the authentic kinds of reading they would do once they graduated, in the real world. The CCSS recommended that a ratio of 50:50 of fiction and informational texts in elementary school should shift to a 30:70 ratio of fiction to non-fiction by grade 12th. These ratios made me concerned that fiction would disappear.

I should not have worried.

The year 2016 has proven that the genre of fiction, a genre of invented or imagined stories, is thriving in the real world. Sometimes certain fictions are posing as informational text.

The year 2016 has been marked by the rise of fake news, hoaxes, propaganda, and disinformation that has circulated on news and social media platforms, fictions that have been developed intentionally or spread unintentionally.facts-not-fiction

The growth of this kind of fiction may explain the decision of dictionary editors to award the word  post-truth as the 2016 word of the year. According to the Oxford Dictionary, post-truth is is defined as

“an adjective defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’.”

The decision by the editors of the Oxford Dictionary to chose the word post-truth is a decision that also highlights a phenomena studied by by Troy Campbell and Justin Friesen. Their experiments tested the relationship between facts, bias, and untestable beliefs.

The March 2015 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, published their paper titled The Psychological Advantage of Unfalsifiability: The appeal of untestable religious and political ideologies. This research examined the circumspect methods people use to get away from fact(s) that contradict a deeply held belief.

Participants in the Campbell/Freisen’s experiments used facts to support or dispute a position. The experiments revealed that when the facts opposed a deeply held belief, the participants argued that facts did not matter but moral opinion did. But, when the facts were on their side, they more often stated that their opinions were fact-based and much less about morals.

“In other words,”Campbell/Freisen’s noted, “we observed something beyond the denial of particular facts: We observed a denial of the relevance of facts.” They concluded,

“…when people’s beliefs are threatened, they often take flight to a land where facts do not matter.”

One example of a land “where facts do not matter”, was the radio booth for the Diane Rehm Show on National Public Radio (NPR) on November 30th, 2016. Guest Scottie Nell Hughespolitical editor of and contributor to CNN appeared midway during the Diane Rehm’s show. Hughes was discussing the effective use of social media in bypassing more traditional media outlets to direct message. At 10:20, she made the claim that looking at facts is  “kind of like looking at ratings or looking at a glass of half-full water. Everybody has a way of interpreting them to be the truth or not true.” Then she stated:

“There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore of facts.”

Her statement was greeted with immediate derision by other journalists on the show. James Fallows of The Atlantic magazine shot back, “First I’ve got to pick my jaw up off the floor here. There are no objective facts? I mean, that is — that is an absolutely outrageous assertion.”

Hughes statement was hardly original; she may have been channeling her inner Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche who had also claimed (1887), “There are no facts, only interpretations.” But Fallows dismissed such philosophies on air, concluding:

“I believe that the job for the media and civil society now is essentially to say there are such things as facts.”

In contrast to Hughes, the use of facts as supporting evidence is essential to the CCSS. The CCSS recognized that 21st Century students would need to deal with an exponential growth in information, a future where rote memorization of facts cannot keep pace with knowledge that is doubling every year. As a result, the CCSS at each grade level outlines the skills students need to identify and to incorporate relevant facts they will use to write argumentative or explanatory responses.

For example, CCSS writing standards require students to:

“Develop the topic with well-chosen, relevant, and sufficient facts, extended definitions, concrete details, quotations, or other information and examples appropriate to the audience’s knowledge of the topic.” CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.9-10.2.B

In addition, the Common Core promotes the use of text-based evidence , gathered when  students “read closely” (aka: “close reading”):

“The Common Core emphasizes using evidence from texts to present careful analyses, well-defended claims, and clear information. Rather than asking students questions they can answer solely from their prior knowledge and experience, the standards call for students to answer questions that depend on their having read the texts with care.”

Prior knowledge or experience are no substitute for evidence. For the past seven years a common teachers’ refrain has been, “Can you show me where that evidence is in the text?”

All this hunting for text-based evidence may be the best training our students could have received as preparation for this post-truth world where pundits dismiss facts as unnecessary and media platforms promote factual inaccuracies through fake news.

Seven years ago, I could not imagine that I would be pleased about the Common Core, but the push for text-based evidence may be exactly what our students will need if educators are ever going to fulfill all those mission statements in student handbooks that outline how to make students into productive citizens and life-long learners.

That letter “O” morphing on your search engine for Mother’s Day?
That spinning Globe for Earth Day?
Those jigging leprechauns for St. Patrick’s Day?
These are all the Google Doodles from 2015 to celebrate holidays.

There are also Google doodle tributes to individuals. Emmy Noether (physicist), Laura Ingalls Wilder (author), and Anna Atkins (botonist), have been featured in doodles this year (2015) as individuals whose work was celebrated as having made an impact in our lives today. Each of the doodles represents the individual artistically using elements that best represent their work.

Some of the Google doodles are interactive. The Google doodle for Martha Graham is a 15 second celebration of dance. The Google doodle for Robert Moog provides a miniature electronic analog Moog Synthesizer (keyboard) that the viewer can play. The tribute to journalist Nellie Bly features a Youtube video scored with an original song (Music: “Nellie” by Karen O).

There are also international tributes not seen here in the United States with Google doodles for surrealist artist Leonora Carrington (Latin America/Australia); the oldest primary grade student at 84 years old, Kimani Maruge (Kenya); and womens’ rights activist, Henrietta Edwards (Canada).

The first Google Doodle celebrating a vacation at the Burning Man Festival

The first Google doodle celebrated a vacation by Google founders Larry and Sergey at the Burning Man Festival

The first Google Doodle (right) was a comical message that the Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin were out of the office attending the Burning Man Festival. The Google Doodle Archive houses the entire collection (1998-present). A scroll through the graphics shows how Google’s primary colored logo is changed in a way that is often surprising or magical. Clicking on the Google doodle takes the reader to a page with information about the event or person, and information about the graphic design and artist for the page.

There are hundreds of doodles, and information on the archive states:

Creating doodles is now the responsibility of a team of talented illlustrators (we call them doodlers) and engineers. For them, creating doodles has become a group effort to enliven the Google homepage and bring smiles to the faces of Google users around the world.

Now, consider that a key shift of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) is to build knowledge through content-rich nonfiction. The explanation on the CCSS website is:

Students must be immersed in information about the world around them if they are to develop the strong general knowledge and vocabulary they need to become successful readers and be prepared for college, career, and life. Informational texts play an important part in building students’ content knowledge. Further, it is vital for students to have extensive opportunities to build knowledge through texts so they can learn independently.

Students at all grade levels can independently develop an interpretation of the Google doodle graphic. After studying the logo created by Google illustrators (doodlers), teachers can determine if the link that takes students information on the holiday, the anniversary, or the biography is appropriate for age or grade level reading. Each link contains general information that aligns to the CCSS shift to “build knowledge through content-rich nonfiction.” There is information on these links that might lead students to investigate the person or topic on the doodle even further.

Should a student have an idea for a Google doodle, “The doodle team is always excited to hear ideas from users – they can email with ideas for the next Google doodle.” There are hundreds of suggestions daily, but the information of the website assures students that, “…rest assured that we’re reading them :)”

Another opportunity for students to submit ideas for a Google doodle (Doodle 4 Google) will be available in September 2015. The details for the 8th annual US competition will be announced then, and examples of student entry winners in 2014 are available for viewing on the website as well.

A quick click on the Google doodle can be an engaging mini-lesson for students in building background knowledge….especially when the information is offered in a logo that is dancing, leaping, morphing, twisting, falling, jumping, running, exploding, singing, growing….

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.

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?

I believe the author Stephen King would hate the language of the Common Core State Standards for one reason: unnecessary adverbs. His book On Writing has a section devoted to explaining why The adverb is not your friend.

Adverbs … are words that modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs. They’re the ones that usually end in -ly. Adverbs, like the passive voice, seem to have been created with the timid writer in mind. … With adverbs, the writer usually tells us he or she is afraid he/she isn’t expressing himself/herself clearly, that he or she is not getting the point or the picture across.

I have written about King and adverbs before. As I am implementing the standards in my high school English curriculums, I find myself agreeing with him.  Take, for example, the Common Core Anchor Reading Standard 1. The standard states:

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.1

The use of adverbs in this standard has led to more confusion, not less. The expression “read closely” was recoined as “close reading,” and that has resulted in parodies of teachers holding books up to their faces, mocking the standard. Why the writers of the Common Core felt the need to modify the action verb “read” at all is perplexing. Students must read to determine what a text says. That is all. The admonishment to “read closely” to determine what the “text says explicitly” infers the author is either trying to slip an idea past a reader or the author has been ineffective in communicating the idea. I am not convinced any author would appreciate this standard.

Moreover, the Common Core Anchor Writing Standards have the same problem, for example,

Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content. CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.2

I believe that every teacher requires students to convey “complex ideas and information clearly and accurately,” yet the language of this standard infers that students would be allowed to write distorted or inaccurate responses. The standard should read, “Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas and information through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.” The adverbs are redundant, as King demonstrates in On Writing: (bolded words his choice)

Consider the sentence He closed the door firmly. It’s by no means a terrible sentence (at least it’s got an active verb going for it), but ask yourself if firmly really has to be there. You can argue that it expresses a degree of difference between He closed the door and He slammed the door, and you’ll get no argument from me … but what about context? What about all the enlightening (not to say emotionally moving) prose which came before He closed the door firmly? Shouldn’t this tell us how he closed the door? And if the foregoing prose doestell us, isn’t firmly an extra word? Isn’t it redundant?

The same editing should be applied to the Speaking and Listening Anchor Standards:

Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively. CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.SL.1

In this standard, the subjective nature of the adverb “effectively” creates the same confusion as reading “closely.” This standard could be made measurable if the emphasis was on the infinitive “to persuade” rather than on the timid adverbs “effectively” and “persuasively.”  How does one measure these terms, unless by degrees? An argument is either effective or not. Readers are persuaded or not. A standard is unequivocal. The present wording could lead to much equivocating if a reader has to determine the degree of “effectively” or “persuasively.” Try this rewrite: Prepare for and participate in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas in order to persuade.”

In addition, the Language (or grammar standards) themselves contain a distracting adverbial phrase:

Apply knowledge of language to understand how language functions in different contexts, to make effective choices for meaning or style, and to comprehend more fully when reading or listening.CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.L.3

The phrase comprehend”more fully” sounds like a phrase from one of my student’s essays. I would equate the construct of “more fully” with “as a whole” or “the fact that” or the ubiquitous word “flows” found in my weaker writers’ responses. These are all phrases that receive a large NO! in red ink from me as I grade or confer. A reader comprehends or a reader does not.

King argues that writers must be deliberate in stemming adverbs in this selection from On Writing:

Someone out there is now accusing me of being tiresome and anal-retentive. I deny it. I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops. To put it another way, they’re like dandelions. If you have one on your lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day . . . fifty the day after that . . . and then, my brothers and sisters, your lawn is totally, completely, and profligately covered with dandelions. By then you see them for the weeds they really are, but by then it’s — GASP!! — too late.

King is proved correct about the propagation of adverbs in the language of the Common Core. Adverbs pop up in the NOTES ON sections that follow the anchor standards. For example:

Notes on Range and Content of Student Reading

Students can only gain this foundation when the curriculum is intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades. Students also acquire the habits of reading independently and closely, which are essential to their future success.

Notes on Range and Content of Student Speaking and Listening

Digital texts confront students with the potential for continually updated content and dynamically changing combinations of words, graphics, images, hyperlinks, and embedded video and audio.

When a reader removes the bolded words, the pedantic tone disappears. The implications that curriculum is “unintentional” or “unstructured” is removed. The confusion as to what reading “closely” means is removed. Don’t even get me started as to why “dynamically” is there, although I suspect the use is to suggest there may be some form of cool media out there that does not yet exist so the CCSS writers modified the adjective “changing” on combination with “dynamically” to cover future media constructs. The only adverb in this section that needs to be included is “independently,” and that should be an adjective. We all want independent readers, so be clear and say “independent readers.”

Stephen King has had an impact on my writing, and when I come to including an adverb I pause to think if that adverb is necessary. Would that the writers of the Common Core felt the same. The standards are riddled with adverbs. How did I find most of them? I used the “Find” option (command-F on my Mac) and put “LY” in the search box. How did I know that most adverbs end with ly?  Here, for your enjoyment, is my favorite adverb resource, a video from Schoolhouse Rock with the charming song about adverbs that remains emblazoned on my brain:

Consider how the advice from King and the lesson from this video can be used by teachers in stopping the flood of adverbs and in applying the Speaking and Listening standard in a classroom where “Digital texts confront students with the potential for updated content and changing combinations of words”….. NOTE: continually and dynamically not included.


The 86th Saturday Reunion (3/22/14) at Teacher’s College in NYC was decidedly political. Not political as in elections or party affiliation, but political as education is critical to “the public affairs of a country.”

The morning keynote address by Diane Ravitch set the agenda. Ravitch is an education historian and an author who served as Assistant Secretary of Education and Counselor to Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander under President George H.W. Bush.  She was Adjunct Professor of History and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University; this Saturday, she returned to speak at Riverside Cathedral.

She began by recalling another political era, calling the cathedral the “sacred space” where William Sloan Coffin had spoken out against the Vietnam War.  This time Ravitch was speaking out against the war on public education.

Screen Shot 2014-03-23 at 9.48.58 AMShe began by alerting the enormous crowd of teachers about the Network for Public Education. This year-old network was established to, “Give the [us] the courage to fight; our motto is ‘We are are many, they are few, we will prevail’,” she claimed.

Screenshot 2014-03-23 19.04.39“I wrote Reign of Error for you to use as ammunition… but, for heaven’s sakes, don’t buy it,” she insisted, “borrow it from the library, but use it to fight back the efforts to undermine education.”

Ravitch has been organizing a defense that is aimed at exposing the corporate take over of education that is endemic to this country alone. She countered that other nations have “no charters and no vouchers,” adding that “charters and vouchers divide communities” in economic funding. She challenged the treatment of teachers in the USA, insisting that other nations respect teachers and do not let “amateurs become principals and superintendents.” 

She spoke of challenges in providing for the inequities in education, detailing that 25% of children today live in poverty, and she demanded to know how our public schools will survive when education reformers push to replace public schools that accept everyone with schools that are privately managed.

She recounted instances of publicly funded charter schools that teach creationism and other “17th century STEM subjects,” and she railed against a push to eliminate local school boards.
“You may want to get rid of members of your local school board,” she quipped, “but there is a democratic process for that; this is an attack on democracy itself.”

“What is the end game?” she asked after the litany of charges against education reform, and then answered her question, “Nothing less than the elimination of teaching as a profession, systematically aided and abetted by the Department of Education.”

Ravitch continued her argument claiming that, “The education reformer narrative is a hoax, and they [education reformers] cannot win if they continue to perpetrate hoaxes.” She noted several indicators that speak to current successes in public education: falling dropout rates, higher graduation rates, higher minority scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test.

“We have an incredibly successful system overwhelmed by a high test prep curriculum,” she declared. “The reformers’ passion is for firing teachers. They suggest, ‘Let’s test every child every year and we’ll see what teachers get low scores, then those are the bad teachers,’ she intoned. “They fire 5-10% of teachers when they should be coming up ways to recruit and support teachers.”

Teach for America was a particular target of her scorn as she argued, “Teach for America is not an answer,” noting that reformers who rail against university and college preparation programs for teachers, and complain that first year teachers are “poorly trained are the same reformers that encourage the placement of 10,000 TFA graduates annually into schools, despite their minimal six weeks of teacher training. “They [TFA] leave in two years,” she continued, “and we have lost so many teachers. We are reducing the status of teachers. Who will want to teach? Many are shunning the profession; they [teachers] are getting rid of themselves.”

More scorn was heaped upon teacher evaluation systems where billions of dollar have been spent. “Many states have added value added measurements (VAM) to rate teacher effectiveness,” she noted. One such VAM is the inclusion of standardized test scores in rating teachers, however, Ravitch asserted, “most teachers do not teach the tested subjects (math and English). To assign [these] scores to all teachers is totally insane.”

Even more scorn was directed towards Bill Gates, as she maintained “The Gates Foundation has paid millions to have these [tests] written.” Gates himself has been touring the country this year in support of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), a tour that included an opportunity “to dine with over 80 senators” that did not escape her attention. Neither did his comment suggesting “it might take10 years to see if this stuff works.”
“You have to admit he has chutzpah,” she quipped. Her more salient point was in her statement, “One man has bought and paid for an entire nation’s education program.”

Her objections to the CCSS are rooted in its creation, and in its rapid adoption and implementation in 45 states.
She objected to the lack of educators involved in developing the standards. She reminded the crowd that only four agencies were involved in the creation: the  National Association of Governors; the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO); and two educational organizations, Achieve, devoted to improving the rigor and clarity of the process of standard-setting and testing, and Student Achievement Partners, a non-profit organization working to support teachers across the country in their efforts to realize the promise of the Common Core State Standards for all students. She  specifically called out David Coleman, a non-educator and a former treasurer to the controversial Michelle Rhee’s Student’s First enterprise,who now serves as president of the College Board. (See my previous posts on Coleman here and here)

Ravitch commented also on the language that education reformers made in promoting the CCSS, standards that force schools to”Jump into the deep end of the pool” or standards that “rip off the bandaid” asking, “Why do they use such sadistic language? These are our children!”

“This small group [CCSS writers],” she continued, “was aided by the ACT and presented the CCSS as a fait accompli.” She added that the writing process of the CCSS was not transparent, and that, in violation of the National Standards Institute protocols,“there is no appeals process for standards that are seen as incorrect.” Moreover, although teachers were invited to “review” the CCSS,  the standards themselves were implemented without a field test. Now the two federally funded testing consortiums, PARCC and SBAC, will spend the next two years testing these standards online.

“The tech sector loves the CCSS,” she insisted, “there’s new software and bandwidth” included in already tight education budgets, “along with data analysts and entrepreneurial agencies designed to help with the CCSS.” Finally she returned to her message of academic inequities where targets of 70% failure rates on rounds of standardized tests are predicted. “How is it equitable to give a test they know students will fail?” suggesting that a passing rate is fluid, determined by the test creators who choose the “cut rate.”

During the speech, I was seated only eight rows back with a colleague who echoed to me particularly strong statements made by Ravitch on the effects of educational reform. She obviously wanted these statements included in my notes, so here are a few more “Ravitch-isms”:

We must roll back what we see is a poisonous time….

I never met a child who learned to read because the schools were closed.

No other nation doing this. We are alone in taking punitive action.

They [ed reformers] call it creative disruption, but children need continuity, not churn.

As she came to the conclusion of her speech, Ravitch returned to her message on the impact of poverty on academic performance saying, “What we do know about standardized tests is that they reflect socio-economic status. The pattern is inexorable. Look at charts that align standardized test scores with income and education; they [tests] measure the achievement gap.” Ravitch then turned to Michael Young’s book,  The Rise of the Meritocracy, and cited the following quotes:

If the rich and powerful were encouraged by the general culture to believe that they fully deserved all they had, how arrogant they could become, and if they were convinced it was all for the common good, how ruthless in pursuing their own advantage. Power corrupts, and therefore one of the secrets of a good society is that power should always be open to criticism. A good society should provide sinew for revolt as well as for power.

But authority cannot be humbled unless ordinary people, however much they have been rejected by the educational system, have the confidence to assert themselves against the mighty. If they think themselves inferior, if they think they deserve on merit to have less worldly goods and less worldly power than a select minority, they can be damaged in their own self-esteem, and generally demoralized.

Even if it could be demonstrated that ordinary people had less native ability than those selected for high position, that would not mean that they deserved to get less. Being a member of the “lucky sperm club” confers no moral right or advantage. What one is born with, or without, is not of one’s own doing.

She concluded her address with a list of suggestions, of next steps:

  1.  Salvage the standards to make standards better. The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) and The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) should review and revise the standards. “Fix what is wrong”and “damn the copyright.”
  2. Decouple the Common Core from the tests;
  3. Teachers: Teach what you love and enrich instruction;
  4. Remember that a decent democracy equals values. 
  5. Do nothing to stigmatize those who have the least.

It should be noted that throughout the speech, Ravitch referred to “children” instead of using the word “students.” Her linguistic choice was noted by a later speaker, Kathy Collins. In refusing to use “students,” Ravitch put the focus back on the purpose for public education, to prepare the nation’s children, and she relayed a critical difference between her pedagogy and the philosophy of the Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan. “Arne Duncan thinks children as young as five should be on track to be college and career ready. He has said, ‘I want to walk in, look in their eyes, and know they are college and career ready’.”

She paused as if to respond to him, “I see a child. Leave him alone.”

The cathedral reverberated with applause.

I am seeing patterns.

My recent fascination with looking at crossovers from the Mathematical Practice Standards to the English/ Language Arts classroom has me seeing patterns everywhere. In poetry and in prose, I am seeing applications to the Mathematical Standard #7 where “proficient students look closely to discern a pattern or structure.”

Take, for example, the poem I assigned this morning to the Advanced Placement students. The students are studying how the structure or form of the poem helps to convey the meaning of the poem. The poem under discussion was Elizabeth Bishop’s “Sestina.”

Before reading the poem, however, an understanding of the sestina is in order. This form of poetry is highly structured; 33 lines constructed with five stanzas of six lines each with the final stanza as a tercet. The pattern is in the repetition of the intital six end-words of the first stanza; the last end work in the stanza before becomes the first end word in the following stanza.  The final tercet is called the envoi which contains all of the end-words.

 The form is as follows, where letters represent end-words:

  • Stanza 1: A, B, C, D, E, F
  • Stanza 2: F, A, E, B, D, C
  • Stanza 3: C, F, D, A, B, E
  • Stanza 4: E, C, B, F, A, D
  • Stanza 5: D, E, A, C, F, B
  • Stanza 6: B, D, F, E, C, A
  • Tercet: AB CD EF
    • First line of Envoi: B, E
    • Second line of Envoi: D, C
    • Third line of Envoi: F, A

The pattern above looks to me like sets of algebraic equations, and I mentioned that when I passed out copies of  the sestina by Elizabeth Bishop titled, appropriately enough, “Sestina.”

Listen to the poem:


September rain falls on the house.
In the failing light, the old grandmother
sits in the kitchen with the child
beside the Little Marvel Stove,
reading the jokes from the almanac,
laughing and talking to hide her tears.

(READ THE POEM continued…)

animated houseThis poem always reminds me of some small child’s drawing of a house, in which everything suddenly comes to life, to dance or to hover or to fall. These images seem too animated to place under multiple choice microscope I use to prepare students for the Advanced Placement test. But the new semester has begun, and test preparation is necessary, so we took our time studying the questions that had been prepared in dull, unanimated standardized testing rooms.

The grandmother and the child in the poem are portrayed primarily through descriptions of their:
(a) actions
(b) thoughts
(c) conversation
(d) facial expressions
(e) physical characteristics

Reading the question aloud, I was not entirely sure that Bishop would care about the primacy of her descriptions. Given all the action verbs in each stanza, we settled on “(a) actions,” and we were right.

One of the questions dealt directly with the poem’s pattern:

Which of the following literary devices most significantly contributes to the unity
of the poem?
(a) Use of internal rhyme
(b) Use of epigrammatic expressions
(c) Use of alliteration
(d) Repetition of key words
(e) Repetition of syntactic patterns

A discussion of what syntactical patterns appeared ensued.
“There is dialogue,” one said.
“But, not as a pattern,” another replied.
We settled on (c) repetition of keywords, and we were right. Recognizing the pattern was helping with the questions.

 “There’s a lot of crying in this poem,” remarked a student, “What are ‘equinoctial tears’?”

I explained that knowing what “equinoctial” means, a violent storm of wind and rain occurring at or near the time of the equinox, is important to the understanding of the poem. Bishop’s association of tears with “equinoctial” suggests that there is some emotional storm that is the result of an annual event or anniversary. Once the students knew that, they were able to answer the last question:

 The mood of the poem is best described as
(a) satiric
(b) suspenseful
(c) reproachful
(d) mournful
(e) quizzical

“The repetition of words means there is more emphasis on them,” said a student.
“All that crying,” agreed another student, “Someone must have died.”
We decided on (d) mournful, and again we were right.

In the end, students got about 60% of the questions right on the poem, a high score this early in their practice. They had employed both the Mathematical Practice standard #7 and “looked closely to discern a pattern or structure” as well as the English Language Arts Literacy Anchor Standard #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.” 

“I liked it,” said a student, as she left.
I know she did not mean the multiple choice questions.
I am sure she meant the poem,“Sestina,” a crossover between English and mathematical practice standards.

A poem with a pattern:

Screenshot 2014-01-24 17.02.08 

Poetry Friday hosted this week by Tara at:

Come join her!

The year 2013 provided one of the best examples of real life detective work as well as real-life application of the Common Core Mathematical Practice Standard #7:

CCSS.Math.Practice.MP7 Look for and make use of structure.

The investigation was initiated because of structures and patterns, specifically the writing patterns of the author J.K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame. This mathematical practice standard MP#7 calls for students to “look closely to discern a pattern or structure,” and noticing a pattern was exactly what a computer program did in unmasking Rowling as the author of The Cuckoo’s Calling. The mystery novel, had been published under the name Robert Gailbraith, and the novel had begun to generate some critical acclaim. Only there was no Robert Gailbraith; Gailbraith was the pseudonym Rowling had chosen for her new foray into the mystery genre.

The ruse did not last long. In true detective fashion, two university professors, acting on a anonymous tip, wrote a computer code that used algorithms to compare patterns in the writing from The Cuckoo’s Calling with titles from Rowling’s Harry Potter series and the works of other mystery writers. The algorithms targeted several possible mystery writers, but Rowling’s name came up most consistently with language patterns that matched word length, 100 most common words, pairs of words, and the patterns of letters, spaces and grammatical marks known as “four character strings.”

The steps to identifying were outlined in an article in Popular Science, “How Computer Algorithms Uncovered J.K. Rowling’s Pseudonymous Novel.” Writer Francie Diep explained that, “Some of the individual tests found authors other than Rowling were the best match. Nevertheless, Rowling came up the most consistently.” 

The methods of the professors investigating Rowling belong to a practice known as the digital humanities, a field of study that “aims at developing and using the digital resources and tools for solving the research questions in the Humanities.”— Takafumi Suzuki (For other definitions check out

As texts become available digitally, they can be deconstructed into parts in order to answer research questions such as word origins (etymology), locating primary sources, and determining authorship. In the journal A Companion to Digital Humanities an article titled “Stylistic Analysis and Authorship Studies” author Hugh Craig points out that,

“There are enough successes to suggest that computational stylistics and non-traditional attribution have become essential tools, the first places one looks to for answers on very large questions of text patterning, and on difficult authorship problems.”

Yet, these patterns can do more than identify authorship. Patterns can be used to support an author’s purpose. For example, in the play Julius Caesar by Shakespeare, the character Marc Anthony, a wily politician, deepens the character Brutus’s involvement with the murder of Julius Caesar through the use of the phrase “honorable.” Here, the actor Marlon Brando plays Marc Anthony and recites the speech (1951 film):

The famous speech begins “Friends, Romans, Countrymen; Lend me your ears..” (3.2.) and Shakespeare employs the rhetorical device, an antistrophe or repetition of the same word phrase at the end of successive clauses, repeating “that Brutus is an honorable man.” In the opening 30 lines of the speech, Marc Anthony also connects “ambition” with the death of Julius Caesar.  Four times, Marc Anthony refers to Brutus “an honorable man,” but links each mention of honor with an “ambitious man”. By the end of his oration, Marc Anthony’s rhetorical accusations have inferred Brutus’s less than honorable behavior was an ambitious grab for power, and an incensed mob storms the streets of Rome seeking revenge. A final analysis reveals that Shakespeare’s use of rhetoric, a textual pattern, provided the tool that Marc Anthony used to attack Brutus very publicly for political gain.

Employing a pattern of repetition can serve an author’s purpose, and understanding this purpose requires the stylistic analysis that is embedded in the English Language Arts Literacy Reading Standard 4 where students “interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone.” Patterns reveal the author’s craft; patterns also reveal author’s purpose.

images (1)You can find a textual pattern in any one of seven basic sentence types. You can find a textual pattern on any one of the seven days of the week on any one of the seven continents. Using Mathematical Practice Standard #7, helps find the purpose of a text or find the author of a text…like J.K. Rowling, who wrote seven books in the Harry Potter series. Coincidence? No. Pattern.

I admit that I am the first to have heart palpitations the moment I hear a problem begin, “Say, a train leaves a station 500 miles east of the city traveling at 60 m.p.h…..”.

Yet, given time, I am confident I can calculate the answer to a word problem, in part because my early teaching career included two years in a grade 8 pre-algebra class. At that time, I feared my expertise in English/Language Arts was not helpful for covering the math curriculum, so I taught as close to the textbook as anyone can imagine. I depended on worksheets. I was inflexible in my methods. I did exactly what the book suggested I do.

Several weeks into the pre-algebra class, I told a fellow faculty member that I was concerned I could be doing more harm then good. Ms. C had graduate degrees in math, and she was responsible for the more advanced math classes.

keep-calm-and-persevere-13“Nonsense,” she advised, “just make sure they know their math facts; students who do not know their multiplication tables will never succeed in higher math.”
I nodded.
Multiplication tables…I could do that.
“That, and never, ever let them give up.” She was firm, “all problems have a solution.” 

Ms. C was right. I could never let them give up, which meant that I could never give up either. Her prescience about the Common Core State Standards, adopted some 20 years later, is reflected in Mathematic Practice Standard #1:

CCSS.Math.Practice.MP1 Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them.

I now understand that this standard should not be not limited to applications in math classes; I believe this standard should be shared with multiple academic disciplines.  As evidence, I offer a “retranslation” of this standard’s descriptors, explained on the Common Core Website, that I use in every lesson everyday:

Mathematically proficient students start by explaining to themselves the meaning of a problem and looking for entry points to its solution.

If you drop the word “mathematically”, this standard measures any student’s ability to comprehend a problem, or question, in any subject area, and encourages students to be self-selective on determining the best way to solve a problem. In the English/Language Arts class, this “entry point for a solution” could be anything from selecting an independent book to read, to choosing a thesis for a research paper, or to picking a presentation software for an oral report to name a few examples.

Mathematically proficient students analyze givens, constraints, relationships, and goals.

In the English Language Arts classrooms, I teach students to analyze literary texts, fiction and non-fiction, for givens and constraints crafted by an author; to analyze the relationships between characters or author and audience; and to evaluate the goals these characters or authors achieve or fail to achieve.

Mathematically proficient students monitor and evaluate their progress and change course if necessary.

In the English/Language Arts classrooms, a student often begins writing with one idea or thesis, but by the end of the paper, the idea has changed; the thesis must be re-written. Students must monitor the progression of their ideas, and when the ideas cannot be supported or expressed, then they must change course in their writing.

Mathematically proficient students can explain correspondences between equations, verbal descriptions, tables, and graphs or draw diagrams of important features and relationships, graph data, and search for regularity or trends.

In the English Language Arts classroom, students should be able to explain the correspondence created with parts of speech in each sentence construction; they should understand the features and relationships created with punctuation; they should look for patterns in rhetoric; and they should be able to recognize the purpose of a selected genre used to communicate.

Mathematically proficient students check their answers to problems using a different method, and they continually ask themselves, “Does this make sense?”

English Language Arts students must read their writing and the writings of others while keeping in mind the question, “Does this make sense?”For the record, I add the question, “So what?” as well.

The particulars in the MP#1 standard are not limited to mathematics as demonstrated in this almost line by line interpretation. All academic disciplines incorporate the ideas in this standard which, when combined, are the tools of perseverance. Teaching students to persevere is the ultimate goal of MP#1, and there are plenty of opportunities to practice perseverance in the classroom. The incorporation of technology in lessons at any grade level and in any subject can be such an opportunity.

My school has a B.Y.O.D. (Bring Your Own Digital Device) policy for grades 9-12. Our grading system is online, assignments are visible to stakeholders, and almost all of my lessons incorporate some technology during the class period. I have learned first hand, however, that the use of any technology in the classroom requires perseverance because no matter how well a lesson is planned, SOMETHING WILL GO WRONG!

For example: a link on a web page will not work; a platform selected by a student might need Java, which is not available on every device; another student will forget a password; or the network becomes overloaded when 30 students try and access a program at the same time.

I think of the MP#1 when I work on these problems everyday, and I know I am modeling perseverance for my students when I persevere and deal with each problem. I cannot give up and blame technology; I cannot blame the Internet. I must model how to problem solve, how to look for solutions, and show how I regularly ask myself if what I am doing “makes sense.”

“Use a different browser,” I suggest when a link does not work.
“Let’s reset your password,” I advise a student.
“OK, Row 3? You will have to wait a minute before trying to log on…we can’t all access this site at once,” I might recommend.
Sometimes I discover the problem is simply the power supply,
“Wait….is this even plugged in?”

Every day, I consider what Ms. C told me years ago as I model the MP#1 standard in my English/Language Arts classroom. From her words to the Common Core Mathematical Practice Standard #1: “Never, ever let them give up. All problems have a solution.”

If nothing else, the Common Core State Standards’ (CCSS) contribution to the academic lexicon will be the renaming of the genre known as non-fiction to a larger genre of informational texts. This renaming expanded the genre to include many forms of reading: textbooks, letters, speeches, maps, brochures, memoirs, biographies, and news articles, to name a few.

So where to find these informational texts? What is appetizing enough to make middle school students want to read a story, and then, answer the questions to check their understanding? What kind of high interest texts appeal to high school students who prefer to “Google” or “Sparknote” answers rather than read a text closely? What multi-media elements could be added to make an informational text palatable enough to be consumed by all levels of readers?

Screen Shot 2013-11-11 at 6.30.17 PM

The 2:12 video for accompanies the story

Well, teachers should look no further than the October 1, 2013, New York Times‘ feature article dedicated to Doritos Tortilla Chip titled That Nacho Dorito Taste. This short feature article combined photography and graphics;  a short video: and even shorter text that combined to provide an explanation on how this particular food is engineered so that “you can’t eat just one.”

The article is timely since the CCSS  requires that the student diet of reading should be 70% informational texts and 30% fiction by the time they graduate from high school.  The Literacy Standards specifically address reading in math, science, social studies, and the technical areas and recommends the increase in reading informational texts be completed in these classes. One of the technical areas content area classes could be a culinary arts class, a marketing class, or a health science class, but consider this particular informational text as scrumptious for any class.

In organizing this story, New York Times reporter Michael Moss, who also narrates the embedded video, interviewed food scientist Steven A. Witherly, author of “Why Humans Like Junk Food,” in order to better understand how all of the chemical elements combine in the Nacho Cheese Doritos chip to make it alluring to our taste buds.  According to Witherly, the mixing of flavors on this particular chip is purposeful:

 “What these are trying to do is excite every stinking taste bud receptor you have in your mouth.”

The graphics for the article by Alicia DeSantis and Jennifer Daniel are cleverly combined with photographs by Fred R. Conrad, also from the The New York Times. A separate page layout with the graphic/photo mix delivers tidbits of information about the Dorito chip. Each detail is organized by topic, as this example shows:

Screen Shot 2013-11-10 at 9.46.47 PM

A teacher does not even have to work at organizing questions for students to answer since the New York Time Learning Network, a free educational blog offered by the paper, organized an entire lesson plan on this article. The lesson is titled 6 Q’s About the News | The Science Behind Your Craving for Doritos, organized by Katherine Schulten. The questions on the blog include:

WHAT is psychobiology?
WHAT is “dynamic contrast”?
HOW do the acids in Doritos work on the brain?

WHAT is “sensory-specific satiety”?

WHERE do half the calories in Doritos come from, and, according to the graphic, HOW does that work on the brain?

WHY is “forgettable flavor” so important to Doritos’ success?

The higher order questions invite students to consider:

Now that you know the formula behind Doritos, are you more likely to eat more or less of them? WHY?
HOW many processed foods do you eat a day?
WHAT might a graphic explaining the effects of this food look like?

So go ahead. Read the Nacho Cheese Doritos article. See how irresistible an informational text can be. Once you read one this good, you will be searching to find another!