Archives For Common Core State Standards

Here is an educational policy riddle: How much background knowledge does a student need to read a historical text?

According to New York Engage website: None.

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are being implemented state by state, and there is an emphasis from teaching students background knowledge to teaching students skills, specifically the skill of close reading.

The pedegogy is explained by The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC):

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. (PARCC, 2011)

There are many lessons that strongly advocate the use of close reading in teaching historical texts on the EngageNY.com website, including a set of exemplar lessons for Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address promoted by CCSS contributor and now College Board President, David Coleman. The lesson’s introduction states:

The idea here is to plunge students into an independent encounter with this short text. Refrain from giving background context or substantial instructional guidance at the outset. It may make sense to notify students that the short text is thought to be difficult and they are not expected to understand it fully on a first reading–that they can expect to struggle. Some students may be frustrated, but all students need practice in doing their best to stay with something they do not initially understand. This close reading approach forces students to rely exclusively on the text instead of privileging background knowledge, and levels the playing field for all students as they seek to comprehend Lincoln’s address.

Photo of Lincoln delivering Gettysburg Address- (www.wikipedia.org)

Photo of Lincoln delivering
Gettysburg Address- (www.wikipedia.org)

The lesson plan is organized in three sections. In the first, students are handed a copy of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and perform several “cold” readings, to themselves and then with the class.

Lesson Plan SECTION 1 What’s at stake: a nation as a place and as an idea

Students silently read, then the teacher reads aloud the text of the Gettysburg Address while students follow along.

  • Students translate into their own words the first and second paragraph. 
  • Students answer guiding questions regarding the first two paragraphs

Please note, there is no mention of any historical context for the speech. Students will come to this 273-word speech without the background knowledge that the Battle of Gettysburg was fought from July 1 to July 3, 1863, and this battle is considered the most important engagement of the American Civil War. They will not know that the battle resulted in “Union casualties of 23,000, while the Confederates had lost some 28,000 men–more than a third of Lee’s army” (History.com). They will not know how the Army of Northern Virginia achieved an apex into Union territory with “Pickett’s Charge,” a failed attempt by General George Pickett  to break through the Union line in South Central Pennsylvania, and that the charge resulted in the death of thousands of rebel soldiers. They will not know how the newly appointed Major General George Gordon Meade of the Army of the Potomac met the challenges of General Robert E. Lee by ordering responses to skirmishes on Little Round Top, Culp’s Hill, and in the Devil’s Den. They will not know that Meade would then be replaced by General Ulysses S. Grant in part because Meade did not pursue Lee’s troops in their retreat to Virginia.

Instead of referencing any of this historical background, the guding questions in the lesson’s outline imagine the students as blank slates and mention another historical event:

A. When was “four score and seven years ago”? B. What important thing happened in 1776?

The guiding responses for teachers seem to begrudge an acknowledgement that keeping students bound to the four corners of a text is impossible, and that, yes, a little prior knowledge of history is helpful when reading a historical text:

This question, of course, goes beyond the text to explore students’ prior knowledge and associations. Students may or may not know that the Declaration of Independence was issued in 1776, but they will likely know it is a very important date – one that they themselves have heard before. Something very important happened on that date.  It’s OK to mention the Declaration, but the next step is to discover what students can infer about 1776 from Lincoln’s own words now in front of them.

In addition, there are admonishments in Appendix A of the lesson not to ask questions such as, “Why did the North fight the civil war?”

Answering these sorts of questions require students to go outside the text, and indeed in this particular instance asking them these questions actually undermine what Lincoln is trying to say. Lincoln nowhere in the Gettysburg Address distinguishes between the North and South (or northern versus southern soldiers for that matter). Answering such questions take the student away from the actual point Lincoln is making in the text of the speech regarding equality and self-government.

The lesson plan continues:

Lesson Plan SECTION 2  From funeral to new birth

  • Students are re-acquainted with the first two paragraphs of the speech.
  • Students translate the third and final paragraph into their own words.
  • Students answer guiding questions regarding the third paragraph of the Gettysburg Address.

Please note this does not provide the context of the speech that was given that crisp morning of November 19, 1863, at the dedication of the National Cemetery on a damp battlefield that only months before had been dampened red with the blood of tens of thousands of soldiers from either side. The students would be unaware that Lincoln had taken the train from Washington the day before and was feeling slightly feverish on the day of the speech. There is some speculation that he may have been suffering from the early stages of smallpox when he delivered the speech reading from a single piece of paper in a high clear voice. The students would not know that Lincoln’s scheduled time at the podium followed a two hour (memorized) speech by Edward Everett, who later wrote to Lincoln stating, “I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near the central idea of the occasion in two hours as you did in two minutes.” The students would not know that many of the 15,000 crowd members did not hear Lincoln’s two minute speech; the 10 sentences were over before many audience members realized Lincoln had been speaking. The students would not know that this speech marked Lincoln’s first public statement about principles of equality, and they would not know that he considered the speech to be a failure.

Lesson Plan SECTION 3  Dedication as national identity and personal devotion

  • Students trace the accumulated meaning of the word “dedicate” through the text
  • Students write a brief essay on the structure of Lincoln’s argument

The lesson provides links to the five handwritten copies of the text, in the “Additional ELA Task #1: Comparison of the drafts of the speech” so that students can see drafts of the speech and the inclusion of “under God” in the latter three versions. There is also an additional Social Studies task that incorporates the position of respected historian Gary Wills from his book Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Worlds that Remade America. This activity suggests students use excerpts from Wills’s book and an editorial from the Chicago Times (November 23, 1863) to debate “Lincoln’s reading of the Declaration of Independence into the Constitution”. One excerpt from Wills’s book includes the statement,”The stakes of the three days’ butchery are made intellectual, with abstract truths being vindicated.” Finally, here is information about the battle itself; the battle lasted three days and soldiers died.

The enterprise of reading the Gettysburg Address without context defeats PARRC’s stated objective of having the students “arrive at an understanding of the text as a whole”. The irony is that in forwarding their own interpretation of the speech, David Coleman and the lesson plan developers have missed Lincoln’s purpose entirely; Lincoln directs the audience to forget the words of the speech, but never to forget the sacrifices made by the soldiers during that brutal conflict:

The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.

Lincoln wrote and delivered the Gettysburg Address to remind his audience “that these dead shall not have died in vain”. Analyzing the language of the address isolated from the Civil War context that created the tone and message is a hollow academic exercise. Instead, students must be taught the historical context so that they fully understand Lincoln’s purpose in praising those who, “gave the last full measure of devotion.”

“It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.”

Continue Reading…

If I had a choice of vanity license plates, I might consider one that marked my recent experience as a volunteer on an educational accreditation team.

NEASC PlateEducational accreditation is the “quality assurance process during which services and operations of schools are evaluated by an external body to determine if applicable standards are met.”

I served as a volunteer on a panel for the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC), an agency that provides accreditation services  – Pre-K through university for more than 2000 public and private institutions in the six state region.  NEASC  Panels are composed of experienced chairpersons and volunteer teachers, administrators, and support staff who visit schools according to a set schedule. According to its website:

In preparation for a NEASC evaluation, all member schools must undertake an exhaustive self-study involving the participation of faculty, administrators, staff, students, community members, and board members.

The key word here? Exhaustive.

Exhaustive in preparation for a NEASC visit. Exhaustive in being hosting a NEASC visit. Exhaustive in being a member of the NEASC team that visits.

But first, a little background. In order to serve as a volunteer, I had to leave several lessons on Hamlet, my favorite unit, with my substitute. So, when I understood the level of professional discretion required for a NEASC visit, I felt a curious connection to the Ghost, Hamlet’s father, who likewise abides by an oath.  On the ramparts of Elsinore, he tells Hamlet:

But that I am forbid
To tell the secrets of my prison-house
I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,(1.5.749-752)

I may not say what school I visited nor may I discuss any part of the actual accreditation discussion by members of my team. So this post will speak only as a self reflection of the process and a few moments of recognition on how accreditation works.

List, list, O, list! (1.5.758)

Sunday morning at 9:30 AM, the team members were already hard at work organizing piles of documents prepared for our visit. We were organized into pairs, two members to work on each of the seven standards, 14 members of the team and two chairpeople.

There was a working lunch before the entire team went to the school for a prepared presentation. This presentation was the high school’s opportunity to quickly familiarize us with their school’s culture and present their strengths and needs that they had determined in the (exhaustive) self study.

Madam, how like you this play?(3.2.222)

Returning to our hotel, the lodgings provided by our hosting school, the work began in earnest. We looked through bins of student work to see if they met the standards set by NEASC.  We looked at all forms of assessments, lesson plans, and student responses. We recorded our findings well into the night, and finally left the work room at 10 PM.

…to sleep;/To sleep: perchance to dream (3.1.65-66)

On both Monday and Tuesday, the team was up early to return to the school (7:00 AM), and the team split up individually or in groups to spend a school day conducting interviews with faculty, staff, and students. Facility tours, lunches shared with students in the cafeteria, and opportunities to “pop-into” classes were available. There simply was no “unobligated time” as we worked steadily in the work room at the school. Here we would record our findings before returning to the school hallways.

Were you not sent for? Is it
your own inclining? Is it a free visitation? Come,
deal justly (2.2.275-276)

Both Monday and Tuesday evening sessions were long as team members furiously documented their findings into a report that will still need editing and revision.  We had worked from 6AM-10:30PM with time allotted for meals and one hour respite in order to call home or check on my own school’s e-mail.  Closing my eyes, I thought how much,

My spirits grow dull, and fain I would beguile
The tedious day with sleep. (3.2.226-227)

An early Wednesday morning work session let us polish the report and present our final conclusions to other members of the team. Finally, the votes as to whether the team would recommend accreditation or not to the school were tallied, and we marched into the school library to meet the faculty and staff a final time. We were leaving a report for them to:

suit the action to the word, the word
to the action; (3.2.17-18)

The chair gave a short speech indicating the tone but not the contents of our report, and then, according to protocol, we left as team, not speaking to anyone from the school, nor to each other. Staying silent, I thought

Farewell, and let your haste commend your duty. (1.2.39)

The experience provided me with insights into the strengths and weaknesses in the educational program of my own school, and I am eager to share ways that can improve instruction with my fellow faculty members. Our school is scheduled for a visit in the spring of 2014 by a NEASC accreditation team.

As professional development, the experience was positive but physically demanding and intellectually challenging. The chairs’ use of technology (Google docs, Livebinders, Linot) allowed for efficient sharing of information on seven standards: Core Values and Beliefs, Curriculum, Instruction, Assessment, School Culture and Leadership, School Resources, and Community Resources. Awash in papers and digital materials for 16 hours a day, I wondered how any previous teams using only hard copies had collaborated successfully.

Additionally, as I looked at the various standards of instruction, I also found myself wondering about the consequences of implementing Common Core Standards (CCSS) and the growing reliance on standardized testing in evaluating teachers and assessing student understanding. Will the current form of regional accreditation adjust to measurements that will be implemented nationally? The United States is broken into five regional accreditation districts, however, if students meet the national standards, how will these regional accreditation panels be used?

Finally, our four day “snap shot” coupled with a the school’s own exhaustive self-study could not address all of the arbitrary elements out of a school’s control, but the process is far more informative and meaningful than any standardized test results that could be offered by the CCSS. Consider also that the financing of a school seriously impacts, for good or for ill, all standards of measuring a school’s success. The intangible “culture” surrounding a school and the fluid landscape of 21st Century’s technology are other arbitrary factors that impact all standards. We even encountered a “snow-delayed” opening as if to remind us that a capricious Mother Nature refuses to allow for standardized measurement!

I only hope that my experience in informing another school in order to improve their educational program will prove beneficial. I know that when the team comes in the spring of 2014, that that they will do as I have tried to do:

 report me and my cause aright…(5.2.339)

The rest I now need requires silence.

The EDsitement website, funded by the National Endowment on the Humanities, offers lesson plans that are aligned to the Common Core State Standards.  I have modified several of these lessons; other lessons on this site are familiar fare in English classrooms. One example is the lesson on Carl Sandburg’s Chicago  which asks students to pick a location and respond to prompts such as, “If this place were a person, what kind of person would he or she be? What noticeable physical characteristics would this person have? How would he or she act? What would this person wear and do?”  The lesson on Arthur Miller’s Crucible is also familiar, “Have students answer the following questions: What is John Proctor’s dilemma in Act IV? What motivates Proctor’s initial decision to lie?”

While there is always a need for more resources and support for teachers, I have two complaints about theEDsitement site. The featured lesson on the site this month is  Vengeful Verbs  in Hamlet for grades 6-8. The targeted age group and the objectives for this lesson are inappropriate; Hamlet is not for middle school students. That leads me to question the appropriateness of lessons for other students as well.

The second problem is a worksheet filter option on the site where lessons can be identified as offering worksheets or not.  Worksheets?  In the 21st Century, with all the digital possibilities, the National Edmowment for the Humaties is promoting worksheets? Why?

Many educators consider worksheets the “busy work” of education. Worksheets have correct answers; they are prescribed and limiting. Early childhood experts have pointed out that many worksheets do not allow the kind of problem solving that involves an element of risk, saying “if we want children to learn to solve problems we must create safe environments in which they feel confident taking risks, making mistakes, learning from them, and trying again” (Fordham & Anderson, 1992). Activities that require creative problem solving or critical thinking should be the goal of every teacher. The worksheet can limit both.

Additionally, worksheets are expensive. Paper and toner ink are the first expense, but the second expense is time. How familiar are teachers  with the number of hours that are wasted in front of copy machines copying worksheets?  Sadly, very familiar. What happens when the copier breaks down? Frustration. A teacher who relies on worksheets is forced to scramble when an unreachable tiny scrap of paper lodges into one of the copier’s feeders, or when the toner is low, or when code505 appears on the digital screen. In contrast, the increase of digital platforms in education allows teachers the opportunity to spend time more productively setting up documents that can be used by individual students or collaboratively.

Students have so many ways to record responses digitally, for example on Google docs or blogs or wikis, so why waste paper? The worksheet should be relegated to files of emergency backup lesson plans for a substitute.

The National Endowment of the Humanities should lead the way in weaning teachers off the worksheet. The emphasis on filtering lesson plans for worksheets should be eliminated. The availability of lesson plans aligned to the Common Core State Standards is a great resource that is cheapened with the pedestrian 20th Century tool of worksheets. EDSitement should not straddle  a 20th-21st Century divide. With funding support from  Verizon Thinkfinity, a foundation firmly in the 21st century,  EDsitement should lead.

Lucy Calkins

The difference between reading an article or a book by Lucy Calkins and hearing her speak in person is a difference that cannot be measured in nuances; the difference is measured in hearing the decibles of her passion.

On Saturday (3/24/12), at the 82nd Saturday Reunion held at the Teachers College at Columbia University in NYC, Calkins stood before a packed house of elementary and middle school teachers in the Nave at the Riverside Church to deliver her closing session, “Walking Courageously Forward in Today’s Common Core World: Literacy Instruction, School Reform and Visions of Tomorrow”.  Hours before the keynote address by children’s author Pamela Munoz Ryan, Calkins had been energetically wandering with a microphone to periodically announce the location of a second keynote address for K-1 teachers or explain a new voucher system for lunches to speed up the notoriously overcrowded lunch lines. She waved for  people to make room in the pews for others and directed her aides to circulate with pads of paper to gather e-mails of participants. (NOTE: Please, Ms. Calkins; get a Twitter account or just have us send our e-mails to a web address!)

According to the jam packed schedule of workshops, she then presented at 10 AM: “An Introduction to the Project’s Thinking About Common Core-Aligned Upper Grade Reading”. At 11AM she presented the workshop, “In the Complicated World of Today, What’s Changed and What’s Stayed the Same About the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project’s Ideas on Teaching Writing?”, and she was spotted checking in on other presentations during her “spare time”.  All this before delivering her final address back in the church at 1PM.  Calkins is already a one person educational seismic wave, which made her opening, a lifting of the lyric from a Carole King’s song, “I feel the earth move under my feet”, much more than metaphoric.

Lucy Calkins is the Founding Director of the Reading and Writing Project LLC and the  Teachers College Reading and Writing Project as well as the Robinson Professor in Children’s Literature at Teachers College where she co-directs the Literacy Specialist Program. She has authored several books about teaching writing, and she has recently co-authored a book, Pathways to the Common Core: Accelerating Achievement.

Much of the speech was directly lifted from her article, “Explore the Common Core” where she advocates for teachers to embrace the Common Core to be a “a co-constructor of the future of instruction and curriculum, and indeed, of public education across America.” She writes,

“As challenging as it must have been to write and finesse the adoption of the Common Core State Standards, that accomplishment is nothing compared to the work of teaching in ways that bring all  students to these ambitious expectations.The goal is clear.The pathway is not.”

In confronting one of the possible pathways, Calkins leveled her most serious criticism. She called attention to two of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) authors who have emerged very publicly as spokespersons, David Coleman (Student Achievement Partners) and Susan Pimentel (Education First), and reminded the attendees that neither has been a classroom teacher. “What is alarming is that they feel empowered to continue to write the Common Core,” she declared. There are a growing number of CCSS support websites that illustrate her frustration, for example, Coleman’s well-documented lesson plans on the study of informational texts such as The Gettysburg Address with his explanations on videos are found at engageny.org.  Ironically, while most historians praise Lincoln for the brevity of this address and the precision of its language,  Coleman’s lesson design would have students spend six to eight sessions in a close reading of the speech. Calkins complained that  extended close readings like Coleman’s are “text dependent activities” and that there are “no questions that transfer to another piece” as well as the unreasonable commitment of time to one common text.

Her frustration also stems from the New York State’s Department of Education’s adoption of many of Coleman’s additions to the original CCSS in providing models for curriculum development. She sounded a loud chord of caution against Coleman and others who write “around the standards” in presenting their curriculum models. She rhetorically challenged Coleman, “Where is the evidence do you have,  David Coleman, that your method works? Where is the evidence that the close reading you describe is improving literacy?”

She then modeled a quick lesson on the poem “To a Daughter Leaving Home” by Linda Pasten, where she effectively refuted Coleman’s tedious approach of laboriously parsing every word in a text. She dismissed the notion that the discussion of any piece “ends at the four corners of the text,” adding that “one cannot infer or understand a metaphor without drawing from [one’s self].” Instead she recommended “sticking as CLOSELY to the text as possible, and in a response, have the student respond to the question ‘how do you know?'”.

Calkins also expressed concerns that in order to meet  CCSS “they [administrators] will add more…informational texts, more close reading. That will not work” she concluded emphatically.  Instead, “The problem facing schools is fragmentation and overload;” adding more to the teacher’s curriculum requirements will not be effective. Chiefly, she explained, the CCSS is, “not about a curriculum of compliance. This is about accelerating students, ramping up student achievement;” the CCSS is a “call for school reform.”

Because of CCSS, however, there will be enormous amounts of money spent on developing curriculum, resource materials, and testing. Authors of the CCSS, educational consultants, publishers, testing services are all looking to develop materials in order to help school systems meet the CCSS.  CCSS has spawned a new industry. Calkins detailed the anticipated expense of implementing the CCSS as $15.8 billion with $7 billion of the expense committed to technology so that students can complete testing online. When the “number one reason preventing student achievement is poverty”, in a time of shrinking budgets, Calkins described her discomfort with implementing  such costly programs and the inevitable auxiliary expenses that will be spent school district by school district in trying to meet the CCSS.

How can educators meet the CCSS in specific ways? “Students should have clear goals so they have a sense what is expected by gathering performance data,” Calkins advised, “Note what has changed with the student and [note] what changes are we expecting. A school should be able to identify [exemplars] what is expected at each grade level.” She also urged teachers to “embrace the call to nonfiction literacy” in order to build knowledge. “Change is hard,” she noted, “but research shows that fear will not make people change; the only effective way to change is through is support groups” suggesting that teachers need to collaborate in support groups to meet the CCSS.

Listening to Calkins was a more than a pep talk. Her reasoned approach to the CCSS was not born solely in the ivory towers of academia nor at a table of educational policy wonks. Her advice to read the CCSS as “gold” comes from her ongoing commitment to improving education coupled with her experience with  students and the teachers she supervises.

Had the audience the opportunity to respond to Lucy Calkin’s line of verse from the song “I Feel the Earth Move”, they could have easily chose another title from  from Carole King’s Tapestry album…”Where You Lead, I Will Follow.”