Courage, instruction, and being open to the changes the Common Core demands

“You can never cross the ocean until you have the courage to lose sight of the shore” ― André Gide

As we’ve said numerous times before, for the vast majority of states, adoption of the Common Core standards was an enormous improvement. (Click for Fordham’s review of each state’s standards and the Common Core.) It’s equally clear that we have an enormous challenge on our hands to ensure that the Common Core is implemented in a way that makes the most of these stronger and more rigorous standards. Change is hard but Common Core, correctly implemented, has the potential to amp up expectations and instruction across American classrooms. 

I’ve already posted about the danger of curriculum publishers co-opting the Common Core to promote their own (relatively unchanged) materials. But there’s a second, and potentially even more troubling challenge that lies ahead: a resistance among teachers to changing their instruction.

As the time comes to start implementing Common Core some teachers are starting to dig in their heels.

Of course, for teachers, there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical. There has been no shortage of curriculum fads and reforms that have demanded instructional changes and promised improvements, but yielded very little in the way of student achievement gains. It’s no wonder, then, that as the time comes to start implementing Common Core some teachers are starting to dig in their heels.

Valerie Strauss, a Washington Post blogger who has created a cottage industry out of assuming the worst about most education reforms, has a guest post up on The Answer Sheet blog that perfectly captures this emerging resistance.

“One (maddening) day working with the Common Core,” written by a 13-year veteran New York high school teacher named Jeremiah Chaffee, describes a daylong CCSS-related professional development. His day was spent, reading and analyzing a CCSS-aligned exemplar lesson on the Gettysburg Address created by the authors of the standards, David Coleman and Sue Pimentel. He writes:

As we looked through the exemplar, examined a lesson previously created by some of our colleagues, and then began working on our own Core-related lessons, I was struck by how out of sync the Common Core is with what I consider to be good teaching

By the end of the day, Chaffee concluded:

…when it came time to create our own lessons around the exemplar, three colleagues and I found ourselves using techniques that we know have worked to engage students — not what the exemplar puts forth.

As anyone who has ever organized a professional development session for teachers knows, it’s not uncommon when introducing new material or new techniques for teachers to fall back on previous ways of teaching. Another name for that is a failed session. 

Of course, teachers should carefully consider how they can best hit the targets laid out in the Common Core. Obviously the vision outlined by Coleman and Pimentel isn't the only path to implementation. Careful analysis is needed to determine how best to drive achievement in this new environment. However, in this case, it’s obvious from the outset that Chaffee and his colleagues were impervious to change. Unless the presenter was going to mirror back to them exactly the kinds of things that they’ve always done—perhaps with some tweaks, but certainly within the narrow constraints of their own vision of excellence—they were not open to the ideas. That is not the pathway to meaningful reform.

Worse, the particulars of Chaffee’s criticisms are often misguided (and apparently went uncorrected). Chaffee takes issue with three elements of the exemplar in particular:

1. It is overly scripted, and scripted lessons are limiting to teachers and students.

Chaffee believes that the Gettysburg Address exemplar is far too scripted, and says that scripting lessons is based on several false assumptions about teaching:

  • That anyone who can read a lesson aloud to a class can teach just as well as experienced teachers;
  • That teaching is simply the transference of information from one person to another;
  • That students should not be trusted to direct any of their own learning;

Perhaps. But that has virtually nothing to do with the exemplar Chaffee and his colleagues examined. The exemplar was just that: a model. An example of how you might implement the Common Core ELA standards. These example lessons are not—nor are they meant to be, I assume—part of a fully fleshed out, scripted curriculum that teachers must implement. Instead, it is meant to show the level of planning required to align instruction to this vision of CCSS implementation. This is an important distinction. A scripted curriculum constrains teachers’ words. A detailed model is merely meant to show the rationale behind a plan so that teachers can better understand it.

With a well-thought out—even thoughtfully scripted—lesson plan, the teacher will be the guide.

More than that, I’ve seen lessons that range in detail from carefully scripted to broad outlines and, in just about every case, the more detailed the plan, the better the lesson. That doesn’t mean that a teacher should stare at a student like a deer caught in headlights when an off-topic question comes up. But with a well-thought out—even thoughtfully scripted—lesson plan, the teacher will be the guide. S/he will know when to veer off course, when something will be dealt with later, when it’s time to stop for an unrelated teachable moment, etc. Teachers with less scripted lesson and unit plans are far more easily taken off course in ways that distract from, rather than enhance, student learning.

2. The lesson relies on “cold reading” and discourages teachers from helping students make connections between the text and prior knowledge, previous reading, or personal experience.

Such pedagogy, Chaffee argues, “mimics the conditions of a standardized test on which students are asked to read material they have never seen and answer multiple choice questions about the passage,” but it “makes school wildly boring.”

To suggest that jumping right in to reading a great work of literature is boring seems patently absurd (particularly for an English teacher). But more importantly, no lesson exists—or should exist—in isolation. Each reading is part of a larger unit or long-term plan. I doubt that Coleman and Pimentel are suggesting that students dive into a reading of the Gettysburg Address with literally no introduction to the Civil War whatsoever. (And if that’s true, they should perhaps be clearer on this point.) If a teacher is developing a curriculum in isolation, the Address could come after other readings about the civil war—perhaps a series of newspaper articles that students read to understand what was happening at the time? Perhaps they lay the groundwork so that when the students read the Gettysburg Address, they have the knowledge they need to dive right in?

It seems to me that point is not that students should be able to understand quantum mechanics without having ever taken basic physics. It’s that, with the proper short- and long-term planning, individual literature lessons should not be marred by the kinds of pre-reading activities that do little more than bore students, distract attention away from the authors’ words, and spoon feed answers to questions students will get later.

3. The lesson encourages teachers to read rather than “deliver” the speech

“English teachers love Shakespeare,” Chaffee explains, “when we read to our classes from his plays, we do not do so in a dry monotone. I doubt Lincoln delivered his address in as boring a manner as the Common Core exemplar asks.”

The directions on the exemplar itself say:

Do not attempt to “deliver” Lincoln’s text as if giving the speech yourself but rather carefully speak Lincoln’s words clearly to the class, being sure to follow his punctuation and rhetorical clues

To my eye, following punctuation and rhetorical cues does not equate “reading in a dry monotone.” On the contrary, it encourages teachers to follow the cues in the text and use them to guide their oration. In other words, teachers are encouraged not to make assumptions about how the speech might have been delivered. After all, the way this speech might be delivered today—in an age of radio, television, and internet—is likely very different than the way it was actually delivered, on the grounds of a battle where many men lost their lives. The point, for teachers and students alike, is not to make assumptions about the text—what it says or how it should be read—based on our own biases, but instead to use the authors words, their punctuation, and their cues to guide our reading and comprehension.

That is the close reading that the Common Core challenges teachers to implement.

Of course, in order to get implementation right, teachers must look with a critical eye at any and all “models” of implementation—including the one being promoted by the standards authors themselves. Those models must be analyzed, evaluated, and critiqued. They must be tried and tweaked based on the realities of each classroom. But, if we’re ever to push our vision of what instructional excellence looks like beyond where it is today, we need to be open to change and not simply dismiss new ideas simply because they’re new or different. And that means challenging teachers like Jeremiah Chaffee to be willing to lose sight of the familiar shore of instruction and embrace the opportunity of crossing a new ocean with their students.

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