“Have you ever been in a revival meeting? Well you’re in one now.”
(Nina Simone, “Children Go Where I Send Thee,” from the 1962 album Nina Simone Live at the Village Gate)
I’ve just returned from two days in Rochester, NY, where Sue Bartle and I ran some Common Core (CC) workshops, and our lively exchanges with teachers, librarians, and administrators reminded me of Nina’s words. We were there to talk about Common Core in the final run-up to New York’s first assessments, but this wasn’t a lecture. In fact, it quickly turned into a group therapy-cum-revival-testimonial session. Everyone had stories to share. We were hearing, straight from the trenches, about the Common Core crosswinds.
The first day drew people from wealthier suburban districts that have invested heavily in guided reading and in Lucy Calkins’s Reading and Writing Project workshops. The second day—a beautiful warm Saturday, no less—attracted a full house of people who work in inner-city schools where administrators seek to tightly script teaching and learning—often in ways that make Common Core’s emphasis on “depth over breadth” impossible to achieve. I’m using this column to sort out my thinking—and to invite all of you to share your own CC crosswinds—because one of the best things to come out of the day was the cross-school collaborations and exchanges of ideas.
I wrote about the problems that guided reading can pose for Common Core in a previous column—see “(Mis)Guided Reading”—and Mary Ann Cappiello, an assistant professor of language & literacy at Lesley University, sent me word of a recent article by the creators of guided reading, Irene C. Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell, in which they discuss the difference between their actual system and how it’s all too often applied (“Guided Reading: The Romance and the Reality,” The Reading Teacher December 2012 V. 66 #4, pages 268-346, which unfortunately isn’t available for free online). I encourage any of you whose students are trapped by the guided reading’s carefully calibrated reading levels and not encouraged to follow their own interests to bring this article to the attention of teachers and administrators. Rigid, misunderstood, and misapplied, guided reading is directly at odds with Common Core.
I’d planned to write about the problems with Lucy Calkins’s approach, but New York City beat me to it. Dr. Calkins is a fixture at Columbia University’s Teachers College and, quite naturally, her ideas and the students she has trained have had a strong influence on the New York City school system. But in March, New York announced that after carefully weighing a number of curricular approaches, it was selecting two: Core Knowledge and ReadyGen. The city’s announcement didn’t mention Calkins, but the shift in focus was clear, and it’s easy to see why. Calkins has been the guru of the writing process, especially text-to-self connections. This was a welcome relief in the heyday of No Child Left Behind and encouraged a culture of writing and revision in many schools. But the CC English language arts standards expressly de-emphasize that area of subjective response and instead, focus on evidence that’s found in the text: “What does it say?’ over “how do I feel about that?” Schools and districts that have invested in teaching students how to write about “small moments” and have discouraged writing assignments linked to curricular subjects are at cross purposes with CC—in the same way as those that are turning guided reading into alphabet prisons.
Friends, as the New York City’s experience proves, just because your school or district has made a recent, expensive, investment in a system doesn’t mean you need to keep using it. Common Core drives the assessments—and your administrators need to know if you and your students are being hampered, rather than helped, by the tools that you are using. And that brings me to administrative rigidity. On that balmy Saturday, I kept hearing about scripting: a dual-language school that has had a decade of success with its existing program of alternating full days of English with Spanish, has now been ordered to use an English-only “module” in the middle of every day; a Montessori school, built around the multi-age classroom, has now been told that all of its students in each grade must follow a different curriculum; a middle school ELA teacher who has creatively matched fiction and nonfiction (as CC requires) for years is now mandated to use a curriculum that leaves him no choice in materials; reading teachers who teach students how to locate and analyze evidence in a text (which, as I just mentioned, is the heart of the CC) by making marginal notes and comments is concerned that on the CC assessments students will now be forbidden to use the very skills and methods they’ve been taught.
Just at the moment when Common Core is meant to encourage deep learning and thinking, and constant questioning, we see anxious administrators mandating scripts, uniformity, and blind obedience. This is simply wrong. What can we do? The first thing is to speak up; others are facing the same challenges that you’re facing, and we can exchange ideas. We always end our Common Core sessions with a workshop in which teams of teachers and librarians work together on a project. Right there in the room, you see a culture of collaboration taking shape—ideas from one classroom that fit a library across the city. The great thing about Common Core is that it is really “common”: everyone in 46 states is tackling this challenge.
Speak up: about what is working, what is not, and where the crosswinds blow. As you can see, I’m listening—and I want everyone to know.
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