Stage Five: Denial and Affirmation – The Five Stages of Common Core Experience (from 6-23-13)

Going through the stages of grief in reverse order, my experience with the Common Core has lead me from ACCEPTANCE, to DEPRESSION, to BARGAINING, to ANGER.

But where to go from anger? I have already inverted the stages of grief; now I’ll add to them. I will end, not just with DENIAL,  but with AFFIRMATION. I think it’s vitally important that I not just be against something, but in favor of something even better.

So, what am I in DENIAL about? Certainly not about the existence and threat to public education posed by the Common Core Standards. Some people are in denial. They figure if they don’t speak up, keep their heads down, and protect their job security, everything will be okay. That’s not the kind of denial I’m talking about.

I’m talking about denial as an act of stating that I reject certain values, prejudices, and programs, and saying why we are against them. I’m talking about denial as denying certain practices, philosophies, and programs the ability to influence and shape who I am as a teacher and what happens in my class in terms of how I treat students. I hope I’m not the only one “in denial” in this second sense.

So, what am I denying?

I deny the disparaging of story. To send a message that “Nobody gives a $#!+” about your personal story is tantamount to verbal and emotional child abuse. And I it doesn’t matter how old a child is. It doesn’t matter if you are an adult. Don’t tell me no one cares about my story. I know my story matters. I know my students’ stories matter. And story is not just a touchy-feely concept for bleeding heart liberals who don’t care about the bottom line. To deny story is to deny our humanity. I deny the deniers of story.

I deny the idea that personal connections are a shallow way to read and learn. Personal connection has been called “a short cut to engagement” by Common Core People. They say we should cultivate a sense of “fascination” free of personal connection in our students. This is a complex issue, one I’ll write about more in a later post, but let me just say this: Personal connection is vitally important. I guess the Common Core crew wants to avoid making “artificial” personal connections where none obviously appear, but it appears to me that they think all personal connections are artificial. Maybe they want students to learn to be less self-centered and to be interested in things outside themselves. There may be something valid in those goals. But to say that all personal connection is artificial or even self-centered is going too far. What’s artificial is to pretend you’re not connecting to what you read or study when you are! And personal connection is not a “short cut” to engagement. It is engagement itself in many cases. It would almost seem the Common Core message is: Reading is incredibly important if you are mining it for information and facts, but what you read should have no real bearing on your life, your ideas or the world around you. That seems like a strange way to to promote the importance of reading.

I deny the idea that education is just for jobs training. It’s been said before, but it bears repeating: education is not just about making a living, it is about making a life. Yes, I want my students to find good work, but that work may take a variety of forms, and it takes a lot of personal connections with things to find the work that’s right for you.

I deny the idea that teachers can never be trusted. The excuse they’ve come up with for all the standardized testing is that teachers can never be trusted to evaluate their students’ own progress or work because they’re too close to the situation to be “objective,” or they make excuses for the kids’ lack of progress, or they are just lazy. The real reason for all the standardized testing is to make a ton of money off of taxpayers via the children of the nation. Teachers, many of whom haven’t had a real raise in several years and work hard nonetheless, can’t be trusted, but multi-billion dollar industries who want to mine our students for data can be trusted? That doesn’t make sense. Trust me.

I deny the idea that left brained analytical skills are the only, or even the main, skills that matter.To say that if we could only create logical, analytical, cold, calculating, objective, evidence-and-data-driven young adults, we’d save our country is a ridiculous premise. We’d be creating a nation of heartless drones. Or was that the idea?

I deny the idea that teachers are dispensers of standards. I have this image in my head that I have used before, that we teachers are expected to be giant Pez dispensers who pop out pellet-shaped standardized knowledge and force feed it to to kids. I reject this notion. Knowledge cannot be standardized. It cannot be force fed. I am not a Pez dispenser.

I deny the idea that all knowledge and curriculum should be centralized and controlled from the top down. That is not how democracy works. It is a totalitarian approach to education, and it is wrong. It is also creating a generation of teachers who don’t know, really, how to even think about teaching. Here’s what I mean. We are being told our workbook program, SpringBoard, doesn’t yet adequately support the Common Core. We are also being told that we don’t really know what the standardized tests for Common Core, the PARCC tests, will look like. I’ve heard other teachers ask things like, How will I teach if it’s not in the workbook? Or, How will I get them to do well on the test if I don’t know what the test is like? This is what standardization has led to: not better teaching but better obedience, and teachers who can’t think for themselves.

I deny that school should be test-preparation mills. The Common Core seemed to offer something different at first: real, deep learning. But in the end, it looped back around and has become all about the test. The only good thing to come of this is that in the process of selling the new tests, they had to admit the old ones were inadequate. I hate to tell them, but so are the new ones, from what little I’ve seen of them.

I deny the profit cycle produced by profit-driven standards, profit-driven tests to test that the standards have been dispensed, and profit-driven curriculum materials to teach those standards so that students can pass the test. I will not support this cycle, which can be manipulated to make schools look like they are failing– even when they’re not.

What do I affirm?

I affirm story. Story matters. My story matters. Every individual’s story matters. Story matters in business. If I can’t listen to my customer’s story, how will I keep my business running? If I can’t tell a compelling story, how will I draw people to my business? In fact, unless I know my own story, my own self, how will I ever know what is the right business for me? How will I find my calling in life? And story is everywhere. History is story. Science is story. Even Math has a story. All the “evidence” that was ever gathered has a story behind it. Story is everywhere. Story is life. Don’t mess with Story. I will affirm story every day in my classroom until such a time as they drag me out of my class room to shut me up. And after they drag me out, I will tell a story about it.

I affirm personal connections. To say we make personal connections doesn’t mean we are always self-centered. Sometimes a personal connection means the thing I’m learning reminds me of someone else. “Oh– Steve would be fascinated by this!” Sometimes the personal connection I make may be an insight about life or relationships or resilience that makes all the difference for me. This connection might change my life for the better, or maybe even save my life, and you don’t want to hear about my personal connections because you want to stick to the New Criticism? Well, the New Criticism is pretty old at this point. And of course the weird thing about connecting to a topic is that sometimes we connect so well that we, ironically, forget ourselves completely while we are looking at it. But in forgetting ourselves, we become more ourselves. Our sense of self expands because as we learn about the subject, we grow as people. If I am the sum of all my stories, I am also, from a different perspective, the sum of everything that interests me. If I don’t connect to it somehow, if it hasn’t become a part of me, I haven’t really learned it. I don’t think its too far off to say that each of us is, in some ways, the sum of all we’ve learned.

I affirm educating the whole person. I am not educating the metaphorical left half of the brain. I am not just educating the metaphorical right half, either. We need our analytical sides sometimes (I am probably using mine right now), and sometimes we need our more creative, more intuitive sides (which I’ll use when I draw comic strips this week). Most of the time we use both in tandem. And we are educating not just brains, but hands and hearts and souls as well. I am not here to produce good test-takers. I am here to make a contribution toward creating good citizens, good people.

I affirm the idea that teachers can be trusted. Maybe not every teacher. But most teachers. We spend time with our students every school day. We can tell you in a nuanced and insightful way what a student’s strengths and weaknesses are, what they struggle with, what might help them, and who they are as people. All a test can do is label them as a number and dehumanize them. I can see their potential, and I don’t need an algorithm to see it. Trust me to engage them. Trust me to give them an education that goes far beyond test prep. Come into my room any time. Look at what my students are doing. It will blow your mind. It will warm your heart. You will be amazed. Trust me.

I affirm that teaching is a higher calling than being dispensers of lessons aligned to standards. If all the tests and curriculum maps and scripted programs in the world vanished tomorrow (Oh, the thought of it!), not only would I not panic, I would rejoice. I know my stuff. Give me a classroom, perhaps a good anthology of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry (if you must) to use as I see fit, some paper and pens, the internet, and a copy machine, and I can do things beyond your wildest dreams. I will activate both sides of their brains. I will have them creating and arguing and discussing and drinking in the sound and feel of good writing till it can’t help but come back out in their own writing. Actually, I’m affirming that I already do those things most of the time– despite the Common Core, not because of it.

I affirm that I don’t teach for the sake of the framers of the Common Core, or for legislators, or for corporations, or even for my own amusement. I teach for my students.

 I affirm that a call to teaching is a call to thought, questioning, and freedom. I cannot teach my students to really think, to question, or to feel free to speak up about the things that matter to them unless I do model those things first. I affirm that every teacher should be encouraged to think and question and take action. I also affirm that teachers should think and question and take action even when they are discouraged from doing so. Especially when they are discouraged from doing so. They should give themselves the freedom to think for themselves, to question, and take action – even if it’s against the Common Core.