Stage Two – Depression – The Five Stages of Common Core Experience (from 6-17-13)

In my last post I outlined my initial stage of experience with the Common Core Standards: ACCEPTANCE. I outlined my reasons for thinking the Common Core offered possible relief for what ailed me: over-testing, standardization, and too many standards.

The next step, moving through the stages of grief in reverse, is…


The first thing to snap me out of my acceptance was the release of the CCSS publishers criteria. Several things instantly concerned me here.

Stay Within the Four Corners of the Text!

First, the publisher’s criteria brought New Criticism back from the dead (it apparently died in the 1950’s), and brought it back with a vengeance. The emphasis was now on the text itself – not on personal connections to the text or insights you might glean from it to improve your own life or the world around you. No, the focus is now on the text itself. Only the text. You stay inside the four corners. You discuss the elements of the text and its meaning. No historical context. No knowledge of the author. No personal connection. Nothing but discussing the meaning of the text itself. David Coleman, one of the authors of the standards, disparaged personal connection, saying that no one at work was going to ask you how a report made you feel. Maybe not, but our students aren’t at work yet. They are learning to read, and part of learning to read is learning to love reading, and part of learning to love reading is finding out what it can do for you if you connect to it.

Connecting to what I read changed my life – maybe even saved it.

When I was in middle school, I went through a very rough patch when my homelife was… less than ideal.  Books saved me. I read the Narnia books and The Lord of the Rings, not just to escape, but relate to their heroes and find role models of perseverance. I read Madeleine L’Engle’s fantasy books, and To Kill a Mockingbird.  I learned big ideas about life and morality and love that guide my life to this very day. In the cases of Lewis and L’Engle, I became interested in the authors, which led me to read their other works. After reading their autobiographical books, Lewis, and especially L’Engle, became like friends to me.  Their voices comforted me and gave me messages of hope when I’d been chased out of the house in the middle of the night or bullied at school.

I read the funnies in the newspaper, and knew I wanted to draw cartoons. I especially read the Peanuts comic strips, and then read Peanuts Jubilee, Charles Schulz’s memior/25th anniversary of Peanuts collection. I related to Schulz on many levels, and I aspired to be a cartoonist like him. (I still do… even though I’ve been drawing my own strip for 13 years.) I poured over that book till the binding cracked and  I practically had every strip and anecdote memorized. Did you know that Schulz’s first published drawing appeared in a Ripley’s Believe it Or Not? cartoon and was a picture of a beagle? (The book is still enshrined in my studio near my newer Complete Peanuts collection.)

I was a good reader. No, looking back on it, I suppose I was a great reader. I was a great reader because I read a lot, and I read a lot because I was just following my enthusiasm and my curiosity from one book to the the next. Did I understand each “text” in and of itself, for its own sake? You bet – I lovingly read and re-read and “close read” and treasured each idea. And then I let each book lead me to other books. And other ideas. And connections between other books and ideas, and connections between books and how I lived my life. Reading led me to want to write and draw and live a good life.

So this emphasis on “text-dependent questions” depressed me. Do I want my students to understand the text? You bet. There is a place for digging in and reading a text and investigating and appreciating, and marveling at what a writer did. I do that. But to say that is the main thing we are to do as readers, to say that going outside the “four corners of the text” is bad, is like saying that reading is an isolated, dead activity without passion, influence, or purpose. We read to appreciate the text, and that’s that. It shouldn’t affect us, it shouldn’t change the world, it shouldn’t make us better people. The Common Core grudgingly says that maybe students can go beyond the text after we’re sure they’ve completely understood it, but it seem like an after thought, a concession they’d rather not make.

I saw a CCSS video where they called personal connection a “shortcut to engagement.” I think a statement like that represents a shallow view of personal connection. I’ll write more extensively about the complexities of personal connection later. For now, suffice it to say that if a teacher had told me to stay “in the four corners of the text,” I would have burst out of those corners out of sheer enthusiasm. Books saved me because I was able to connect them to myself, to each other, and to the world around me. Sever those connections, and you’ve cut off the power and promise of those books.

Lots of informational text!

On top of the call to avoid connections is the call to read lots and lots of high quality “informational text.” Informational text is fine– I read a lot of it myself. But the idea of reading informational text critically without leaving the “four corners” of the text seems to me to be a dubious venture at best. The New Criticism was meant to focus on literary works: poetry and fiction. It makes sense to focus on the quality of the writing, the message, the literary elements in a work of art before moving on to talk about the author and any kind of connections. But non-fiction? Do you really want to read non-fiction without context, without knowing who wrote it, without questioning the information for validity? Let’s read about The North American Tree Octopus and stay within the four corners of the text! Let’s read this article by a Holocaust denier and not discuss its context. Let’s read the Holocaust memoir The Sunflower without any Historical context.

If I had any doubts about the ridiculousness of the New Criticism approach to non-fiction, they came to an end when I attended a Common Core workshop for department contacts that included my wife and myself as co-contacts for Language Arts as well as the contacts for Social Studies, Reading, and Science from our school and others. Our task was to go through an exemplar Common Core lesson about The Gettysburg Address. We were to read it through several times (without emotion) and then discuss it. WITHOUT USING BACKGROUND KNOWLEDGE. Another blogger has done a magnificent job chronicling his day with this lesson, which has apparently been inflicted on teachers all over the country. Suffice it to say, discussing The Gettysburg Address without reference to the slavery, the Battle of Gettysburg, Abraham Lincoln, or even the Civil War is an exercise in… absurdity and futility.

Write to Text!

The next item to depress me was the criteria’s take on writing. When I read the actual standards, I saw lots of different kinds of writing included: narratives, arguments, expository pieces, some research. It was one of the sections that made me say, “Already doing that…”

But now I discovered that what the CCSS really cares about is “writing to text”– that is, reading stuff and then writing about it. I heard from several different sources, and then viewed on YouTube, David Coleman’s quote about the fact that in the real world, no one gives a $#!= about your personal story. I’ll talk more about Story later. I understand where the concern is coming from. In some classrooms, personal narratives are all students ever write, and I agree there needs to be more than narratives. But to denigrate them as inferior forms of writing, to send the message that personal stories don’t matter goes not only against everything I believe as a person and teacher, but against the current ideas being touted by business leaders in multiple fields. Story is very big in business right now.

If we emphasize “writing to text” above all else, we are telling kids that they have nothing to say of their own. The best they can do is write about what someone else had to say. As I had a student point out in my NCTE Ignite session in November:

The underlying idea of reading lots of “information” is that reading information is what students will be expected to do on the job. Okay, this may be the case– for some jobs. It seems to assume a certain kind of Dilbert-like cubical job where people look up research and cite it to make a case. Well, there are many different kinds of jobs in the world, and some of them prize story as much as they prize information. The CCSS also seems to be making the assumption that the only purpose of education is to prepare students for college and careers. It is also to prepare them for life. And in life, stories matter. Life is Story. Story is Life.

Text Complexity

The CCSS also make a point that I think may have some validity. Over time, reading has been de-emphasized in some subject areas. The information is what mattered, and if kids weren’t getting it by reading, well, teachers would get it to them some other way: videos, hands-on demonstrations, easier to read text-books. I had, I’ll admit, noticed this tendency in some teacher circles. It sometimes amounted to a disparagement of reading. “We don’t just read the textbook! We DO stuff!” Can’t we have it both ways?

And so the Common Core is now making a push for students to read complex text across all curricular areas. Should students be able to read challenging stuff? Yes. Is ramming “complex text” down their throats the way to get them there? Um… no. Some Common Core pundits even said that the challenge of the texts would make many students cry. As the parent of two excellent readers– several perfect reading scores and one perfect SAT– who was also his children’s Language Arts teacher for three years, I will tell you what makes for good readers: students who read a lot about topics they connect to. Oh, wait, we’re back to personal connections again.

The Common Core seems to like complex text just for the sake of its complexity. Is all “text complexity” good? Isn’t text complexity sometimes used to confuse and obfuscate? Isn’t one of the hallmarks of good writing, according to many writers, clear, clean, understandable prose? My concerns continued to grow.

Publishers jumping on the bandwagon

As I realized what the publishers criteria were saying, I also began to realize that publishers would be swallowing these criteria whole, because they want to sell books. If nearly every state has adopted Common Core, and this is what the CCSS says matters, then every publisher would be wanting every book published to support the CCSS. I began to see that teacher-authors I loved had jumped on the band-wagon and were putting out books about informational text and text complexity and writing to text. As the author of two published books for teachers, books that focus on tapping into students’ interests and enthusiasms and getting them to write from the material of their own lives, I wondered if my books would be instantly outdated. I wondered, and still do, if there would be any room in the teaching book marketplace for any new books I write about ideas that aren’t 100% Common Core Approved.

Isn’t this setting the rules for what can and can’t be in books a kind of… well, thought control? To have nearly every publisher in the country ready to jump through your hoops, ready to buy into a philosophy that is de-humanizing at best seems extremely ominous to me.

I realized that despite my initial ACCEPTANCE of the Common Core, I had now reached a stage of DEPRESSION about it. The New Criticism, the adulation of Information, the redefining of writing as writing about someone else’s writing… It seemed that my hopes that the Common Core would rescue me were being dashed.

But worse was yet to come. I hadn’t even heard about PARCC yet. Or Common Core architect David Coleman moving to head the College Board, publisher of the workbook program SpringBoard. Or Pearson… I was depressed, yes, but was still hoping to find a way to stay flexible and work my magic in my classroom despite my concerns. I entered the next stage of my Common Core journey: