Today I attended the acting NJ commissioner of education's convocation, designed to introduce superintendent and curriculum directors to the Common Core Standards (CCS) and PARCC (see my post about PARCC here). There are many things I might write about, but it is the afternoon session that I want to describe and comment. The afternoon session (about 2 hours) was dedicated to listening to a lecture about what is emphasized in the CCS and why. We were told that we want students to "read like a detective and write like an investigative reporter." David Coleman, an author of the Common Core Standards and founder and CEO of Student Achievement Partners, LLC wanted us to understand what a CCS "model" literacy lesson would look like and so "taught" the 600 of us present using Dr. King's Letter from a Birmingham Jail. Mr. Coleman said that the instruction he would be "doing" would occur across 6 days, emphasizing the need to "go slow".
How might a teacher begin such a complex task?
Mr. Coleman offered three ways to not begin:
- Forget giving background information. Mr. Coleman said an introduction would simplify the text. Mr. Coleman believes that doing this would undermine the complexity of the text as he assumes that instead of reading the text, students would base their understanding of the text solely on the opening remarks. If students did not do this? Mr. Coleman did not address that potential reality.
- Mr. Coleman told us to also forget using pre-reading strategies. He explained that it makes no sense to predict ahead of time and referenced how foolish it would be to predict what a movie might be if you had no knowledge of the movie. I am unsure how Mr. Coleman defines pre-reading strategies, but guessing has never been a pre-reading strategy of any merit. I'm confident that Mr. Coleman does not understand what pre-reading actually might mean as he characterizes such strategies as tangential, not directly related to the actual text that is being read. Don't readers skim a text? Don't readers think about what they might know about a topic or author in preparation to reading? Why are these methods wrong?
- The third method to avoid is to conduct any type of strategy lesson. Mr. Coleman said the surest way to ruin a text is to ask students to read with a main idea in mind. Yet, one of his questions while modeling was for us to consider three reasons Dr. King offers to support his main thesis. Does this question not shape the reading? It is at this point that I begin to understand why Mr. Coleman carries on as he does. Mr. Coleman believes that meaning exists inside a text and the reader's job is to extract meaning, as if meaning was a nugget the author left (remember your job as a reader is to be a detective) that remains whole, untainted by human experience and misunderstanding. Meaning is not composed in transactions between the reader and the text, rather meaning is found.
He began by reading the text aloud. None of us, apart from Mr. Coleman, had a copy of the text and that fact did not seem to have any influence on Mr. Coleman's pedagogical decisions. Mr. Coleman read paragraph by paragraph stopping to ask us questions that on only one occasion did any "student" offer a response.
For the rest of the "model lesson" only Mr. Coleman spoke.
No one else offered even a modest utterance. Mr. Coleman's questions were mostly recall questions. For example, Mr. Coleman asked, "Does anyone know who makes their second appearance in the letter?" No one responded. He paused for a couple of seconds and then answered his own question letting us know that Socrates is mentioned twice. Mr. Coleman read aloud, offered his insights, and asked and answered his own questions. By the conclusion of his model lesson, the audience dwindled to what looked like less than 100 people.
What might we make of such a model that Mr. Coleman says we should be emulating? Mr. Coleman educated at Yale and Oxford seems to be a student of New Criticism, a literary theory employed in colleges and high schools beginning in the 1940s and displaced by other theories by the 1960s. Some New Critics discounted reader's emotional or personal response to a text, believing the text to be autonomous and privileged close reading methods. Mr. Coleman and his business associate, a former math director from NJ, were quick to demean the value of Reader-response Theory, misrepresenting it as an approach that simply asks students how they feel. In April of this year in Albany in an address to New York state educators, Mr. Coleman told his audience, "People don't really give a shit about what you feel and what you think." (You can access that "talk" here).
Is that really the message we want to convey to our 5-, 10-, or 15-year old students? Is it even true? Are there no occasions when how one feels in the business sector is valued? Is thinking a cognitive function divorced from feeling? Was e.e. cummings wrong when he wrote, since feeling is first? Creating false dichotomies is not a way to begin.
I'm guessing that Mr. Coleman hasn't spent any considerable time actually teaching children or young adults. Had he, I would hope he might have learned that it is a costly mistake to assume any single approach, including the one he advocates, is what is needed to teach millions of children and young adults how to read powerfully. Reading aloud a text and stopping to frequently ask questions is hardly a novel approach and given that 5/6 of the audience left one might assume it may not be a credible one either. What is disheartening about this afternoon is that I believe Mr. Coleman thinks his "teaching" is inspired, as he gave a similar lesson last month. Mr. Coleman has the ear of powerful politicians and foundations and I worry as an educator and a mom that his vision of learning will prevail.
The lesson I took from the afternoon is that equally compelling voices must be sounded so that children are not harmed by such an impoverished understanding of what it means to teach and learn. We need to offer alternatives to the vision of teaching that Mr. Coleman would have us enact. I have little doubt if enacted as Mr. Coleman represents in his model, we will deeply fail learners.