Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Learning from an Author of The Common Core Standards: A Lesson for Our Time

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:
  1. 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.
  2. 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?
  3. 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. 
So how did Mr. Coleman begin his model lesson?

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.


  1. Dear Mary Ann,

    Sad. Just sad.

    Did Mr. Cerf share any thoughts?

  2. Wow. That sounds just wretched. What a terrible sample lesson.

    To be fair, creating a good sample lesson in front of a highly critical crowd is difficult, but still, it sounds like he has no idea what good teaching actually looks like.

  3. Yes, he did. He opened the event and was quite cordial and professional as you would expect. He did indicate that we would be making plans to transition from NJ ASK to PARCC in response to a question, but did not have any specifics. He also acknowledged the tensions admins feel towards the NJDOE. Thought it important that he is cognizant.

  4. My worry David is that it wasn't a bad day. He repeats it as a model. I have done teaching in front of large of groups of admins and am the first to admit how challenging it is.

  5. Honestly... that was almost too difficult to read. Moments like this one remind me that "knowing better" isn't always all it is cracked up to be. In this case, it makes me want to just close the laptop and pretend so much of this isn't happening.

    As a big boy, I know better. We're losing ground. We need to do more. And from where do we muster the extra energy?

    Tough times indeed.

  6. This guy doesn't seem like he's ever been in a secondary (or primary) ed classroom.

    But I have to say this: I'm a high school English teacher with more background in writing than reading. My reading instruction is based on what I'm told to do from district coaches and curriculum. We focus on reading response through a Reading Workshop model with lots of student choice. And by the time they get to me in 11th or 12th grade, they don't know much about literature. They do know how to tell you that they made a simple connection or general prediction. But they can't say how foreshadowing works or identify metaphors and theme. I'm not saying that what Mr. Coleman presented was very smart, but there's got to be room for direct instruction of common texts in a literacy classroom.

  7. Sean, you read my mind. I recalled my job as a professor and thought, Why did I ever leave that to come back to K-12 PUBLIC education? Then I thought better and reclaimed my voice by writing and am committed to continue the work of supporting teachers and students.

    Appreciate your comments:)

  8. Brent, I hear you. In many workshop classes, learning has been reduced to making connections and predictions and using post its. Deep learning can and does happen in workshop courses. I will more than likely write about a class I visit next week that I read about in a blog. It is a Brit lit class at a HS that is conducted via choice and still focuses keenly on literature. Thanks for your comments:)

  9. Your lunch table discussion of this did not do it justice. Awful. What could possibly prompt the NJDOE to put up such a negative and demeaning view of pedagogy? My HS teachers in the 60s must be turning in their graves! This is a bad time for educators in NJ, but it will/must pass. We can certainly put effort into helping it along...

  10. Not really sure, Nancy what the thinking was. I would hope the NJDOE people would recognize the model was inappropriate. It is a difficult time and our worry should be two fold:
    1. we need to be concerned for & protective of those children who will be under served/not served well if for-profit education becomes the norm. Once measurement of educators is tied to student performance, the likelihood of educators being able to maintain such economic vulnerability is chancy. Children who do not "look like" they can do well before the teaching will be spotlighted in some manner. This will be damaging. I imagine it will also influence what jobs one tries for or bypasses as well.
    2. Our nation will be ill served as the decisions about who matters and who does not will weaken us.

  11. Thanks for this. I've been kind of baffled by the lack of historical perspective on the discipline of English in this whole discussion. To be honest I've never really straightened out the entire timeline and terminology in my head, so thanks for giving me the "new ciriticism" label.

    I would also note, though, that this approach conveniently dovetails with the requirements of testing -- particularly computer scoring of written responses. If responses are limited to specifically constrained analyses of the text itself, it will be pretty easy to offer not only computer scored exams, but online curriculum offering instant feedback using the same algorithms as the tests themselves.

    1. Hadn't considered how the form would better fit the test, Tom. Something there to think about for sure. Sad that children get lost in all this.

  12. Really important - thanks for posting. I'll be sharing this. Here in New York school districts are really pushing the common core. We need to shine a brighter light on Coleman's lack of educational experience.

    1. There's a video from Coleman's NY presentation. It is pretty outrageous as he curses in it. The audience is the commissioner and admins. I was surprised he wouldn't show better sense.

    2. I saw this video!
      It has caused quite a dust-up on the English Companion Ning (normally a collegial place to share ideas). After I saw the video, I posted:
      This was a nice performance (on video) by someone outside of a classroom deconstructing a text to an audience interested (or paying polite attention) in hearing an argument about close reading....however, there is a saying "fish and guests smell after three days"....extensive lingering on literature has much the same impact for students. Two days for a close reading for students would be more than sufficient. We are not raising a nation of English majors.
      His point about having all students on the same text noticing different points indicates that he has not been in classrooms where critical theories (reader response, deconstruction, Marxist, structuralist, etc) have been employed to get understand a text-in my teaching experience, this happens in Advanced Placement classes all the time.
      The critical thinking (which Coleman mentions but does model) is a practice of asking questions-What is the purpose? What information do I have or need? What concepts are necessary to understand? What assumptions can I make? What inferences are made? Whose point of view is revealed? What are the consequences of this piece?
      If there is to be any time spent on addressing standards in the Common Core there should be consideration given to the development of asking questions rather than the objectives (The student shall ....) that are regimentally spelled out.
      Finally, while I am thrilled that Reader Response theory is on the wan (What is your first reaction???), I am not so sure that Deconstruction (there is nothing outside the text) is the only approach.
      I do not think King wrote this letter in a vacuum. There is context that preloaded his letter, tainted the letter, and was changed by the letter.
      I am not encouraged by the video.


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