Linking to a thoughtful essay by Jeremiah Chaffee, who teaches English in upstate New York, Richard Day writes:
If this author can be believed, low-ordered thinking skills dictated by Common Core "Exemplars" seem to undermine creative and critical thinking. Will we find ourselves five years from now wondering why such a great idea isn't working? ...and blaming teachers for the failure?
Since I’m investing many of my waking hours in Common Core implementation, I want to respond in some detail.
Mr. Chaffee’s concerns
Mr. Chaffee writes that his department has been working with an “exemplar” lesson designed to align with the Common Core State Standards, one centered on the Gettysburg Address. He then shares his concerns, which I hope can be fairly summarized in with this excerpt:
Most of [the lesson] was too scripted. It spelled out what types of questions to ask, what types of questions not to ask, and essentially narrowed any discussion to obvious facts and ideas from the speech.
Another problem we found relates to the pedagogical method used in the Gettysburg Address exemplar that the Common Core calls “cold reading.”This gives students a text they have never seen and asks them to read it with no preliminary introduction. This mimics the conditions of a standardized test on which students are asked to read material they have never seen and answer multiple choice questions about the passage.
Such pedagogy makes school wildly boring. Students are not asked to connect what they read yesterday to what they are reading today, or what they read in English to what they read in science.
I’ve quoted those two concerns, about scripting and cold reading, in the order Mr. Chaffee shares them, but I’ll offer my response in the reverse order.
It is true that standardized tests require students to read texts cold, without teachers coaching them to pull up their other knowledge or connect to other interests.
The thing is, life itselfrequires cold reading. On the job, adults get handed manuals, assembly instructions, and memos, and they don’t always get an experienced colleague to coach them through figuring out what they’re reading and what to do in response. When studying for a technical certificate or a college degree, older students will be assigned texts and expected to read the assignments on their own. As citizens, we all need to be able to work our way through articles, editorials, and websites as part of thinking through public issues.
Equipping students for cold reading
In some classes, for some topics and some texts, it makes sense for teachers to provide context, help students activate their prior knowledge, review needed vocabulary before students open their books, and otherwise provide a scaffolding that helps students make meaning of the assignment. All of that makes students’ work easier and all of it can help make it easier for them to engage the substance of what they read.
Still, if every lesson front-loads that kind of support, how do students develop the reading skills they’ll need when they graduate and the support goes away?
Some lessons need to begin with cold reading, to start students on the way to independence.
Then, after students do their own wrestling, good teaching can include modeling good skills for pulling the text apart and deepening their understanding of what it says. For example, a teacher might prompt students to identify and wrestle with challenging words, then tricky phrases, and then the overall organization of the piece, before reading it through a second time to think more deeply about how the whole piece fits together. Long-term, students need to be able to summon up those strategies on their own, but part way through their learning process, they may still need to rehearse the steps with a teacher illustrating how to do each one.
As I read Mr. Chaffee’s description of the exemplar lesson, I developed a strong hunch that he was looking at a lesson that specifically designed to model that type of sound teaching: cold reading as the first step, questions to guide students in closer reading as the second round of work.
That is, I suspect that cold reading—meaning independent work to make sense of text without a teacher softening the work—was a central purpose of the exemplar lesson. Understanding the Gettysburg Address wasn't the only goal, and the reading step was not just a teaching method. On the contrary, independent reading was a capacity being taught both in the "cold" phase and the questioning phrase of the lesson, and the Gettysburg Address, though valuable in itself, was also being used as a vehicle for skill development.
Again, I am not saying that is the only kind of teaching students should receive. I am, though, saying that Mr. Chaffee’s description makes me think that the exemplar is one of the kinds of learning students need.
Scripting or empowering teachers
The exemplar lesson Mr. Chaffee worked with does not come directly from the Common Core State Standards. I can say that with certainty because the Standards document does not contain any lesson plans. There are many ideas circulating about how to teach to Common Core, but none of them are required by the Common Core itself, and it’s worth repeating that none of them are mandated by the federal government.
Given the many different people and jurisdictions involved, it’s certainly possible that some one is dictating scripted lessons for teachers to recite.
However, many places, including Kentucky, are following far more empowering strategies. The Literacy Design Collaborative, for example, calls for teachers to develop robust teaching tasks and then plan instruction that builds students’ reading, thinking, and writing skills on the way to responding to that overall task—giving teachers huge control over the skills to be taught, the order of teaching, and the activities used to build each skill. Kentucky is sharing that strategy across its Leadership Networks, and I’m part of the design team that has been working to develop LDC for use in other states and on-line.
The bottom line
Almost any sound idea can be undercut by foolish implementation, and nothing built into Common Core prevents that from happening. If teachers convert to “all cold reading, all the time,” that will be a mistake. That said, “all scaffolded reading, all the way through senior year” would also be the wrong approach.
The ability to “read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently” is clearly part of what every member of the rising generation will need to be ready for higher education, the jobs of the future, and the challenges of the coming century. In the Common Core State Standards, that ability is listed as Reading Anchor Standard 10, and the part about doing the reading independently-- or cold--is a serious part of the expectation.