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Susan English Class in Common Core Era: 'Tom Sawyer' and Court Opinions

Ohanian Comment: Various educators told the New York Times reporter how Common Core drives what they do, and taken along with non-educator Susan Pimentel's advice, I've never seen a better case for abolishing compulsory education. I don't want any child I care about subjected to these techniques which will convince him he hates to read.

"We look at teaching literature as teaching particular concepts and skills. So we maybe aren't teaching an entire novel, but we're ensuring that we're teaching the concepts that that novel would have gotten across."--Kimberly Skillen, the district administrator for secondary curriculum and instruction in Deer Park, N.Y.

The concepts the novel would have gotten across?????????

Here's my observation on Twitter:

Do not go gentle... Rage, Rage, Rage, Rage, Rage, Rage, Rage, Rage, Rage, Rage, Rage...

The partial novel as a concept delivery mechanism.

According to her LinkedIn profile, Kimberly Skillen was a social studies teacher, then Social Studies Chairperson, then Associate Principal, and now District Administrator Secondary Curriculum & Instruction.

I have a question for the person who paired Catcher in the Rye with articles on bipolar disorder: Did J. D. Salinger read articles about bipolar disorder before or while writing Catcher in the Rye? Is that "the concept" the novel is getting across? Is this what we want students to take away from their reading?

I'd like to know which pages the students are assigned to read--so I can see which pages are left out.

As for linking Tom Sawyer's fence whitewashing episode with articles on teenage unemployment--words fail me. Mining literature like this is a great tragedy.

Does any adult read a novel this way?

Susan Pimentel, lead writer of the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts/Literacy, Founding Partner of Student Achievement Partners, chief architect of the American Diploma Project Benchmarks, National Assessment Governing Board Assessment Development Committee member, etc. etc. ad nauseam , offers this justification for a recommended text: it "contained a lot of academic vocabulary, which she said was critical to students' reading comprehension skills."

I don't know that I've ever seen a better example of a wrongheaded approach to teaching and learning: choose an article to deliver hard words.

Note: Ms Pimentel has a law degree from Cornell.

Prof. Mark Bauerlein suggests seeking "guidance from the Common Core standards" for choosing informational texts, making me wonder if he has read the Standardisto guidance. For example, those Higgs bosons.

English/Language Arts Literacy Examples ELA-1 and ELA--2: Focused Literacy, Extended Constructed Response Type, p. 684
Example #5
Analyze the concept of mass based on a close reading of Gordon Kane's "The Mystery of Mass" and cite specific textual evidence from the text to answer the question of why particles have mass at all. Students explain important distinctions the author makes regarding the Higgs field and the Higgs boson and their relationship to the concept of mass.

I dug up the Scientific American article that hapless students were supposed to read to answer this question. I confess: I could not make myself plow through it. When he finally stopped laughing, my husband (Ph.D Physics, Princeton) said, "No undergraduate student in physics anywhere in the country can answer this question." More important, who's being harmed? Read on and you will see great harm. This article provides evidence for abolishing compulsory education.

"Who's fooling whom here?


by Kate Taylor

In Harrison, N.Y., 10th graders read articles about bipolar disorder and the adolescent brain to help them analyze Holden Caulfield. In Springdale, Ark., ninth graders studying excerpts from "The Odyssey" also read sections of the G.I. Bill of Rights, and a congressional resolution on its 60th anniversary, to connect the story of Odysseus to the challenges of modern-day veterans. After eighth graders in Naples, Fla., read how Tom Sawyer duped other boys into whitewashing a fence for him, they follow it with an op-ed article on teenage unemployment.

In the Common Core era, English class looks a little different.

The Common Core standards, which have been adopted by more than 40 states, mandated many changes to traditional teaching, but one of the most basic was a call for students to read more nonfiction. The rationale is that most of what students will be expected to read in college and at work will be informational, rather than literary, and that American students have not been well prepared to read those texts.

Under Common Core standards, the reading of fiction classics like "To Kill a Mockingbird" is complemented by historical and contemporary texts like newspaper articles.

At first, many English teachers and other defenders of literature feared that schools would respond by cutting the classics. That has happened, to some extent. But most districts have managed to preserve much of the classroom canon while adding news articles, textbook passages, documentaries, maps and other material that students read or watch alongside the literature, sometimes in strained pairings.

"Unfortunately there has been some elimination of some literature," said Kimberly Skillen, the district administrator for secondary curriculum and instruction in Deer Park, N.Y. But she added: "We look at teaching literature as teaching particular concepts and skills. So we maybe aren't teaching an entire novel, but we're ensuring that we’re teaching the concepts that that novel would have gotten across."

The new standards stipulate that in elementary and middle school, at least half of what students read during the day should be nonfiction, and by 12th grade, the share should be 70 percent. Many educators say the shift was necessary, particularly in elementary school, where students encountered relatively little nonfiction. The change is seen as particularly helpful to boys, who lag behind girls in reading and tend to be more interested in nonfiction.

Schools generally choose their own reading materials. For nonfiction, however, the Common Core standards specify that students should read certain "seminal U.S. documents of historical and literary significance," including the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, the Gettysburg Address and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter From Birmingham Jail," as well as presidential addresses and Supreme Court opinions. Many high schools have added these to American literature classes.

They have also added contemporary nonfiction by authors like Malcolm Gladwell and Michael Pollan and units on argumentative writing and debate. And along with "Romeo and Juliet," for example, students might be assigned readings about Shakespeare's life or a contemporary magazine article about teenage suicide.

At Lower Manhattan Community Middle School, the eighth graders began the year by reading a novel in verse about a Vietnamese girl whose family flees the country at the end of the war, along with texts on the history of Vietnam and the experiences of refugees from various countries.

The students were more excited about a unit on women's rights, focused on speeches by Shirley Chisholm and Sojourner Truth, and a 2006 letter by Venus Williams criticizing Wimbledon for paying female winners less than men.

Eli Scherer, a special-education teacher, said he found that struggling readers were often more engaged by nonfiction because it seemed more relevant to them.

But Karma Lisslo, an eighth grader and an avid reader, said that while she appreciated that nonfiction could provide historical context for a novel, she got tired sometimes of the short informational texts she was assigned.

"We do so much nonfiction," Karma said. "I just want to read my book."

Kim Yaris, a literacy consultant, said her son had a similar reaction last year, when his fifth-grade class in Dix Hills, N.Y., began the year by doing a painstakingly close reading of sections of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. (For those who have not been in the fifth grade recently, the declaration was drafted in the aftermath of World War II and adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948.)

On the ninth day, she said, her son got into the car after school and started to sob.

Ms. Yaris said she thought the lesson, which is part of a curriculum suggested by New York State and used widely around the country, was not a good interpretation of the Common Core. "If you look at the standards and what they say," she said, "nowhere in there does it say, 'Kill the love of reading.'"

Susan Pimentel, who led the team that wrote the language arts standards, said she thought that reading the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was valuable, in part because it contained a lot of academic vocabulary, which she said was critical to students' reading comprehension skills.

Reading the G.I. Bill along with “The Odyssey,” however, gave her pause.

"It does sound curious to me," she said, while adding that she would want to see the unit itself. "There is enough great literary nonfiction out there that there shouldn't be a forced fitting."

If some of the nonfiction texts that districts choose seem overly technical and abstruse, other choices -- like opinion pieces on whether cellphones should be allowed in schools or an article about injuries from cheerleading -- seem based on a set of low expectations about what students will be interested in, said Mark Bauerlein, a professor of English at Emory University.

Without guidance from the Common Core standards themselves, he noted, the definition of informational texts "very easily slides into blog posts -- it shifts over to topical contemporary discussions of things."

Some teachers have resisted the changes. At Midwood High School in Brooklyn this year, the new assistant principal for English, Suzane Thomas, made the English teachers use the Common Core lesson plans offered by New York State, and some were not happy.

"There are several teachers who accused me of destroying the English department," Ms. Thomas said. Previously, she said, teachers had been able to choose which books they wanted to teach, and many of them taught only literature. (She also noted that some teachers had taught the same books each year, no matter which grade they were teaching, so some students were being assigned the same books over and over again.)

Ms. Thomas said she believed many students were more interested in talking about real-world issues like genetic testing than about how a character changed over the course of a novel.

"I was in a class once and the bell rang, and the kids wouldn't leave, because they were having a strong debate about whether privacy was more important than security," she said.

Some teachers, too, said they did not mind cutting back on some canonical works of literature to replace them with contemporary nonfiction that engaged students more.

Angela Gunter, the dean of liberal arts at Daviess County High School in Owensboro, Ky., said she assigned a "Beowulf" excerpt to her 12th graders that was shorter than the one she used to assign, to make time for them to read a nonfiction book of their choosing later in the year.

She said the decision was driven partly by the Common Core's emphasis on nonfiction and partly by her recognition that students just were not that interested in "Beowulf."

"If we had to get rid of some fiction," Ms. Gunter said, "that was one that I was willing to part with."

— Kate Taylor with Ohanian comment
New York Times
June 20, 2015

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Susan Ohanian

Susan Ohanian, a long-time public school teacher, is a freelance writer whose articles have appeared in Atlantic, Parents, Washington Monthly, The Nation, Phi Del...