The old story goes like this: A daughter is watching her mother make brisket. She watches her mother cut off the end, and then asks her why she does this. The mother explains that she watched her mother do it. So, they call up Grandma and ask the same question, receiving the same answer. Luckily, Great Grandmother is still alive, so they call her. “Why do you cut off the end of the brisket?” they ask.
“Well, without cutting off the end, it would not fit into my pan.”
How much of what we do everyday is done to “make it fit into the pan”? The seven-period day? Departmentalized instruction? Grades? Grade levels? With fresh eyes, maybe we can discover a radical newness in our everyday work. The Common Core emphasizes critical thinking and depth. Shouldn’t that inspire us to reimagine our practice?
We can start by reevaluating our texts. The common standards emphasize informational reading and writing (almost 60 percent of the ELA standards). This gives us the opportunity to study the world: everything from the Declaration of Independence to the local newspaper; from “A Modest Proposal” to reality TV and the blogosphere. We need to help students become critical readers and writers of the texts they already value as well as what we wish them to appreciate.
The appendix to the common standards recommends extraordinarily high text complexity. I have taught The Scarlet Letter to juniors, yet it is a suggested exemplar for freshmen.
But here’s the thing. Not every student needs to read every word of every work. We can pull essential excerpts and examine them in small chunks—words, phrases, sentences—asking students to wrestle meaning from the text. Teaching complete works is important; that’s how students can see authors build characters or arguments over time. But we can mix whole-work studies with an examination of shorter works or excerpts along with students’ main mode of discourse, non-print media.
Maybe you think these methods absurd—and that’s OK. The Common Core standards do not dictate how we should teach the skills they delineate. Teachers, if trusted by administrators, remain the final arbiter between students and the standards.
Imagine a school where every student works on real projects that fulfill a vital need. Imagine a school where the curriculum flows as it does in our adult lives, in and out like a creek, as necessitated by obstacles or dictated by our curiosity.
We must respect our craft and ourselves and not settle for less than what we can imagine. We cannot continue to cut off possibilities just to make learning fit into an antiquated pan.
Lauren Hill teaches AP Language and Composition and 9th grade English at Western Hills High School in Frankfort, Ky. A National Board-certified teacher, Lauren works with the Implementing Common Core Standards team at the Center for Teaching Quality.
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