Thursday, August 18, 2016

A Lesson for Common Core Enthusiasts

Someone sent me an interesting link from the Gates-funded Center for American Progress the other day, about how we could all do fabulous close reading things with the Common Core standards. Believe it or not, just about every organization that's taken money from Gates has fallen head over heels in love with Common Core, on which Gates spent a whole lotta cash. Go figure.

During the 2014-15 school year, more high school seniors read the young adult-oriented books The Fault in Our Stars and Divergent than Shakespeare’s Macbeth or Hamlet, according to a report that tracks what K-12 students at more than 30,000 schools are reading during the school year. These books are generally self-selected, making it not all that surprising that students would prefer to read a contemporary New York Times bestseller than a 17th-century play written in early modern English. And while some of the books that students select are thematically targeted to a mature audience, they are not particularly challenging to read for the average high schooler. The Fault in Our Stars and Divergent, for example, have the readability of a fourth- or fifth-grade text in terms of sentence structure and word difficulty.

God forbid that students should read stuff they enjoy. The end of the world is nigh. What we should value, according to this logic, is difficulty rather than content. Allowing students to self-select has a negative connotation in that paragraph. I'd argue the opposite. If students love to read, they will practice it without guns to their heads. Then, when they are presented with difficult readings, they will figure out how to get through them and deal with them. Forcing them to plod through Shakespere if they don't wish to is not how you get motivated readers. They continue:

Three of the top five most commonly assigned titles in grades 9 through 12 are To Kill a Mockingbird, The Crucible, and Of Mice and Men. All three books, while classics, are not particularly challenging in terms of sentence structure and complexity

Can you imagine that? Those crappy teachers are assigning books because of depth of theme, and they have no regard for how rigorous they are. It doesn't matter what sort of discussion or independent thought those books inspire. The important thing is how big the words are, how complicated the sentences are (all the better if they're in non-standard English) and whether or not the kids can muddle through them and pass a test.

You know what I never think about, and what most readers don't think about? We don't think about the grade level of what we're reading. We read for information, we read to learn, we read to be entertained, and we read for a lot of reasons. But we don't read simply to encounter big words and complicated sentence structure.

I was never taught any of this stuff and I miss it not at all. I was motivated to read myself and never expected other people to tell me what words meant. That’s what dictionaries are for. You'd think what 5-year-olds need is to work on unlocking complex text. That will make them love reading for sure. No more blowing bubbles in their milk and none of that Cat in the Hat nonsense anymore. We're raising a generation of test-takers who have SAT-oriented vocabularies.What more could any country want?

Now I actually have nothing against encouraging vocabulary. Vocabulary is a tool, and we use it as we need it. Were it up to me, I'd teach kids more about logic. I'd let them know what logical fallacies are. I'd let them know what bad arguments are made of. I'd let them explore and detect lies, like, for example, Common Core was developed by teachers, or that it's research based and field tested. I'd want my kids to know that health care is available to all in most non-third-world countries and few outside the United States go bankrupt paying hospital bills.

In fact, I'd like folks who advocate Common Core, like Reformy John King, to stand up and defend his ideas just like he wants our kids to do. That would be a whole lot better than cowardly canceling meetings because he can't muster a coherent argument. It's disgraceful that someone who advocates logic would call parents and teachers "special interests," and get all huffy when we ask why he sends his kids to schools that don't utilize the methodology he demands for our kids.

I also do not think it’s necessarily of value to use big words. Communication is about reaching as many people as you can with the correct words, words that inform, words that are appropriate and most easily understood, not words that impress. People who try to impress with big words end up doing precisely the opposite, even if they use them correctly.

One of my favorite series of books is The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. It's beautiful, lyrical writing. It's simple and universal. I've taught it to ESL students and they've loved it. It's about a woman in Botswana who's very smart, who's suffered greatly, but who's determined to make something of herself. It's about how she makes things happen by outsmarting those around her. It's not about how difficult the books she reads happen to be.

I don't love to read because I went to school and some teacher shoved big words and/ or complicated sentences down my throat. I don't love to read because some teacher handed me The History of Cement and made me close read it.  I love to read because of the very smart people who've taken the time to write. And if I have to plod through The History of Cement, I can do it because reading is natural for me.

The Common Core folk have got everything ass-backwards. And it's not because they weren't taught via Common Core. I wasn't taught via Common Core, and I can see right through all of their reformy nonsense. They'd love it if only we'd keep ignoring the fact that over half our country's children live in poverty. If we can get them to pass standardized tests here and there, that validates the reformies, and that's good enough.

Let them eat sentences.
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