Thursday, November 21, 2013

No Context for You!

There are few things more fundamental than reading. This is particularly true if you're an educator of any stripe. One of the most gratifying things I've done, as an ESL teacher, was to get kids to read books in English. To many of my students, this seems an insurmountable task. Getting them to face up to it is an act of seduction as much as anything else.

First, you have to select a book to which they can relate on some level. I'm particularly fond of The Joy Luck Club. It contains stories that cross cultures, like my students, stories of overcoming enormous obstacles to find your place in society. It contains not only stories reflecting victory of the human spirit, but also stories so sad that even a teenager's life can appear brilliant in comparison. We all think our problems are the worst in the world, but this book can sometimes persuade even sulky teenagers otherwise.

Now I haven't run this book through the Common Core inspection system, so I can't say whether or not it would be placed on a 4th grade level, like To Kill a Mockingbird. Of course, as an English teacher, I don't select literary works because of how many difficult words they may or may not contain. In fact, I see simplicity as a virtue. A writer who can express a depth of ideas or emotion using simple language is all the more impressive to me, and all the more accessible to a much broader group of readers.

Then along comes this. The Common Core geniuses find it a clever idea to teach the Gettysburg Address completely out of context. This way, students won't fall back on what they already know.

The unit — “A Close Reading of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address“ — is designed for students to do a “close reading” of the address “with text-dependent questions” — but without historical context.   

Great. Who cares what was going on in the United States at the time this was written? As long as they can answer those questions, they can pass the test, and that's what's important here. Let's make one of the most significant speeches in our history yet another dry and meaningless text to be parsed for text-dependent questions. Let's then place it on our bookshelf with The History of Cement, and One Million Tedious Essays No One Wants to Read. Let's assign to it the transcendent nature of the all-important train schedules our younger children will be grappling with.

Let's make our children hate to read and appreciate the written word not at all. The important thing is to make them pass those tests.
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