Looking for miracles

Jan 10, 2013
This is one in aseries of postsexamining the Common Core State Standards and the conversation surrounding their impact on teaching and learning. Welcome, Suzanne McCabe, a longtime editor of Junior Scholastic magazine. If you’re grappling with implementation of the Common Core—scrutinizing book lists, reading standards, and sample lesson plans—let me invoke a few words from Bruce Springsteen, the Boss of my home state: “Ain’t gonna find no miracles here.” This is a tough ride. How can we ensure that we’ll get books with the right level of complexity into a child’s hands, then craft text-dependent questions that foster a spirit of inquiry, all while encouraging a love of reading? In some quarters there’s an understandable desperation—hence the thousands of Google searches for a “Common Core curriculum.” Alas, no such animal exists. Even the exemplar texts in Appendix B are just examples, nothing more. Still, teachers are finding their own way. A quick search on YouTube reveals impressive innovations taking place in classrooms across the country. Here’s a close reading lesson for middle school students based on The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, an exemplar in the 6-8 grade band. To see how David Coleman, a chief architect of the English Language Arts standards, envisions students engaging with complex informational text, check out his video on the Gettysburg Address, an exemplar in the 9-10 grade band. Coleman can explicate a text like nobody else. But his approach takes time—lots of it. He recommends spending 3 to 5 days of instruction on Lincoln’s speech alone. Everyone agrees that challenging students to read more deeply is essential. But Coleman’s languor over a three-paragraph elegy has some educators fearing that the Common Core overlooks the importance of simply reading more. As literacy expert Elfrieda H. “Freddy” Hiebert points out, “An additional 7 minutes of reading per day has been shown to differentiate classrooms in which students read well from those in which students read less well [and] can make a huge difference in students’ knowledge acquisition and capacity for reading complex text.” Imagine the power that would accrue if students read an additional 7 minutes in school each day, and another 7 minutes—or more—after school. Imagine what that collective knowledge and wisdom might mean for our nation. In 1863, with the work of securing freedom still “unfinished,” there were no guarantees, as Abraham Lincoln put it, “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from this earth.” A century and a half later, we are haunted by our own “unfinished work.” More than 1.3 million U.S. teens, including a disproportionately high number of African-Americans and Latinos, drop out of high school each year. Fewer than 20 percent of Americans, according to a recent Gallup poll, approve of the efforts of our divided Congress. Suddenly, Coleman’s laser focus on the Gettysburg Address makes perfect sense. He knows that we are failing too many of our children, that if we are to safeguard American democracy for the future, we’ll need to draw on everyone’s talents. But how, exactly? A good start is to expose young readers to as much quality fiction and nonfiction as possible, to books that are, in author Jim Murphy’s words, “emotional and passionate.” Take note of themes, viewpoints, and vocabulary. If you start with a lesson on the Gettysburg Address for ninth graders, for instance, you might supplement it with The Red Badge of Courage, as well as readings from these works: • The Slaves’ War: The Civil War in the Words of Former Slaves • Witness to the Civil War: First-Hand Accounts From Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper • Bitterly Divided: The South’s Inner Civil War • Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. You could also encourage students to see Lincoln, the Oscar-nominated film based on Team of Rivals. For a contemporary angle, take a look at “Escaping Slavery,” a recent New York Times column by Charles M. Blow. Blow’s observation that “today there are more African-American adults under correctional control—in prison or jail, on probation or parole—than were enslaved in 1850,” should get students’ attention. Yes, effective reading instruction must be tailored to individual interests and abilities. Still, when young readers begin to see a book not just as a source of information—but also companionship, courage, and comfort—miracles will follow. image via causally_cruel