Teaching Martin Luther King, Jr.

by EmmaEarnst
January 20th, 2014

I used to “celebrate” Martin Luther King Day by reading a book to my students on the Friday before they were out of school for the national holiday. After reading it, I would talk about his accomplishments and the impact of his contributions to American culture. I felt like I was really helping my kids to understand the significance of this great man! Once I started teaching using the Core Knowledge Sequence and the CKLA [Core Knowledge Language Arts] program, I realized that as good as my intentions were in years past, I had merely exposed my students to Dr. King and just skimmed the surface.

—Cathy Kinter

As Cathy Kinter, a second-grade teacher turned curriculum coordinator at Thomas Jefferson Classical Academy, notes, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day provides teachers with a timely opportunity to teach about the civil rights leader. But she also raises a crucial point: teaching content according to the calendar can lead to superficial learning.

What to do? By using both the Core Knowledge Sequence and CKLA to create a content-specific, coherent, grade-by-grade curriculum, teachers at Thomas Jefferson have solved the calendar dilemma. Every teacher knows that King and the U.S. civil rights movement are taught in depth twice: in second grade and in eighth grade. As a result, teachers in other grades are free to use the national holiday to celebrate King; they make connections to the content they are teaching without taking on the responsibility of teaching a full unit on King—or worrying that they are just skimming the surface.

Image courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society.

In her kindergarten classroom, for example, Jan Tucker introduces her students to King and extends their recently acquired knowledge of fictional characters by drawing comparisons:

We make connections back to our previous read-alouds from CKLA such as King Midas, Cinderella, etc. We discuss what we must to do accomplish our dreams: the sacrifices and the successes. As the children are working, we discuss how they are not learning all of the information about Martin Luther King and they will learn a lot more about his contributions in second grade.

In first grade, Terrany Wright’s students discover more about King, while building enthusiasm for further studies of him the next year:

I read a book on Tuesday after the students were off for the holiday (I do this because I want my students to begin by making a personal connection to Dr. King before I even read about him). I begin by asking the students if they know why they did not have school yesterday. My line of questioning will vary depending upon the answers they give me, but I always want my students to “figure out” that they were off from school because of the effort and contributions of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: the man they are going to hear about in the book. I attempt to increase my students’ attention and enthusiasm by telling them that Dr. King was such an important man in American History that they are going to learn even more about him in second grade!

In second grade, Thomas Jefferson students preview King on his national holiday, and then study him in more detail during the Fighting for a Cause domain. This domain follows a whole series—starting in kindergarten—of U.S. history domains. As such, students use their knowledge of the Constitution, slavery, the U.S. Civil War, and segregation to reach an understanding of how King’s vision and leadership helped (and is still helping) make America more equitable and free. Says second grade teacher Heidi Cole,

If the goal is true understanding of Civil Rights, it is logical to acknowledge the celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and inform students that they will soon be learning why this man is such a significant hero to our world. Later in the year, when teaching about him within the context of the Fighting for a Cause domain, students can be reminded that we celebrated his legacy with a national holiday in January.

Benefitting from students’ deeper understanding of King, the civil rights movement, and the larger premise that all men are created equal, third-grade teachers use Martin Luther King, Jr. Day to revisit and reinforce those concepts. Teachers Alenia Scism and Cecelia Greengrass even connect King to what they are learning in the Ancient Roman Civilization domain. Says Scism,

I start by helping the students recall what they learned about Dr. King and his accomplishments in second grade. Then, I read the book March On! by Christine King Farris. The children will write about a dream they have and what they are going to do to make their dream a reality. I connect the contributions of MLK back to the Ancient Rome domain where there were different classes of people (patricians, plebeians, slaves) and they were treated differently and had different rights.

By eighth grade, students have the broad knowledge needed to grasp King’s place in the pantheon of leaders seeking greater equality. History teacher Eric Scriggs explains,

I teach about Martin Luther King during the Civil Rights domain, which is in February. Prior to this, I introduce him in relation to Thoreau and Ghandi. I also connect his achievements in regard to the 15th Amendment as we study the Constitution. We cover Jackie Robinson, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, and Cesar Chavez in the same unit which ties into the Fighting for a Cause domain from second grade.

The teachers at Thomas Jefferson Classical Academy are making the most of their carefully constructed curriculum. By using Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as a time to introduce and remember the great civil rights leader, they’ve built their students enthusiasm for a deeper dive into his life and legacy.

Socks, Then Shoes: Texts Should Be Selected Before Strategies

by Lisa Hansel
November 21st, 2013

One thing I’ve seen in too many schools is a willy-nilly approach to selecting texts for English language arts instruction. I’ve long suspected that it is a wide-spread problem, and now a new survey confirms my fear. In a Fordham Institute report by Timothy Shanahan and Ann Duffett, over 1,000 teachers were asked whether texts or strategies came first. Strategies, hands down. (For more from this report, see my last post.)

Here are the options on the survey: do you “Teach particular books, short stories, essays, and poems that you think students should read and then organize instruction around them, teaching a variety of reading skills and strategies as tools for students to understand the texts”? Or, do you “Focus instruction on reading skills and strategies first, e.g., main idea, summarizing, author’s purpose, and then organize teaching around them, so that students will apply these skills and strategies to any book, short story, essay, or poem they read”?

Only 22% of fourth- and fifth-grade teachers start with the texts; 73% focus on the strategies. The remaining 5% focus on something else or both. Things improve a bit in later grades; 56% of middle-grades and 46% of ninth- and tenth-grade teachers focus on strategies.

This sounds like a shoes-then-socks approach to me. Strategies like “main idea, summarizing, author’s purpose” and others can be used with thousands of different texts. But essential knowledge, vocabulary, and concepts can only be taught with certain carefully selected and sequenced texts. Strategies are not learning objectives in and of themselves; they are tools for gaining access to the knowledge, vocabulary, and concepts in the texts.

This idea seems to have gotten lost. I can’t count how many times I’ve had teachers tell me it does not matter whether a student reads The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or The Hunger Games—all that matters is that they read. I’ve never agreed. One of these books is has earned canon status through literary brilliance. One of these books pulls students into some of the most difficult, painful, and important (yes, to this day) issues in our nation. The other dabbles with some important concepts, but is not extraordinary or even enlightening. School time is precious. Teachers’ knowledge is valuable. Children have serious questions. How can any book that is less than extraordinary be justified?

(Image courtesy of Shutterstock.)

Or, to ask the question more productively, what can happen when knowledge, vocabulary, and concepts come first; texts are selected that draw students into wrestling with the content; and strategies are rightly seen as mere tools? Diana Senechal answers:

Teachers and students thrive in relation to substantial, beautiful, meaningful subject matter. Last night, we had a Philosophy Roundtable (for parents, students, faculty/staff, and guests) about the nature of wisdom; we discussed passages from the Book of Job and Plato’s Apology and concluded with Richard Wilbur’s poem “Still, Citizen Sparrow.” As we were grappling with the nature of wisdom, students brought up physics, calculus, art, music, and literature; the evening was like a kaleidoscope of the school’s curriculum. I have long been an advocate of a strong curriculum, but last night I saw the splendor of what my students were learning across the subjects—and saw it all converge in a philosophical question.

So, schools should be at liberty to teach subjects in their full glory. This means not being bogged down with skills and strategies. The skills and strategies will come with the subjects themselves. But what is a subject? Even the most specific topic is an infinity. You can approach it methodically or intuitively; you can look at its structure, its form, its meaning; you can explore its implications, flipside, pitfalls—and if you are to teach or study it well, you will probably do all of this. My main worry about the Common Core is that it can (and in many cases will) inhibit such flexibility. Students may well learn how to write argumentative essays that meet certain criteria—but who cares, unless there’s something worth arguing? To have something worth arguing, you need an insight—and to gain insight, you need to study the matter in an intense, disciplined, but also adventurous and idiosyncratic way.

All true. But strategies don’t have to interfere with teaching and learning; they don’t have to dominate Common Core implementation. They can be put in their rightful place as tools for exploring subject matter. Indeed, the standards themselves call for the content-rich curriculum to take center stage. Teachers that follow Senechal’s lead will exceed the standards—in their own “intense, disciplined, but also adventurous and idiosyncratic” ways.


World Studies Could Make a World of Difference

by Lisa Hansel
November 5th, 2013

In my last post, I tossed out a not-quite-baked idea for a new academic major for elementary teachers: World Studies. That major would ensure teachers have the broad range of knowledge they need to introduce our students to the world via literature, history, geography, science, mathematics, and the arts.

One point that is obvious to the Core Knowledge community—yet somehow shocking and mysterious to most of the education world—is that before we could decide what academics future teachers need to study in their prep programs, we need to decide what all elementary students must learn. Drum roll: We need a core K-5 curriculum.


Refusing to identify and teach essential knowledge has consequences. (Image courtesy of Shutterstock.)


Some people might think we kinda sorta have a core curriculum with the Common Core standards. In math, I would agree—the actual math that has to be mastered each year is specified. It’s far from a full-blown curriculum, but it does provide concrete guidance on what math to teach. However, the Common Core ELA standards are nearly content free. They indicate the reading, writing, listening, and speaking skills students need to develop, but they do not outline content to be taught grade by grade. Instead, the ELA standards call on schools to create content-rich curricula infused with nonfiction texts, thereby systematically building broad knowledge across academic subjects.

I am grateful that the Common Core ELA standards explain the benefits of building knowledge. In implementation, schools need to realize that when they forge ahead without any shared core of content for each grade, they miss out on the many benefits of a coherent educational system. I’ve written about the problems with student mobility; today I want to share a terrific, little-known article by education professor David Cohen. In “Learning to Teach Nothing in Particular,” he explains the massive leaps forward we could make in student and teacher evaluation if only we specified what students are supposed to know:

Because local control and weak government were the foundations of U.S. public education, most of our school systems never developed the common instruments that are found in many national school systems…. These include a common curriculum or curriculum frameworks, common examinations tied to the curriculum, teacher education grounded in learning to teach the curriculum that students are to learn, and a teaching force whose members succeeded in those curriculum-based exams as students, among other things. Teachers who work with such infrastructure have instruments that they can use to set academic tasks tied to curriculum and assessment. They have a common vocabulary with which they can work together to identify, investigate, discuss, and solve problems of teaching and learning. Hence, they can have professional knowledge and skill, held in common….

Because there is no common infrastructure for U.S. public education, it has developed several anomalous features. One of the most important concerns testing: because there is no common curriculum, it is impossible to devise tests that assess the extent of students’ mastery of that curriculum. So, even though we’ve been testing student learning for nearly 100 years, only isolated programs (such as Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate) have tested whether students learned what they were supposed to have been taught. In the early 1900s, when E. L. Thorndike and his colleagues and students invented tests of students’ academic performance, they devised tests that were designed to be independent of any particular curriculum. Nonetheless, those tests, and more recently developed similar tests, were and are used to assess students’ progress in learning. That has to rank as one of the strangest creations in the history of education.

Teacher education is a second anomaly: absent a common curriculum, teachers-in-training could not learn how to teach it, let alone how to teach it well. Hence, teacher education consists of efforts to teach future teachers to teach no particular curriculum. This is very strange, since to teach is always to teach something, but the governance structure of U.S. education has long forbidden the specification of what that something would be. For the most part, teacher education has been accommodating: typically, teacher candidates are taught how to teach no particular version of their subjects. That arrangement creates no incentives for those training to be teachers to learn, relatively deeply, what they would teach, nor does it create incentives for teacher educators to learn how to help teacher candidates learn how to teach a particular curriculum well. Instead, it offers incentives for them to teach novices whatever the teacher educators think is interesting or important (which often is not related to what happens in schools) or to offer a generic sort of teacher education. Most teachers report that, after receiving a teaching degree, they arrived in schools with little or no capability to teach particular subjects….

Absent a common curriculum, common assessments, common measures of performance, and teacher education tied to these things, it will be terribly difficult to devise technically valid and educationally usable means to judge and act on teaching performance. Building a coherent educational system would be a large task, but not nearly as daunting as trying to solve our educational problems without building such a system. Without standards and measures of quality practice—grounded in linked curriculum, assessments, and teacher education—it will be impossible to build a knowledgeable occupation of teaching, and a knowledgeable occupation is the only durable solution to the problem of quality in teaching.


Children Are Curious and Capable—and Teachers Should Be Too

by Guest Blogger
September 26th, 2013

By Heidi Cole

Heidi Cole, a National Board Certified Teacher, teaches second grade at Thomas Jefferson Classical Academy—a public charter school in Forest City, North Carolina.

For the past seven years of my 13-year teaching career, I have educated second graders using the Core Knowledge curriculum. With confidence, I can say that I have not only “taught” my students about ancient China, the War of 1812, Westward Expansion, and the Civil War, but my students have truly “learned” something about these topics. Before moving to a Core Knowledge school, I would never have believed that children would be capable of learning about these sophisticated topics at such a young age, much less enjoy doing so. However, through the use of Core Knowledge’s Listening & Learning strand, which is part of the Core Knowledge Language Arts program, my students brighten as history comes to life during our literacy block.

The texts featured in the program are designed to enrich the vocabulary of our students and build their comprehension as they delve into domains typically reserved for middle and high school students. Seven- and eight-year-old children listen attentively to stories about immigrants who entered America through Ellis Island in the early 1900s, and then respond to questions in which they showcase their knowledge about the push and pull factors which lured these foreigners to a “land of opportunity.”

Each year parents comment on how much they are learning at home from their second grader. Long gone are the days when the children shrug when asked what they learned that day in school. It has been replaced with students begging for trips to see the Statue of Liberty, or asking if the family can travel to Baltimore just so they can witness the site where Francis Scott Key crafted the words to our National Anthem.

My school is in rural western North Carolina, but I have yet to receive any backlash from parents or community members, even when we study difficult issues like slavery. While slavery is certainly a delicate issue for any child to absorb, it is vital in the role of helping young children understand the dynamic of our country during the Civil War era. During our study of this topic, my students embrace the stories of hardship faced by slaves in the South. The result is empathy, followed by a desire to learn more, and the hope of a slavery-free world. Hearing the stories of slavery through the eyes of a child such as Minty (Harriet Tubman) helps children make important connections. We are able to have discussions about the horror of families being torn apart forever, and the dehumanization of African Americans during this time. The Core Knowledge Listening & Learning Civil War domain does an outstanding job of exposing second graders to this sensitive topic, while fostering concern for those impacted throughout history.

After learning about slavery this past school year, my students composed some of their best persuasive writing pieces. As the example below shows, they successfully wrote to a plantation owner from the perspective of a southern abolitionist. Such wonderful writing would not have been possible without true understanding of how this issue impacted the lives of others.

Awareness of slavery also helps prepare students with the necessary background needed to later understand the Civil Rights domain. During our study of Civil Rights, my students conjure up knowledge about the sensitivity of slavery, allowing them to better recognize why inequality had its firmest grasp in the southern states. Because many of my students lack exposure to culturally diverse experiences, this classroom exposure is crucial because it fosters an opportunity to develop connections to our history. Providing such strong background knowledge at a young age will enable these learners to develop a deep level of understanding about our country’s history and its government.

For too long now, educators have underestimated what children are capable of learning and content has been watered down. In a time when many elementary schools are denying students access to geography, history, and science, Core Knowledge provides a refreshing approach to education. How wonderful that during our literacy time, children hear stories about Confucius, rather than a fictional wise man. How great that students learn about the building of the transcontinental railroad, instead of reading a random story about trains.

If children are capable of learning such material, why deny them the opportunity to do so? If we are going to take valuable time in school to teach children how to read, why not also provide an opportunity to better understand their world? By the time my students enter fifth and sixth grades, they may not remember every detail of ancient China’s history, or the battles fought during the Civil War, but they will certainly possess enough background knowledge at that point to take their learning to a whole new level.


The Boredom Charade

by Lisa Hansel
September 24th, 2013

As Mark Bauerlein explained, boredom is a top reason students give for dropping out of school. Why?

There are lots of possibilities—many noted by the commenters on Bauerlein’s post. Yesterday I mentioned watered-down curricula and insufficient teacher guidance. Since this forum is all about knowledge, these seem to merit a little extra discussion. Two points are particularly important: (1) topics students know little about may seem boring and (2) holes in students’ knowledge can be downright scary—feigning boredom is easier than admitting to being lost.

Both of these can be addressed with a content-rich, grade-by-grade curriculum in the hands of expert teachers.

Gina DiSipio-Parrish, a second grade teacher at Pioneer Preparatory School (where 67% of the students are English language learners and 94% quality for free or reduced-price lunch), has found that building knowledge often leads to future interest:

All of the lessons spiral and build on each other year after year so that children are repeatedly exposed to the academic content. As a result, students are able to deepen their knowledge base as they progress through their educational career. For example, in second grade students will learn about ancient Greek civilizations, and listen to Greek myths. Then in sixth grade, children will have the opportunity to read these same myths themselves and build on their prior knowledge. We all know that the more a child already knows about a topic, the better their attention and the more increased their interest and subsequent learning experience.

Perseus and Medusa courtesy of Shutterstock.

There’s no reason for young children to take an interest in ancient Greece before they know anything about it. Yet, with a knowledgeable, skilled teacher helping them understand ancient Greek life and beliefs, the topic becomes fascinating. (Has anyone ever thought Medusa was boring?) Even better, as DiSipio-Parrish points out, the foundation she provides greatly increases the odds that her students are looking forward to reading some myths themselves later on.

This interaction between a strong curriculum and a strong teacher is the heart of a great education.

The intentional, coherent building of knowledge that DiSipio-Parrish describes is ideal, but real life is rarely so smooth. What might happen to a student who entered Pioneer in sixth grade? Would she be looking forward to reading Greek myths if she had never heard of ancient Greece—or worse, if she still struggled with fluent decoding? Doubtful. What if her previous school spent much of fifth grade on Greek myths, would she be eager to read them again? More doubtful.

As Daniel Willingham has explained, enjoying learning—maintaining curiosity—depends on being challenged at the right level:

Solving problems brings pleasure. When I say “problem solving” here, I mean any cognitive work that succeeds; it might be understanding a difficult passage of prose, planning a garden, or sizing up an investment opportunity. There is a sense of satisfaction, of fulfillment, in successful thinking…. It’s notable … that the pleasure is in the solving of the problem. Working on a problem with no sense that you’re making progress is not pleasurable. In fact, it’s frustrating. And there’s not great pleasure in simply knowing the answer either.

This is why a strong curriculum is just a starting place. A strong teacher has much to do in customizing that curriculum to create the right level of challenge for each child. If Pioneer’s new sixth grader has never heard of ancient Greece, rapid intervention to provide context is crucial. Without it, boredom is the best case scenario—total lack of comprehension, disengagement (driven by the need to save face), and those first few steps toward dropping out are possible. In contrast, if our new student has already read many Greek myths, an advanced unit may be in order. Or, a better use of time may be condensed units on any content Pioneer teaches in earlier grades that the new student had not yet learned.

Boredom is a symptom—not a problem to be solved by selecting more entertaining content. Our bored students may need help in developing perseverance and grasping the greater purpose of their schoolwork. They may need gaps in their knowledge and skills to be filled. They may need a more challenging climb. At different points, most students probably need all of these things.


Reducing Boredom with Rigor, Not Relevance

by Lisa Hansel
September 23rd, 2013

James Fenimore Cooper assures me that Mark Bauerlein is correct: Boredom is inevitable, relevance can be dangerous, and lonely persistence is essential. Fortunately, I learned that lesson in high school. No, I never grew to like Cooper’s endless descriptions of mundane (to my 16-year-old eyes) things. Thanks to my insightful teacher, I understood the context in which that miserable prose had been written, wondered at the idea that it had ever been popular, and saw its importance in early American life.

I also saw the danger of relevance—at least as is commonly defined in education. Education is not for the here and now; it is preparation for leading a good life (including grasping that defining a good life has been contemplated for thousands of years). What is most relevant to students’ education is what will best prepare them for seeking their best path in life.

And yet, when people talk of making education relevant, they mean bringing kids’ faddish, temporary obsessions into the classroom. Some of the ideas are harmless, like giving the word problems in math sports themes. This might give students a pleasant few minutes to space out about Saturday night’s basketball game, but it doesn’t change the math. Other attempts at relevance are truly harmful. There are the pitfalls of edutainment that Bauerlein described. There are also lost educational opportunities, such as when The Scarlet Letter is dropped to make room for Twilight. Students interested in Twilight will have no trouble reading it on their own or with their friends. The Scarlet Letter, however, becomes more meaningful with the careful guidance of a knowledgeable teacher.

James Fenimore Cooper was not relevant to me as a teenager. He was relevant to me as an American—and I was fortunate to have a teacher who explained why.

I kept plodding through that Norton Anthology (where else does a teenager read Cooper?) and was rewarded many times over. For very different reasons, I was grabbed by Thomas Paine, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Henry David Thoreau, Samuel L. Clemens, W. E. B. Du Bois, Zora Neale Hurston, and many more.

As some of the comments on Bauerlein’s post noted, academic content is actually quite compelling, especially with a thoughtful teacher. While I agree with Bauerlein that working through boredom is an essential skill, I also agree with the commenters that much boredom in class ought to be addressed because it has unproductive sources: watered-down curricula and insufficient teacher guidance. The world is beautiful and fascinating—studying it through literary, scientific, artistic, mathematical, and historical lenses can be a wondrous journey.


Wondrous image courtesy of Shutterstock.


Tomorrow, I’ll take another look at reducing boredom by strengthening the early grades.


Boredom in Class

by Guest Blogger
September 19th, 2013

By Mark Bauerlein

Last month in Education Week, I penned a commentary on relevance in the curriculum with survey data on high school dropouts. The trend is clear: ask recent dropouts why they left school and they set boredom at the top of the list. One 2006 study found that 47 percent of them claimed that school was boring and 69 percent said that school didn’t motivate or excite them. For those students, it wasn’t the difficulty of the work that drove them away. It was the tediousness.

A standard answer to the disengagement problem is that we need a more relevant curriculum. After all, people note, how can an African American junior in Chicago relate to a poem about an 18th-century English country churchyard at night? Added to that, the surveys show that teachers all too often stick to the most uninspiring teaching method, the lecture format, which the students  find deadening (so they say). Let’s have more contemporary novels and fewer classics, more topical themes and fewer historical contexts, and let’s incorporate more collaborative and self-direct learning, fewer podium presentations.

What will really help this young woman graduate from college? (Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.)

It sounds commonsensical, to be sure. Boredom can ruin academic achievement, even for bright students. Materials closer to their actual lives will surely raise their interest, we assume, and consequently their scores, too. Besides, if we wish to train students for the real world in 2013, why force-feed them texts and facts from long ago and far away? Sixteen-year-olds wonder how studying a group of hard-core Christians who landed on Cape Cod 400 years ago will help them get a job, understand the health care debate, become adept with digital tools, and win friends and influence people. And, in fact, lots of 40-year-olds ask that question as well.

Before joining the call for relevance in the curriculum, let’s put boredom and relevance in the light of what is, perhaps, the overriding factor in secondary curricular reform today: college readiness. College readiness has become the standard by which a high school education is measured, the foundation, for instance, of Common Core standards in math and English (as well as literacy in science, technical subjects, and social studies). Formerly, educators aimed to ensure access to college for all high school graduates, setting college admission at the end of the secondary school mission. But having witnessed hundreds of thousands of high school graduates enter college, be forced to take remedial classes, and drop out before they finish their first year, educators have shifted their focus to college retention. Now, they believe, it isn’t enough to get students into college—we have to keep them there until they earn a degree.

So, curriculum and standards experts work backwards, determining what students learn in high school by that which will serve them well in college, what they will learn in middle school by that they will need in high school, and so on. The Common Core initiative followed this pattern, and so the standards and accompanying materials rightly called for a curriculum rich in the content presumed in the next grade levels, including exemplary informational texts that will accumulate year-to-year in the mind of a student and prepare him or her for college history, science, English and civics.

Increasingly, however, people are realizing that college retention depends not only on cognitive skills and academic knowledge, but also on a set of “soft skills.” They include persistence, time management, self-motivation, and other attributes of independence and organization. Now that they have left home and high school, first-year college students no longer have parents to monitor their hours and teachers who see them every weekday and check their homework. The guidance and command of the home have ended, and the teachers they have in college see them only a few hours a week and often never connect names with faces.

Here is where the boredom factor enters and can prove damaging. In high school, when students get bored, parents and teachers notice and urge, push, motivate, and assist them past it so that the work gets done. They seek out relevance-inducing adjustments to let students know, “Listen, this material is important to you, and we can make it interesting,” and far too often they proceed to drop that nineteenth-century novel and choose a popular contemporary one, hoping to plant a novel-reading habit that someday will extend to finer and older works.

But when students get bored in college, professors aren’t so reactive and flexible. If a student tunes out in class and submits C-level, work, the teacher may invite the student to office hours for a chat about the next paper or test, but that’s about it. If the student never shows up, well, life goes on. Parents aren’t around, either, so what is a student accustomed to being coddled and entertained to do?

Another soft skill becomes crucial: working through boredom on your own. It’s a disposition that has little to do with intelligence or knowledge, more a matter of stamina than intellect. If the U.S. history textbook bores you to death, it says, you still must get through 20 pages in the next hour. Biology 101 may have no relevance to your career plans or personal tastes, but you still have to complete it to fulfill a General Education requirement. Many first-year students don’t easily absorb such blank and impersonal facts of college—especially when their home and high school environments catered more to their personal interests than their actual needs—but they are binding and they call for a different attitude. The more you can ignore your ennui, the easier it will be to pass the course. The less you judge the course on personal grounds, the less likely will you recoil from it and consider dropping out of college. (You might even learn something that sparks genuine curiosity.)

Perhaps we should add “coping-with-boredom” to the list of college-readiness indicators, and K – 12 pedagogy should temper the quick and easy tactic of relevance. Yes, teachers should select materials true to the learning goals of the subject and also likely to interest the students. But they should also recognize that some materials that students must learn can’t be avoided or compromised, even though students will find them oh-so-dull. Boredom is bound to happen, and instead of trying to escape it by changing course contents, teachers should try to neutralize it by changing student expectations. It is possible that teachers may go too far in presenting an exciting, relevant curriculum, unintentionally giving students the message that their boredom is a justifiable condition that somebody else must remedy. Better for them to absorb a different lesson: boredom, in itself, is no reason to stop working.


Reading as a Second Life: Why Classic Lit Matters for Teachers

by Guest Blogger
September 10th, 2013

By Dave O’Shell

Dave O’Shell is a 6th and 7th grade English teacher at Wood Middle School in Montgomery County Public Schools. He has been teaching for seven years and blogs about education at thelivingteacher.com.

Artwork courtesy of Shutterstock.

At 32 I am finding that I am really only good at one thing. I can teach early adolescents how to write essays and how to read better. That’s it. I’ve been doing it for seven years now in a middle school outside of D.C., teaching at a suburban school that is actually pretty diverse. My school is a lot of rich and poor, kids of parents with PhD’s and kids whose parents don’t speak English. And I want to argue that there are some classic works of fiction that can help a developing teacher connect with his or her students and with the world of learning.

Classic literature is crucial to growing an individual. Certain texts have not only inspired hundreds of thousands of fortunate readers to grow, they have grown with humanity; they have been read, reread, and reevaluated.

I am surprised at the number of English teachers I meet who have little or no background or even interest in the classics. This is a problem because a grounding in classic works in the humanities is essential for success in teaching. Teaching is the most human profession; no other occupation involves such a basic I-thou relationship on a day to day basis.

Now, teaching in a middle school is a fairly grounding experience. There is no forgetting that you are in the world, living among people. You’re not among the celestial spheres. Yet there is no text that comes to mind more often in my everyday experience as a middle school English teacher than Tolstoy’s War and Peace. The central theme in the novel is the dynamic between one’s inner life (peace) and one’s relation to the rest of the world (war). The characters in the novel, particularly Andrei and Pierre, develop as individuals by wrestling with their inner and outer worlds. Andrei is steeped in the bureaucracy of the military. He struggles to put forward his battle plans to General Kutuzov, only to find scores of others like him with equally ingenious battle plans equally useless in the chaos of war. His outer life is stopped suddenly on the battlefield (a famous scene in the novel) when he has a quiet moment—really a near-death experience—contemplating the sky as he is surrounded by smoke, gunfire, and shouting. These kinds of moments abound in Tolstoy’s works, where characters’ inner lives are suddenly and profoundly confronted with the world.

A teacher will inevitably face these same moments on the battlefield, these experiences where strategy meets the human heart.

William James calls this a mystical experience, essential for real change in an individual. I saw this last year in one of my students, we’ll call him Brian, whom I was working with and cleaning out the nightmare that was his school binder. I was lecturing him on throwing away papers he didn’t need, like the Edgar Allan Poe packet we finished last quarter. Throw it away!  “Oh,” he said, “I keep that in there ‘cause I like to read some of the poems to my sister before she goes to bed.” Suddenly your student’s humanity becomes so real before you. He stops becoming these lists of issues for you to solve, test scores and observable behaviors. He becomes real in his beauty and limitations. Teaching is filled with these kinds of Tolstoy moments, these dialectics of care and ambition.

Hamlet is essential reading in contemplating the limitations of our own intellect. This model of education is useful to the teacher. It isn’t so much that we must see in the mundane aspects of managing a classroom a direct relationship between Hamlet and teaching. There is no bard in signing a pass for the nurse. It is rather that we are able to maintain our why in teaching. In the guidance I give to my students in their reading and writing, in the conferences I give surrounding the work in their portfolios, Hamlet is present. He is present because I see that students have a desire to become educated. What does this mean? It means, for them, becoming an Odysseus, always having an answer, not being the fool Hamlet pretends at being (“I’m reading words,” a student with might say to me with a sneer); it means not being a pedantic nerd like Polonius who can’t get through a sentence without commenting on his own phrasing. Hamlet’s tragedy, like the tragedy of many of our students who (wrongly) believe that hard work will not increase their intelligence, is that learning cannot make an individual perfect. There is only so much we can promise our students they will get from schooling. It’s up to them to eventually make their schooling count toward something meaningful.

The third book I would put into the hands of an aspiring teacher, if I were limited to only three, would be Don Quixote. The relation between Sancho and the Knight of the Sad Face mirrors the student-teacher dynamic better than any other model. Quixote demands that his world adhere to the laws of chivalry. When he sets out in seek of adventure, an adventure must present itself within a few pages or else. Or else windmills will become giants, flocks of sheep will become warring armies, and a traveling lady will become a kidnapped princess. And when it becomes clear that the windmills are not giants, then a magician must be invented to explain their transformation.

Sancho is the real and Quixote is the imagined. Sancho is also a student and Quixote is his teacher. A teacher wants the world to fit into his notion of the law of meritocracy. The teacher’s job is to dream for the student. Just as Quixote knows Sancho cannot buy fully into the dream of chivalry, he must promise Sancho an island. We as teachers promise our students an island named College, though how they will govern this island will be up to them to learn. We dream for them and they return reality for us to modify our dream.

I would argue that any text that can best grow us is best in preparing those whose job will be to create future heroes. Melville’s radical individual, Ahab, has a lot to teach us. John Milton was at heart a great teacher, a schoolmaster of the world, and reminds us that the world and its inhabitants need fixing. James Joyce, great hero of learnedness and great reader of Dante, demonstrated how the world is united in history and language in every moment of every uttered word. Joyce is a good conveyance to talking about the oral tradition in non-Western cultures and how their narratives unite them with the world. And finally I will pass over in silence the Koran, the Thousand and One Nights, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, and other non-Western texts I have not yet mastered and which perhaps constitute further reaches of the teacher’s stars to steer by.

My students do not wrestle with these great works in sixth grade, it’s more of a thumb war with some Shakespeare right now, but I hope that when they become grown men and women that they will see these works as mysteries, as a kind of mystery that is not solved, but lived. Thus we gain a kind of second life from books. It is knowing many lives and worlds through reading, combined with authentic life experiences (falling in love, having a child, failing, succeeding) that make us fuller persons. The work of a teacher is to grow young people. Pedagogy, methods, observation, reflection, and all of the practices in place are important to becoming a teacher. But it is personal growth in one’s life and one’s second life through literature that makes a great teacher, because teaching results from living.


Promethean Plan: A Teacher on Fulfilling the Intent of the Common Core, Part 3

by Guest Blogger
August 20th, 2013

By Mark Anderson

Mark Anderson, who became a NYC Teaching Fellow after working in retail and hospitality management, now teaches at Jonas Bronck Academy in the Bronx. His writing on educational improvement has appeared in Gotham Schools, the Times Union, VIVA Teachers, and other venues. Anderson also creates educational videos, including one that summarizes this blog post on fulfilling the intent of the Common Core.

In part 1 of this three-part series, Anderson discusses why skills-based teaching should no longer be predominant in ELA. In part 2, he discusses the problems with placing the burden of teaching literacy entirely on ELA.


Prometheus statue, Rockefeller Center


Mistake #3: Infantilizing teachers

Teaching is an incredibly dynamic and complex endeavor. Yet teachers are all too often managed as if it were a low-skill profession.

Calls for increasing standards for hiring, training, and retaining teachers, thankfully, are now in ascendancy. Yet we continue to treat teachers in the field like children incapable of independent thought. This is brutally evident in the manner in which the Common Core standards are currently getting rolled out in schools across our nation.

Rather than centering the hard work of implementation of the Common Core on teachers—the ones who will implement them and are ostensibly the most knowledgeable on matters of pedagogy and students’ needs—we instead see resources focused on external consultants and organizations who have a tendency to transmogrify the rich content and ideas of the standards into checklists and shallowly “aligned” materials. The end result is that schools and districts look over a quick reference sheet, check off a few boxes from the list, and determine that their curriculum and practices are “aligned” to the Common Core. It’s easy to pretend that something is aligned to the Common Core. Look, we have nonfiction texts! Look, we write essays that require online research! Such simplistic renderings effectively declaw the standards of any of their transformative power.

But none of this comes as a surprise: It parallels our decades-long push to infantilize our students by denying them access to real academic discipline and to systematic exposure to domain-specific knowledge. An unfortunate outcry against Common Core and the introduction of complex texts, such as we just witnessed in reactions to New York’s release of test scores, is that some students can’t possibly be expected to meet such rigorous standards. Students most desperately in need of access to knowledge and literature are too often denied that access, thus falling further and further behind. Those students need the Common Core—not some declawed facsimile.

Let’s be honest for a second here: no one really knows exactly what the Common Core will look like in implementation in a given classroom or curriculum. There are models, exemplars, and plentiful suggestions, many of them quite good (check out EngageNY, LearnZillion, and TeachingChannel) but much of that is based on an isolated standard or text, as opposed to a fully contextualized curriculum or scope and sequence (even Core Knowledge Language Arts, which is content-rich and brings history and science into the ELA block, is not a complete curriculum). And those curricula that are being developed can be vastly different, dependent on a given author’s pedagogical and theoretical standpoint.

So who are the “experts” here? Must we wait for the major textbook publishing companies to figure it out for us?

I have a revolutionary suggestion: how about we put our chips down on the scholarship of our nation’s teachers, and provide them with the space and time to immerse themselves deeply in the analysis and interpretation of the Common Core?

If our teachers haven’t fully contextualized the Common Core standards into their own understanding, then how else are they supposed to actualize them in their classrooms?

If our teachers haven’t steeped themselves deeply in the study of the content and texts they are going to teach, how else are they supposed to transfer knowledge and skills to their students?

There’s one answer to those questions, and that is the answer that most districts seem to have unthinkingly adopted: hand teachers a packaged curriculum and expect them to deliver it with unquestioned fidelity.

This is the wrong answer. Classroom practice will not be transformed if teachers are not treated as professionals and scholars. It takes professionalism to deeply engage with one’s colleagues on curriculum and pedagogy. It takes scholarship to carefully select and study complex texts that will build students’ domain-specific knowledge and understanding of literary history.

It takes a systematic, school-wide effort to then integrate and align practices, texts and content across all grade levels in a manner that builds knowledge sequentially and coherently. It then takes a systematic, district-wide or state-wide effort to integrate and align different school curricula such that core content is consistent, such that if a student transfers from one school to another, large gaps in knowledge will not be created.

Or alternately, it may require disrupting location-based integration altogether, and seeking to harness online collaborative resources to establish a measure of coherency.

The best professional development I have experienced on Common Core has been with LearnZillion. At first glance, LearnZillion appears to be just another Gates Foundation-funded edtech startup. But dig a little deeper beyond the surface, and you will begin to notice that the folks who are making those video lessons are actual classroom teachers (full and happy disclosure: I am one of them). Earlier this year, LearnZillion gathered 200 educators from 41 different states to meet, learn from one another and from “experts,” and design Common Core aligned lessons together. In other words, LearnZillion is doing something that almost no district is seeking to do, and to do it at scale: invest in teacher scholarship, expertise, and interpretation of Common Core. Most of the materials these teachers are creating are freely available, and other teachers can utilize them as they deem fit.

This is the model that districts and schools need to adopt if we are to actualize the Common Core with the true transformative intent and spirit that the authors envisioned. Give teachers the time and space to plunge deep into the Common Core and struggle with how they would teach to the standards in their classrooms. Then allow them to share, discuss, and modify their materials with one another.

The AFT has invested in TES’s Share My Lesson platform, and the NEA went with BetterLesson. I like to just use Google Drive. There’s great potential for harnessing online platforms to more coherently build a collective repository of curricular resources for the Common Core that can better refine and build our collective understanding of how it should be implemented. Personally, I believe (and have argued elsewhere) that since we have a system of public education, our curriculum should also be fully transparent and accessible to the public.

But such an investment in teacher expertise and scholarship is just the beginning. I’m not suggesting that teachers don’t need guidance, support, and direction from researchers, professors, organizations, and practitioners in other fields. A great place to begin for guidance would be to sit down as a school and look at the Core Knowledge Sequence together, in addition to Common Core’s list of text exemplars in Appendix B. I have also created templates (6th, 7th, and 8th grades), based on PARCC’s suggestions for a curricular framework, that has the text suggestions from both at the bottom, as well as suggested authors and texts from Massachusetts’ ELA standards.

My point is that the Common Core standards must be interpreted and understood by each teacher who is to teach to them. They must be contextualized. They must be studied and challenged and debated by grade level and content department teams. Only in this way will the difficult transition from rhetoric into practice be successfully enacted.

Otherwise, Common Core will remain little but a grand vision ossified in text.

Here’s one short-term measure we can take to ensure that we do not continue to infantilize our nation’s teachers:

  • Provide scheduled and paid time for teachers to work together to explore, interpret, and actualize the Common Core into either their own curriculum and materials, or teacher-selected curriculum and materials.

For longer-term measures, we need to continue to focus on raising the expectations and standards for the teaching profession, such as by requiring a national bar exam, as Randi Weingarten and Joel Klein have suggested, and raising standards for schools of education, as NCTQ has suggested.

The pitfalls for effective implementation of Common Core are legion, and we are already witnessing states and districts plunging straightaway into them. That’s OK. As any teacher could tell you, it’s part of the learning process. The question is not whether we will make these mistakes, but whether we will learn from them and move forward with a focus on what will take our students and our system of public education to the next level.

I can assure you of one thing. If we continue to perpetuate skills-based teaching, place the entire burden of teaching literacy on ELA, and ignore the need for teacher scholarship and professionalism, then Common Core’s transformative power and potential will not be realized.


Honoring the Framer’s Intent: A Close Look at Close Reading

by Lisa Hansel
August 8th, 2013

The further we dive into implementing the Common Core, the more questions and concerns arise. Some see this as evidence that the Core is crumbling. I don’t. I think it’s an inevitable, and welcome, phase of wrapping our minds around some very big changes. In fact, the more time I spend talking to people—from teachers deep in this work to policy wonks on the foggy fringes—the more it reminds me of debates about the Constitution.

No, I’m not ready to give the Common Core’s writers Founder status, but I do think that the new standards will prove to be living, lasting documents. The main way I am reminded of the Constitution is in the debates I’m hearing about what the writers intended. I’m glad that these debates are happening. Figuring out the intent is far more important than “covering” each individual standard. As I noted several weeks ago, anyone who brings a checklist mentality to these standards will get checklist results.

One line of questions and concerns I find really interesting is how close reading might work (or not) early in elementary school. Is a 7-year-old really supposed to analyze and cite evidence from a complex text?

Yes, but—two big buts! First, keep in mind that the text is supposed to be complex from the 7-year-old’s perspective, not from the adult’s perspective. Second, there are things the adult can do to make the text accessible.

As the Core Knowledge Language Arts team has been revising the pilot version of the program and rolling out the final version, it has been writing close reading lessons. In second and third grades, they’re doing about one per week (earlier grades are focused more on building the foundation via close listening). This hasn’t been easy. After plenty of head scratching and bumping, here’s what they figured out: Close reading in the elementary grades should focus first and foremost on ensuring students’ comprehension of the text; a secondary focus should be the manner in which words have been used as literary devices or how text has been crafted. CKLA’s close reading lessons focus student attention on words with multiple meanings, figurative or idiomatic speech, and syntactic structure as a way of unpacking the meaning of the text.

Recently, I got a peek at some materials currently being developed for a unit on the War of 1812 that comes at the end of second grade. I’m just going to share some snippets here. I think they show that second graders really can analyze complex text—if the curriculum is carefully constructed to make the text accessible.

For accessibility, one critical feature is that children are reading about the War of 1812 after having listened to and discussed a series of teacher read-alouds on the same topic. (For those who are familiar with the program, the War of 1812 first appears about halfway through second grade as a domain in the Listening & Learning strand; then, at the end of the year, the War of 1812 returns in the Student Reader in the Skills strand.) So, students are already familiar with the ideas, people, events, and vocabulary. Another important way CKLA makes this text accessible is that the Student Reader is decodable. From K – 2, all of the Student Readers are written using only the sound-spellings and tricky words that have been taught to date.

Now, let’s take a look at the Student Reader on The War of 1812. Chapter 1 explores some of the disagreements that the Americans and British were having. Chapter 2 looks at internal disagreements between American war hawks and merchants. Here’s roughly the first half of chapter 3, “The War Starts”:

Presidents have to make hard choices. James Madison had to decide whether to side with the war hawks or with the merchants who hoped for peace. In the end, he sided with the war hawks. Madison asked Congress to declare war. On June 18, 1812, the U.S. declared war on Great Britain.

The Americans were in for a hard fight. The British had a huge army. They also had the world’s biggest navy. But the British were already at war with France. They could only send some of their troops to fight the U.S. That was a good thing for the Americans. It meant that they would have a better chance of winning.

Even so, not a lot of people at the time could imagine that the U.S. could win. Today the U.S. is a strong nation. It has been around for many years. It has a strong army and navy. But that was not the case in 1812.

In 1812, the U.S. was not very old as a country. It had broken away from Great Britain only about thirty years before.

The U.S. had a different kind of government, too. At the time, most of the nations of Europe were monarchies. That means they were ruled by kings. A king would rule until he died. Then, in most cases, his oldest son would take over. The U.S. was not a monarchy. It did not have a king. Instead, it had a president. The president was chosen by voters. He did not get to serve until he died. He served for 4 years. Then the voters got a chance to pick their president. If they voted for a different president, the old one had to step down.

In 1812, most people in the world felt this was a very strange way of doing things. They were not confident that the system would last and that the U.S. would be able to survive.

Before we get into specifics, here’s on outline of CKLA’s approach to close reading:

  • Have students partner-read a selected chapter in their Readers.
  • After students have finished reading the chapter with their partners, lead students in a close reading of the text that requires them (individually, in pairs, or in small groups) to draw on evidence from the text by doing the following (as appropriate, not all texts will support all of these forms of analysis):
    • calling attention to and explaining instances of words with multiple meanings, figurative or idiomatic speech, specific word choices, and nuances of meaning.
    • identifying and discussing general academic (Tier 2) vocabulary.
    • unpacking sentences with difficult syntax, including identifying pronoun referents, discussing the temporal and/or causal relationship and meaning of specific conjunctions, calling attention to words that signal transitions, and breaking complex sentences with clauses into separate parts.
    • discussing sections of the text that might pose difficulty due to dense information and/or that require making inferences and/or connections to previously read texts or  knowledge.
    • discussing the voice or narrator of a particular text excerpt.
    • calling attention to literary devices such as imagery, metaphors, similes, personification, and onomatopoeia.

Now, let’s take a look at some ways teachers could apply this to our excerpt of chapter 3:

Text from Student Reader: James Madison had to decide whether to side with the War Hawks or with the merchants who hoped for peace. In the end, he sided with the War Hawks.

  • Vocabulary: side with to take sides; agree with
  • Text-Dependent Question: In the end, who did Madison agree with – the War Hawks or the merchants?
  • Response: Madison sided with the War Hawks in the end.

Text from Student Reader: The British had a huge army. They also had the world’s biggest navy. But the British were already at war with France. They could only send some of their troops to fight the U.S. That was a good thing for the Americans.

  • Vocabulary: troops – soldiers
  • Text-Dependent Question: Why were the British able to only send some of their troops to fight the Americans?
  • Response: The British were fighting another war with France.

Text from Student Reader: Even so, not a lot of people at the time could imagine that the U.S. could win.

  • Vocabulary: imagine – think; believe (Note the multiple meanings of imagine. Here is a slightly different meaning: it was a cold, winter day, but I imagined I was at the pool in the summer; dreamed, pretended.)
  • Syntax: not a lot of people…could imagine that the U.S. could win = a lot of people could not imagine that the U.S. could  win
  • Text-Dependent Question: Were there many people who thought the U.S. could win?
  • Response: No, not a lot of people could imagine that the U.S. could win.

Text from Student Reader: The United States was not a monarchy. It did not have a king. Instead, it had a president. The president was chosen by voters. He did not get to serve until he died. He served for four years. Then, the voters got a chance to pick their president. If they voted for a different president, the old one had to step down.

  • Vocabulary: serve to work for a certain period of time in government or in the military (Note the multiple meanings of serve. The waitress served our dessert; delivered or brought to the table.); step down – to stop doing a job; resign; retire
  • Syntax: Who or what is it in the sentence, “Instead, it had a president?” (the United States)

Text from Student Reader: In 1812, most people in the world felt this was a very strange way of doing things. They were not sure that the system would last and that the United States would be able to survive.

  • Vocabulary: the system the American way of government in which the people voted for a president
  • Syntax: What does this refer to in the sentence, “In 1812, most people in the world felt this was a very strange way of doing things?” (choosing a president by voting)
  • Text-Dependent Question: Why did most people in the world think the United States would not be able to survive?
  • Response: They were not sure that the system of government in the United States would last.

To practice close reading, the student workbook sends children back to the text. In the examples below, CKLA second graders must write “true” or “false” and provide the page numbers on which they found evidence for their answers:

1. On June 18, 1812, the United States declared war on Great Britain. __________

Page _________

2. In 1812, the British were already at war with France, so they could only send some of their troops to fight the United States. __________

Page _________

3. At the start of the war, most people thought the United States would defeat the British easily. __________

Page _________

4. A monarchy is a nation that is ruled by a king. __________

Page _________

5. In 1812, the United States was a monarchy. __________

Page _________

6. In 1812, most of the nations of Europe were ruled by presidents who were elected and served for four years. __________

Page _________

Some second graders will be able to do this independently; others will need lots of support. (And don’t forget—the Skills strand offers many options for differentiation, so no one expects the whole second grade to tackle this in the same way at the same time.) I think we can confidently say that all will be learning a great deal.