Readers Need Not Apply (by Ann Policelli Cronin)

Connecticut educator and fellow education blogger Ann Policelli Cronin recently posted a great article about how the “education reformers” and their Common Core and Common Core testing scheme are seeking to narrow down the role of public education.

In the name of making students “College and Career Ready,” those who seek to profit off public education see little role for concepts like literature, music, arts and the humanities.

In a piece that first appeared on her blog entitled Readers Need Not Apply, Ann Cronin writes;

In the early 1960’s, as the United States was becoming the leading economy in the world, the International Paper Company posted an ad in every edition of The Reader’s Digest which said: “Send me a man who reads”.  It always had an accompanying text which indicated that the one who reads is the one who  thinks, is the one who is productive, and is the one becomes the successful leader of the company.

I am sure that the reading referred to was not the short test prep informational articles or excerpts of full-length texts as now are read in U.S. schools.

No longer is that slogan relevant. Not only is it both women and men that we expect to be in positions of leadership, but also now reading literature is no longer a priority in our Common Core culture.

Peter Greene, a veteran teacher and education blogger at Curmudgucation, wrote the following piece, The Core vs. Content, about the substantial reduction in the reading of literature due to the Common Core. He points out well the travesty it is that the U.S. is the only nation in the world to restrict the amount of literature to be read in schools. In addition to all the sad results that he mentions, U.S. students will also not learn to question and to think in ways that only the opportunity to interpret literature offers them. Poor them. Poor us as a nation.

The Core vs. Content

By Peter Greene

Since the Core first popped its tiny head out of its crinkly shell, advocates have insisted that CCSS ELA standards, demand rich content. Meanwhile, I have become increasingly convinced that the demands for rich content and the assertions that rich content must be part of Core implementation rise up precisely because the Core actually has a giant gaping hole where rich content should be.

In other words, rich content Core-o-philes are like guys looking at an automobile with no wheels saying, “Well, obviously the makers of this car intend for us to put on wheels.” It’s not that the wheels are in evidence; it’s that their absence is an obvious fatal flaw. Or to put it another way, surely the emperor must mean for us to buy him some clothes.

But the longer the Core sticks around out in the field, the more obvious it becomes that the Core is anti-content– particularly once you throw in the Core-based standards-measuring Big Standardized Tests.

Consider this article, written by someone whose intent is to show us how the Core is perfectly swell, even as it explains that part of the swellness is how it “eases literary classics to the sidelines.

Consider some of these quotes:

“It is true that the days for ‘Moby Dick’ or ‘Great Expectations’ might be numbered, but the question that teachers have to ask themselves is ‘What is the purpose of reading this text?’” said Mark Gardner, a high school English teacher in Clarke County, Washington.

“While it may seem like sacrilege, there are many goals that can be achieved by digging deeply into a series of well-curated selections of a text rather than all of it, and then relying on teacher lecture, lessons or even Sparknotes to fill in the gaps,” Gardner said in an interview.

 As an AP English and composition teacher in Montgomery County, Maryland, Ambereen Khan-Baker has included political cartoons and shorter, more complex texts while cutting out longer novels. Using multiple texts instead of focusing on one book has allowed her to teach diverse opinions.

The article is presenting, uncritically and with a light tone of  “you old fossils need to understand the new, cool way of doing things,” the idea of trimming the classics down to a chapter or two. I’ve encountered this more than a few times– cover a couple of key chapters in depth and fill in the rest with a summary or even, I swear, sparknotes.  

Making such changes could be a positive thing if it provides students the opportunity to deepen their knowledge of literature and the skills that can be applied to reading non-fiction, according to Gardner, who said that is a key reason the classics are taught in the first place.

This is what the Core promotes and requires– reading as a conduit for transmitting certain skills to students, and because it’s teamed with the BS Tests, the skills do not include wrestling with full-length texts in any sort of depth. And apparently we can’t think of any reason that classics are classic and need to be taught. Because it’s easier to work on relevant themes and skills by folding in current YA hits.

Look, there’s a whole worthwhile (and generally unending) conversation to be had among language-teaching professionals about the canon and what should be in the canon and what makes a classic classic and why we teach anything that was written before our students were born and how we should teach it. But the Core’s contribution to that conversation is to say, “Screw content. Just teach them the skills they need for the test.”

When I write lesson plans and plug in the standards, it makes absolutely no difference what actual content I’m teaching– the standards are completely divorced from content and I can recycle the same standards-aligned plan over and over again, just plugging in some piece, any piece, of reading.

And in turns of getting great “student achievement” results (aka high test scores) I could spend the whole year having students read nothing but newspaper extracts and single pages ripped from any current fiction. If I totally lost my mind and any sense of why I actually became an English teacher, I could crank out students with great BS Tests scores who knew absolutely nothing about the literature, history and culture of their own country (or any other).

The article closes with another quote from Gardner: “We don’t read books in school so we can write papers or do projects about that book; rather, we read books in school so we can more deeply understand all of the texts – books, blogs or advertisements – that we will face beyond school.”

I think Gardner is half right– we don’t read books in school just to do projects or papers. But if we only read in school so that we can practice skills we’ll need to read things later in life, what will we be reading those works later in life for? If there are no riches to be found in Great Expectations or Hamlet or The Crucible or Song of Solomon or To Kill a Mockingbird, why read them just to get some practice with reading skills? If they have nothing to say to any of us about understanding what it means to be fully human and more fully ourselves, if they have nothing to tell us about the human experience as it has unspooled throughout human history, if they have nothing to say about the power of language to communicate across the gaps that separate us, if they have nothing to say about culture, if they have nothing to say about the rich heritage of the English language, if they have nothing to say about understanding the universal and the specific in human life, about how to grow beyond our own immediate experience– if they are, in fact, nothing more than fodder for test prep, then what the hell are we doing?

The article sets out to address the effect of the Core on the classics, but it only addresses the question of how much the standards push in non-fiction and many, multiple short texts. What the article does not address is how the Core assaults the very notion of why we bother to teach reading or writing or literature in the first place. Instead, like so many Core-ophiles, it assumes that such an assault is appropriate. Rich content fans are correct to believe that the empty head and empty heart at the center of the Core screams out to be filled with real study of real literature, but they are missing the fact that the Core itself thinks that vast emptiness is a good thing, a feature instead of a bug.

With this piece, Ann P. Cronin (and Peter Greene) remind us of Martin Luther King profound observation that;

“Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” – Martin Luther King Jr.

You can read all of Ann P. Cronin’s posts at her blog: http://reallearningct.com/

Peter Greene’s great blog can be found at: http://curmudgucation.blogspot.com/

 

CT Makes New Strides in Grittology (by Peter Greene)

Fellow Pro-public education blogger Peter Greene’s blog is called CURMUDGUCATION.  His tag line is, “A grumpy old teacher trying to keep up the good classroom fight in the new age of reformy stuff.”   He may claim to be “grumpy and old” but his writing and observations are brilliant.   You can find more of his posts at:  http://curmudgucation.blogspot.com/.

In his recent piece entitled, CT Makes New Strides in Grittology, Greene writes,

Sandwiched in the midst of a puff piece about Connecticut’s new elite cadre of Common Core teacher shills is this important paragraph:

Getting on the list was competitive. According to a news release from the Department of Education, teachers “were chosen through a competitive statewide application on the basis of their content knowledge, grit, and understanding of the Common Core State Standards. Each educator demonstrated the commitment and ability to “scale their impact” beyond their classroom.”

I’m going to let the confusing quotation marks slide and focus in on the most exciting news just kind of dropped into this PR bonanza–

…chosen through a competitive statewide application on the basis of their content knowledge, grit, and understanding …

You see?!! The State of Connecticut knows how to measure grit!!!!

I am sure that all of us, all around the country, want to know how this is done. I am sure that phones are ringing off the hook in CT DOE offices as other educational thought leaders call to ask for the secret of grittological measurements.

Was it a physical test? Did they make teachers do the worm for a thousand yards? Did they make teachers peel onions and sing “memories” while watching pictures of sad puppies, all without crying? Did they have to compete in three-armed wheelchair races? Were they required to complete a season of the Amazing Race as participants? Did they have to stand stock still while being pelted with medium-sized canteloupes?

Or perhaps it was a study of their personal history. We know that grittologists have determined that people who have tended not to quit things in the past probably won’t quit things in the future (who knew?) So maybe the state looked for people who didn’t quit things, like lifelong members of the Columbia Record Club or folks who actually finished an unfinishable sundae or who stayed in a bad marriage. Maybe the state only accepted cancer survivors or acid reflux sufferers or folks with chronic halitosis.

Or maybe Connecticut has a special computerized grit test. Take a PARCC exam on a computer with a bad internet connection or using a keyboard on which some eighth grader has previously moved around all the keys. Create a word document on a computer running Windows 3.0– no swearing at the blue screen of death. Play HALO with a six-year-old on your team. Is there a grit praxis?

Or maybe grit is linked to the third item on the list– understanding of the Common Core State Standards. Maybe you have to explain the CCSS as interpreted and implemented by the CT DOE without actually laughing out loud or sneezing the word “bullshit.” Or maybe they had to convince someone that they really are excited to attend something called “Teachfest” being run by a company called “LearnZillion” (what a dumb name choice– if people aren’t calling those guys “Learnzilla” behind their backs I will eat my copy of the standards).

All I can say is– the state of CT has a goldmine here. If they are able to test teachers for grit, they need to monetize that and franchise the process, because this is a mine of inexhaustible riches. This will make a far better monetary stream than the business of having teachers employed by public schools create lessons and materials for a for-profit company (maybe grit has something to do with easily silenced scruples).

Plus, CT has the jump by having a Dream Team of 97 highly grittified teachers, which means they can be dispatched on all sort of tough commando raids. I can see the T-Shirts now– a Sylvester Stallone looking guy with the words “We Are Here To Punch Dumb in the Face!”

You know, my uncle taught history in Connecticut for fifty years, and was much-beloved in his district. It was actually a bit of a surprise when he retired. I suppose he didn’t have enough grit for Connecticut.