Three years ago I was asked what I thought about the Common Core curriculum, and I wrote a reply. Now, a few exams in, and having changed my mind about a few things, here are some thoughts.
Education is supposed to inspire children to imagine, think creatively, discover their strengths, and give them skills to solve problems. In many ways, the state's new emphasis on testing undermines these goals. The Common Core English curriculum's focus is now "informational texts," that is, nonfiction that may or may not be literary. Its target is to have students read for information, not for subtleties in language, themes, or subtext.
I have had many conversations with my students about “sparknote-ization” of reading, which trains students to believe that we read merely to collect facts and that story is merely about plot. The literary critic Christopher Clausen has said that all of literature attempts to answer, either directly or indirectly, two questions: 1. What kind of world is this? And 2. How shall we live in it? The Common Core’s two questions? 1. What does it say in line 7 about carbon emissions (or some other topic not related to the humanities), and 2. How many points will my grade go down if I can't come up with a counter-argument incorporating line 2?
The first sample ELA Regents essay provided by New York State presented nine passages for the students to analyze. Only two of the samples provided were literary (one poem and one prose excerpt). The most recent Regents exam, thankfully, provided a bit of respite from scientific texts, legal documents, and graphs, with the inclusion of a story and a question about a literary device. The major essay itself, however, is still almost identical to the Social Studies DBQ (document-based question), where students construct an argument based on current event articles unrelated to literature. A curriculum based primarily on the mechanics of reading for facts takes away the very element which makes stories worthwhile; there's no wonder, nor any lessons which tell humans how to live, interact, achieve their goals, use language carefully, listen closely and with humility, or deal with suffering.
The less we emphasize the humanities as a culture, the more shocking become the outbreaks of bullying in what has become a national epidemic. The battle cry for uniformity has necessitated the concrete as the common denominator. We have prioritized research, argument, and corporeal processes over esoteric, epic, lyrical thinking. Is it any wonder that when we take away literature, which teaches children empathy, compassion, and imagination, we must then replace it with anti-bullying assemblies and metal detectors? We can't complain about the younger generation's lack of interpersonal and critical skills when we strip them of wonder, removing vehicles for self-reflection and social maturity.
The English DBQ essay requires students to agree or disagree with a claim based on several non-fiction articles. Make no mistake about it, making a claim and defending it with evidence is a valid undertaking, an academic and life skill whose value cannot be overstated. In its current iteration, however, the problem with this format is its overexposure. Nudging aside writing to learn, embracing the complexities of story, and listening closely to a poet or novelist's message, its over-saturation in the curriculum has lead to some troubling habits of mind in our students. Since implementing the Common Core (third year now), students are more befuddled than ever during writing sessions or discussions exploring a topic in literature: you want to know what we think? Just tell us what the answer is. What do you want me to write? I will give you what you want. Students are so concerned about the "right" answer that they don’t have time to enjoy the process of learning or to exercise their own judgments.
And why wouldn’t students and their families be concerned? There are so many demands on their time: SATs, PSATs, ACTs, college admissions, testing in every subject, sports, activities, and homework. I often fret about student tension and depression having escalated to alarming heights. With over-packed schedules and the emphasis on the "right" interpretation/school/career, it's no wonder that students sit anxiously in class, stymied, with their pens poised over their desks, unable to commit to placing the first words on paper. Because in their world of exams, resume building, high stakes scores, and academic rankings, they might be...wrong. In the classroom, emphasizing uniformity in argument structure and pedagogy belies the goal of students finding their own voice and arriving at their own macroconclusions.
Students often freeze when they are asked what they think, and it isn't because they are lazy slobs or cellphone-zombie burnouts. Many of them actually have a genuine desire to do well in something that simply provides no joy. Young, enthusiastic educators new to teaching often feel the same way; they are so eager to please, but feel stuck: their students must pass these exams. They must learn the formula! To the most well-meaning of teachers and students, finding a voice and thinking critically are luxuries that the English Common Core cannot afford.
Our emphasis on the article-based argumentative essay (claim, evidence, counter argument) from news articles has edged out close reading and interpretation of dense, rich literary passages. With the over-saturation of one type of essay, meaning gets boiled down to a yes-no-maybe answer devoid of nuance. Well-intentioned educators who may rejoice, "Now students can't argue about what a book means!" run the risk, not only of discouraging their students from speaking freely, but also of extinguishing the ineffable moments in a classroom that make student minds come alive.
We cannot compress learning into two dimensions and then complain that student work lacks depth. An English teacher with a master’s thesis in Romanticism may have inspired students in the past with his specialized passion for a wild-eyed, disheveled Byron, but now he must curb his fervor in order to stay lockstep with what someone else has decided. After all, his colleague whose thesis was on modern American poetry does the same. Vanishing is the close examination of language with its perplexing subtleties and connotations. The curriculum gets boiled down to a common denominator gleaned from the basics of reading short articles for information.
The Common Core is indeed common, but in the wrong ways. Of course concrete data assists our instruction. Of course we need to be forever searching for meaningful methods that work. Do not suppose that I am suggesting that finding answers is merely a matter of frolicking in fields barefoot while making daisy chains and braiding each others' hair. After all, a text does not always mean what we want it to mean. We need methods that acknowledge that, to life's most important questions, there are many right answers, and none of them are simple. Instead of weathering the storm by taking cover under the one argumentative essay based on articles unrelated to English, let's be a little more daring. Let's try new methods to keep up with our students' changing world. Perhaps we can tune into technology in ways that will inspire students to go beyond the bare minimum of thought and expression to become articulate, thoughtful individuals. Let's not give up on expecting our students to enjoy reading or explore ideas to which there isn't one concrete answer.
Should schools maintain a high level of rigor? Absolutely. (And if I can ever strike the perfect balance of rigor without panic, you'll be the first to know.) Yet we need a curriculum created by teachers and communities who love their content and who love the classroom, not one handed down to us from a decentralized committee of experts who possibly materialized from a realm of theory. The Common Core worships at the altar of “all on the same page,” but teachers never had a say in what book that page should come from. Using innovative research and data to improve student learning need not require a love affair with lock-step uniformity. Reading massive amounts of DBQ essays based on informational articles not related to their field, teachers now compile mounds of paperwork and data charts on students not their own. In the layers of bureaucracy, it is the child who gets lost in a shuffle of paperwork.
If you understood the allusion to Hamlet in the title of this post, thank your wealth of knowledge about stories and literature, for you speak the human language of story. You may recall Hamlet's disgust when his mother, with good intentions, tries to console her son about the loss of his beloved father by telling him that death is a common experience. Hamlet, repulsed by his mother's hasty remarriage to his uncle, disdainfully agrees, "Aye, madam, 'tis common." If you appreciate this allusion to an imaginative experience in the realm of story, you understand this post's title. You are connected, even briefly, to a mythical world shared and understood by others in one shining, communal moment. You are able to connect Hamlet's comment to the universals of the human experience. You are able to nod and, perhaps, use the phrase when you inevitably encounter circumstances that call for it in the future. You are able to do these things that the current generation cannot.