NPR highlights a “good Common Core lesson” designed for the first day of ninth-grade English.
Students review the day’s standards: citing textual evidence and determining meaning of words in context, and how they contribute to tone.
Then they read a short story, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised By Wolves. It’s a magical realist coming-of-age tale.
It meets the Core’s call for complexity and contemporaneity (written in 2007), says Kate Gerson, a former teacher and EngageNY research fellow. It also is in the “canon” because author Karen Russell was a Pulitzer finalist. And she’s young and female, checking the diversity box.
The teacher reads a short excerpt aloud. Then students read to themselves, drawing boxes around unfamiliar words and writing definitions on Post-It notes.
Teachers are told to “get out of the students’ way” and let them struggle through on their own. Eventually students will pair up to “tease out the meaning” of words such as “lycanthropic, couth and kempt.”
Speaking from her own experience as an English teacher, (Gershon) said, the tendency all too often has been to instead spend class time “performing” literature — spelling out the subtext, defining tough words before students have a chance to puzzle over them, and advertising key plot points like the voiceover on a Bravo reality show.
Students finish the day with a “quick write.” They “use evidence from the text to relate the story’s epigraph to its first paragraph.”
Commenter Ajax in Charlotte is unimpressed. “Introducing the state standards and then having kids read silently, circle unfamiliar vocab words, and complete one short answer question is not exactly the most world-shattering, paradigm-shifting lesson plan I have ever seen.”
Doesn’t it sound boring?
“Underlying this lesson is a misunderstanding of intellectual work, writes Diana Senechal. It assumes that “if the teacher is explaining the literature, the students are doing no work.”
Thinking should be the essential work of the classroom. Students can and should look up words at home; in class, they come together to hear the teacher and each other, to pose questions, and to test out ideas. Of course, this can vary: there may well be days when the teacher has students write or work with unfamiliar vocabulary. But it takes discipline and concentration to listen, think, and speak in a whole-class discussion–and the classroom is the best place for such work and leisure.
. . . Can the Common Core really claim to prepare students for college and career when it equates “hard work” exclusively with visible physical activity–such as annotating a text in class? What about the hard work of listening to the teacher and forming a question or challenge?
The lesson also misrepresents teaching, writes Senechal. In the Common Core caricature, “the teacher stood at the front of the room and yakked, while the students passively took in plot points and didn’t learn to read.”
For many years, teachers have been told to be a “guide on the side,” not a “sage on the stage.”
I started ninth-grade English in 1966. It was a Level 1 class, so everyone read the assignments at home, figured out the new words and came to class ready to discuss the ideas. Our teachers rarely lectured for more than a few minutes, as I recall. (It has been awhile.) They asked questions and guided class discussions. We did all our writing at home too.