Who needs to read Frankenstein?

Students can discuss a book they’ve never read in the Common Core era, complains Terrence Moore. He looks at the treatment of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in The British Tradition, a Prentice-Hall textbook aligned to the new standards.

Of 17 pages devoted to the classic novel, three are written by Mary Shelley. These aren’t from the novel, but from an introduction about writing the novel.  “Advanced readers” who are “interested” might read a “segment” of the novel in order to compare the monster to Shelley’s description in her introduction, the Teacher’s Edition advises. Apparently, nobody else will read even part of the novel.

Two pages of the 17 are devoted to editor Elizabeth McCracken’s stories about “the scary movies she watched as a child, including Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein as well as dreams she had,” writes Moore. Under “Critical Reading,” students are asked what movies McCracken watched as a child.

. . . teachers are encouraged to ask their students what “classic” stories of urban myths, tales of alien abductions, or ghost stories they have heard. Examples include stories of alligators in sewers, a man abducted for his kidneys, and aliens landing in Roswell, New Mexico. Students are asked to write a paragraph on “one of these modern urban myths.”

. . . students are challenged to write “a brief autobiography of a monster.” The editors lament that most monster stories are told from the perspective of “the humans confronting the monster.” They want to turn the tables by having students consider “what monsters think about their treatment.”

Actually, Frankenstein tells much of the story from the monster’s perspective, writes Moore. But students don’t know that because they haven’t read it.

Saturday Night Live parody of Frankenstein merits five pages of the book — two more than Shelley –under “Contemporary Connection.” After discussing the show, the gifted students are supposed to obtain props, costumes and make-up that will enable them to “take roles and do a dramatic reading” of the script.

No wonder there’s no time to read the book.

Moore, a Hillsdale College history professor, is the author of The Story-Killers: A Common-Sense Case Against the Common Core.

A Common Core lesson gone wrong

In A Common Core Lesson Gone Wrong, Diana Senechal looks at a lesson — featured on LearnZillion — on Wordsworth’s I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud. (It’s the one with the daffodils.)

The lesson has “little or nothing to do with Wordsworth’s poem,” writes Senechal. It could apply to any of a thousand poems.

It also gives bad advice: Students are told to read a difficult poem one stanza at a time, restating each stanza in one’s own words and writing the summary on a sticky note.

That takes students “away from the language of the poem,” writes Senechal. “To restate a stanza is to stop it at the border and say, ‘You may not cross over into my mind with your own goods; you must exchange them for mine’.”

The teacher tells students the poem uses imagery, which lets readers “see the images playing in their minds like a movie.”

Images can “be puzzling, even confounding,” Senechal writes. “They do not make things pat for us, nor do they have to do with sight alone.”

I would have the students take in the language of the poem—without turning it into anything else. Have them listen to it several times, and maybe, on the third time, make note of things they found striking. Some might point to “I wandered lonely as a cloud”; others, to “a crowd, / A host, of golden daffodils.” Some might be drawn to the lines, “The waves beside them danced; but they / Out-did the sparkling waves in glee.”

Many, I think, would find something in the final stanza, maybe in “that inward eye / Which is the bliss of solitude.” After they had brought up specific things that struck them, we could start to look at how the poem fits together as a whole, listening to it again along the way. In particular, we would look at the shift to the “inward eye” in the final stanza.

The lesson is targeting a standard that calls for attention to specific texts, writes Senechal. It reads: “Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone, including analogies or allusions to other texts.”

However, the standards “are worded generically and thus encourage generic approaches to literature,” she writes. Beyond the Core, there’s a tendency for teachers to teach strategies rather than subject matter. 

Learning patience

Patience is a lost skill in the digital age, writes Jessica Lahey in The Atlantic. And it’s a virtue, she argues.

Many English teachers no longer ask students to read novels, she writes. To “ease homework loads” and make time for “problem- or project-based learning,” they assign short stories and essays. A story can’t replicate the journey of a novel, Lahey writes.

The experience of reading Great Expectations is fulfilling in part because of the wait for answers. My students clamor to know who Pip’s benefactor is and whether or not he will end up with Estella, but when we find out together, after weeks of travel along Pip’s journey, the answers are just that much more delicious.

At Hanover High School (New Hampshire), ninth-grade science teachers spend a month on a forensics unit created by teachers John Phipps and Casey Milender. Students analyze a crime scene, collect data and analyze the information for weeks.

As Milender describes it, “The combination of the quick answers they find in a day, such as in a luminol lab and a blood typing lab, and the more complex answers that take weeks, such as the blood spatter analysis based on geometry, give the kids gratification during the project, but they really can’t draw the larger conclusions until the end, when they put all these pieces together.”

My older son has been wrestling with the challenges of this unit, and the sustained patience, engagement and curiosity I’ve overheard in my carpool have been a wonder to behold.

Learning to wait for the full story before reaching a conclusion based on all the evidence builds “confident and brave thinkers,” Lahey writes.

Is it English? Or social studies?

Mark Bauerlein helped develop the Common Core standards in English. Now he fears the critics are right to say “high-quality fiction, poetry, theater and other imaginative texts” will be crowded out by non-fiction.

Only three literary works — Romeo and Juliet, T.S. Eliot’s The Hollow Men and a short poem about Gandhi by Langston Hughes — appear in the New York City Education Department’s 13 recommended units of study in English Language Arts/Literacy at the high school level, writes Bauerlein, an English professor at Emory.

Meanwhile, the site offers units on DNA and crime detection, “vertical farming,” digital media, European imperialism, great speeches and two on the civil rights movement.

The assigned texts include a speech by Bill Clinton, a Los Angeles Times story on teens and social media, the “Complete Personal Finance Guidebook,” photographs by Walker Evans and an entry on imperialism in the New Book of Knowledge.

Even when a topic is disposed to abundant and superb literary works, the Education Department has failed to include them. The unit on “Rites of Passage” — supposedly to be used in English classes — doesn’t opt for great tales of youth and adulthood such as “Jane Eyre,” “The Red Badge of Courage” or Richard Wright’s “Almos’ a Man.”

Instead, it chooses 10 pieces on teen rituals from The New York Times, USA Today, Fox Business, NPR and other news outlets.

The new standards’ framers wanted students to have “more general background knowledge, more broad familiarity with history, science, art and ideas — all of which would, among other things, enhance literary study,” writes Bauerlein. They called for teaching “foundational works of American literature.” Instead, he charges, New York City’s curriculum designers are turning English into a social studies class.

Relevant schmelevant

Britain’s new “children’s laureate” wants to encourage reading by giving minority students books about people like themselves. “I still remember feeling I was totally invisible in the world of literature,” said Malorie Blackman. “I understand you need to learn about Henry VIII, but when I was young I wanted to learn about something that felt more relevant.”

Relevant, schmelevant, responds Howard Jacobson in The Independent. As a working-class, northern, Jewish boy, he didn’t consider his own visibility when he read books.

“Where are the Jews?” It’s possible that one of the reasons we refrained from asking that question was that when a Jew did pop up in literature we wished he hadn’t. Thanks, Fagin, but no thanks. . . . We didn’t read to self-identify. . . . We read for precisely the opposite reason – in order imaginatively to enjoy the company of others, in order to understand what those who were not ourselves were like, in order to feel the world expand around us, in order to go places we didn’t routinely go to in our neighbourhoods or in our heads, in order to meet the challenge of difference . . . Reading felt like a journey out of self, not into it. And if occasionally we thought we saw something specific to us in Hamlet, or Heathcliff, that was interesting but not obligatory.

. . . Madame Bovary c’est moi, Flaubert declared, invoking the writer’s creed. The reader’s creed is similar. Jane Eyre c’est moi, I felt when I read Charlotte Brontë’s great novel at school, and she was no less moi because she was a girl. . . .  I was not invisible when I read Jane Eyre a) because the best writers make general what’s particular, and b) because I, who had not been taught to go looking for myself missing, honoured the writer/reader compact and found me in characters who weren’t me.

When “relevance” entered the education debate, Jacobson knew knew the outcome, he writes. It has “demeaned those it pretended to help by assuming limits to their curiosity, denied those it offered to empower, cutting off their access to ‘irrelevant’ intellectual pleasure and enlightenment.” It “narrowed the definition of learning to the chance precincts of an individual’s class or upbringing.”

Once education “assumed an equality of eagerness for knowledge, and an equality of right to acquire it,” Jacobson concludes. That’s no longer “relevant.”

As a child I loved reading historical fiction and history, adventure, fantasy . . . Like Jacobson, I didn’t read to find myself. People like me were boring. I wanted to get out of the box of self and see the world.

When Ta-Nehisi Coates talks to black students, he tells them education is “a ticket out into a world so grand and stunning that it defies their imagination.”

Lessons in virtue from Macbeth and a duck

Jessica Lahey is a convert to character education after teaching at Crossroads Academy, a private K-8 school in New Hampshire, that uses Core Knowledge and Core Virtues curricula.

Schools that teach character education report higher academic performance, improved attendance, reduced violence, fewer disciplinary issues, reduction in substance abuse, and less vandalism. . . . students who attend character education schools report feeling safer because they know their fellow students value respect, responsibility, compassion and hard work.

And it’s “easier to teach children who can exercise patience, self-control, and diligence,” she writes in The Atlantic.

The core virtues — prudence, temperance, fortitude, and justice — make it into nearly every lesson we teach at our school and every facet of our daily lives on campus.

. . . In my middle school Latin and English classes, we explore the concept of temperance through discussions of Achilles’ impulsive rages, King Ozymandias’ petulant demand that we “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair,” Macbeth’s bloody, “vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself and falls on the other.”

Literature isn’t the only teacher. When a mother duck built her nest near the main school pathway, students had to learn to control their curiosity. Mom Mallard could handle students walking by, but left her nest if they paused for a look.

 In Stanford’s famous experiment on self-control, children were faced with the immediate reality of one marshmallow versus the promise of two marshmallows if they can just wait for fifteen minutes. The children who were able to resist temptation and wait fifteen minutes for that second marshmallow had better life outcomes in the form of lower obesity rates, higher SAT scores, and higher levels of education. Self-control itself does not make a kid smarter, or fitter, or more proficient at test-taking, but it’s the essential skill hidden within all of these positive outcomes.

. . . Here on our campus, our marshmallow is a duck. Our students must weigh their desire for a quick peek at Mom Mallard with the promise of ten ducklings waddling around our playground in 28 days.

“Character education teaches children how to make wise decisions and act on them,” writes Lahey. It’s not a bit of “fluff” tacked on to the real curriculum. It must be woven into lessons on Achilles, Ozymandias, Macbeth and a mother duck.

Conservatives can like the Common Core

Conservatives should support the Common Core standards, write Kathleen Porter-Magee and Sol Stern, who describe themselves as “education scholars at two right-of-center think tanks” (Fordham and the Manhattan Institute).

Glenn Beck  calls the standards a stealth “leftist indoctrination” plot by the Obama administration. Michelle Malkin warns that they will “eliminate American children’s core knowledge base in English, language arts and history.”  Not so, write Porter-Magee and Stern.

Common Core State Standards . . . describe what children should know and the skills that they must acquire at each grade level to stay on course toward college- or career-readiness, something that conservatives have long argued for. They were written and adopted by governors—not by the Obama administration—thus preserving state control over K–12 education. And they are much more focused on rigorous back-to-basics content than the vast majority of state standards they replaced.

Common Core doesn’t force English teachers to drop To Kill a Mockingbird in favor of government manuals, they write.  All teachers — not just English teachers — will expose students to informational texts and literary nonfiction. That includes “foundational texts of American history—the Gettysburg Address, Common Sense, and works of thought leaders like Emerson and Thoreau.”

(Non-fiction reading can inspire creativity, writes an AP English teacher in Ed Week’s Teacher.)

On the math side, opponents argue the standards are “squishy, progressive and lacking in rigorous content.”  But the math standards are dominated by content, write Porter-Magee and Stern.

 Unlike many of the replaced state standards, Common Core demands automaticity (memorization) with basic math facts, mastery of standard algorithms, and understanding of critical arithmetic. These essential foundational math skills are not only required but prioritized, particularly in the early grades. The math standards focus in depth on fewer topics that coherently build over time.

“For decades, conservatives have fought to hold students accountable for high standards and an academic curriculum imbued with great works of Western civilization and the American republic,” conclude Porter-Magee and Stern. “This is our chance to make it happen.”

Common Core could lead to “federal control of school curricula,” writes Neal McCluskey on Cato’s blog.  Porter-Magee will serve on the U.S. Department of Education’s technical review panel vetting Common Core tests developed by “Department-selected consortia,” he adds. If the feds control the tests, they control what’s taught in schools, argues McCluskey.

Huck Finn and the bias biddies

While new Common Core State Standards call for students to read classic literature, tests will avoid “emotionally charged language,” race, sex, religion or anything that anyone might find offensive, writes Mark Bauerlein, an English professor at Emory, in How to Keep All of Huck Finn in the Classroom.

The standards say students should to read “classic myths and stories from around the world, foundational U.S. documents, seminal works of American literature, and the writings of Shakespeare.”

To measure them, tests will have to include passages from “The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin,” Henry Thoreau’s “Walden,” “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” and Emily Dickinson’s verse.

However, test aligned to the new standards must heed “bias and sensitivity guidelines” that rule out “race and sex imbalances, stereotypes and pretty much anything that might upset or disserve any particular group of students.”

The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, for instance, is writing questions “free of offensive, demeaning or emotionally-charged language” and “reflective of a balance of authors by gender, race, and ethnicity,” Bauerlein writes. There will be no “religious references” either.

But in trying to make the experience of every test-taker free of conflict, in removing virtually all racial, sexual or religious elements from the readings, test developers can’t properly assess Common Core’s literary-historical mandates. A full sample of the classics would upset the balance demanded of bias review — too many white men — and many canonical works display scenes charged with racism and sexism.

Think of all the central episodes that wouldn’t survive — Shylock’s speech, Hester Prynne emerging from her cell brandishing a sparkling golden “A,” Douglass fighting back against the sadistic slave-breaker Mr. Covey, and hundreds more. If reading tests genuinely addressed the classics, bias and sensitivity reviewers would denounce them outright.

In addition to a sanitized, bias- and content-free test of reading skills, developers should add “a test on literary-historical knowledge, including open questions that make students draw on Twain, Shakespeare, ancient myths, Edith Wharton and so on.”

The literary-history exam would be an essay test, raising a theme, style, genre or other topic and asking students to draw copiously from literary history, for instance, asking students to address the theme of individualism in six foundational works of American literature.

The essay test would see “how much knowledge students have of the best works of American civilization, a special duty of public schooling necessary to the formation of responsible, independent and informed citizens,” Bauerlein concludes.

But there’s already push back against too much time spent taking tests. Why not dump the silly sensitivity guidelines?

Who will teach informational reading?

Students should read more non-fiction and “informational text,” say Common Core State Standards adopted by 46 states and the District of Columbia. The new standards say half of elementary school reading assignments should be nonfiction, growing to 70 percent by grade 12. Who should teach informational reading?

Already, English teachers are cutting literature units to make room for recommended texts, which include Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America,” “FedViews,” by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco (2009) and “Executive Order 13423: Strengthening Federal Environmental, Energy, and Transportation Management,” published by the General Services Administration, reports the Washington Post.

But David Coleman, who co-authored the standards, say educators have it all wrong.

Teachers in social studies, science and math should require more reading, which would allow English teachers to continue to assign literature, he said.

Social studies teachers, for example, could have students read the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” while math students could read Euclid’s “Elements” from 300 B.C.

. . . The standards explicitly say that Shakespeare and classic American literature should be taught, said Coleman, who became president of the College Board in November.

. . . The specifics are spelled out in a footnote on page 5 of the 66-page standards.

Across the country, English teachers say their principals have told them it’s their job to teach students to read non-fiction. Social studies, science and math teachers are not sharing the responsibility.

Study art for art’s sake

Why study art? It’s not a way to boost math and reading scores, much less to prepare students for the 21st century workforce, writes Jay Greene. We’re trying to educate civilized human beings.

As he researches the effect of field trips to art museums on student learning, Greene encounters arts educators eager to climb on the economic utility bandwagon. Afraid art will be seen as a frill, they feel compelled to argue it’s a form of job training.

Most of what students learn in math and reading also has no economic utility.  Relatively few students will ever use algebra, let alone calculus, in their jobs.  Even fewer students will use literature or poetry in the workplace. When will students “use” history?  We don’t teach those subjects because they provide work-related skills. We teach algebra, calculus, literature, poetry, and history for the same reasons we should be teaching art — they help us understand ourselves, our cultural heritage, and the world we live in.  We teach them because they are beautiful and important in and of themselves.

Policymakers, pundits and others suffering from PLDD (petty little dictator disorder) use economic utility to club their critics into submission, Greene writes. Even math and reading must prove to be economically useful.

You have folks like Tony Wagner and the 21st Century Skills movement suggesting that we cut algebra because students won’t ‘need’ it.  Instead, students would be better off learning communication skills, like how to prepare an awesome Power Point (TM).  And you have Common Core cutting literature in English in favor of “informational texts.”

If the purpose of school is workforce prep, then let’s do away with it and set up apprenticeships, Greene writes.

His study asked 4,000 students to write short essays in response to Bo Bartlett’s painting, The Box.  “It may be harder to code and analyze essays about paintings than to run another value-added regression on the math and reading scores that the centralized authorities have collected for us, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less important.”