Monday, July 02, 2012

Common Core Habits of Mind: Believing in Miracles and Myths

These Common Core exemplars stick in my brain like melted gum in a sneaker sole. I'm afraid the only way to clean them out of my cerebellum is to write these overly long posts.

Rhode Island is part of the Tri-State Quality Review Rubric And Rating Process for Common Core aligned curriculum resources. There is, on that site, one example of an ELA exemplar: “The Long Night of the Little Boats.”

The Long Night of the Little Boats is an excerpt from Against Odds, by Basil Heatter, a prolific author whose works include Harry and the bikini bandits (pictured above, my copy is on the way).

The provenance of this lesson plan seems to trace back to Think Before You Write, a 2006 article from Educational Leadership by Joanna Hawkins. The "writing for understanding" process Hawkins describes seems perfectly reasonable:

In our world history curriculum, we take our 7th and 8th graders through a unit on the complexity of history. We focus the unit on a particular event—the rescue of British soldiers, stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk during World War II, by hundreds of little boats whose civilian captains risked their lives to transport these men across the English Channel.

Our focusing question is, How do the forces of technology, geography, desire for power, economics, and values influence the little boats' rescue of the British soldiers at Dunkirk? Clearly, students need to understand key vocabulary words and concepts to address this question. So we work with the terms technology, geography, desire for power, economics, and values/ideas in a variety of ways. We ask, How do these concepts affect our own lives? What are some examples?

A dramatic presentation of the evacuation of Dunkirk seems like a perfectly reasonable way to at least introduce the unit, although video and (gasp!) a brief lecture would be more efficient in delivering the background content.

Regardless, I generally approve of the objective and focusing question. On the other hand, here's the objective for the new Common Core version:

The goal of the exemplar is to give students practice in reading and writing habits that they have been working with throughout the curriculum, particularly using literary nonfiction text...

By reading and re-reading the text passage, closely combining classroom discussion about it, and writing about it, students come to an appreciation of the need to (a) re-read, paraphrase, and discuss ideas, (b) come to an accurate basic understanding level of a text, (c) come to an accurate interpretive understanding of a text, and (d) build a coherent piece of writing that both constructs and communicates solid understanding of text. (emphasis mine)

At this point I should pause and emphasize to active classroom teachers -- especially those working under new high-stakes evaluation regimes -- that putting "practicing reading and writing" down as your lesson objective is not going to fly with your administrator, and pointing out this exemplar (or blog post) will not save your job. I'm sure that's obvious, but I don't want to accidentally end anyone's career by passing on this dubious example.

However, it isn't apparent what kind of objectives one should use under Common Core ELA, as the standards limit the scope of the discipline to the point where a curriculum comprised almost entirely of "reading and writing practice" would be sufficient to meet the enumerated and tested standards. So at least this objective is consistent with the design of the standards. Maybe it will be permissible as a lesson objective in the future.

Moving on, because the Common Core standards emphasize close reading, students will do a close reading of the text. Unfortunately, like many other "informational texts," "The Long Night of the Little Boats" seems to have insufficient weight to justify the treatment. In particular, the word "miracle" is used throughout the text, so it is given much attention. To quote the opening paragraph of the text:

It was a miracle. Those who were there consider it so, and those who have studied it since are even more convinced. It was a miraculous combination of courage, effort, and good weather.

The second step in the exemplar is:

Understanding the concept of “miracle” is critically important to this text. It is the author’s key point and will be used when students come to summarize the article.

The teacher guides students to note that “miracle” and “miraculous” are both used in the first paragraph, and class re-reads and discusses briefly what this might mean (from prior knowledge, which may be inaccurate, and from context). The teacher then works with a Frayer model template (see Appendix A), beginning with bottom left quadrant, moving to the top left, then top right, and finally to the bottom right. (The bottom two quadrants, examples of “miracle” and non-examples, are especially important, since “miracle” is a word that has lost much of its original meaning due to everyday use.

This is an unsupportable reading of the text, in my opinion. The concept of a miracle is not, in fact, central to the text nor is it used in any way other than the everyday. Look at Heatter's first paragraph. Apparently all you need for a miracle is "courage, effort and good weather." Fair enough, but no point in dwelling on it.

Later in the exemplar they define “miracle” as "out of human hands, so wonderful and good as to defy belief." Is that how we're teaching history now? Acts "out of human hands?" Or is that just how we teach "informational texts" in English class? Heatter has nothing whatsoever to say about divinity.

Nor, for that matter, is it at all clear that the "original" meaning of "miracle" is a meaningful concept, as it had both divine and non-divine uses by the mid-13th century.

The most obvious reading is that Heatter calls it a "miracle" because Churchill called it that immediately afterwards, and the (not terribly religious) Brits have since.

By day three of the exemplar, we're on to:

1. Students turn their notes from yesterday into a complete written summary.

The teacher should remind students of the focus statement: “The little boats’ rescue of the soldiers at Dunkirk in 1940 was a miracle.”

Which is still barking up the wrong tree, followed by:

3. Teacher returns to asking a set of text-dependent guided questions. Now that students understand the miracle that happened, they need to grapple with why it happened. How did shared human values, both on the part of little boat rescuers and soldiers, play a part in the outcome of this event? It is essential for students to understand the concept of “value.” They need to understand that a “value” is a deeply held belief about something for which one cares.

By working with examples from their own lives, students will find it easier to recognize and infer the underlying values of patriotism, responsibility, persistence, discipline, and deference to others on the part of the soldiers.

The Common Core does not particularly support or require this kind of moralizing -- particularly the sudden interest in making connections to students' lives -- but for some reason Student Achievement Partners seems to be pushing this angle. I don't fully understand how all the moving parts and motivations fit together though (particularly considering the StudentsFirst/SAP angle).

Regardless, it is a dangerous frame to use in analyzing military history. Just ask the Japanese. Did they lose because of a lack of "patriotism, responsibility, persistence, discipline, and deference to others?" Also, why are the British abandoning the French, Belgians and Dutch to the Nazis? How could they leave Anne Frank behind?!?

Anyhow... much of the above is kind of beside the point. The biggest question, really, is why spend five days practicing reading and writing "habits" (don't even think of calling them strategies) based off of a not particularly notable five page narrative of a historical event? I like to tweak people about saying a certain kind of teaching is "new" or "innovative" but seriously, has anyone ever really taught like this? There's not much here to spend a week on, and what's next? More reading and writing practice with the next damn thing? If not, why not? Nothing in this exemplar suggests otherwise.

Finally, Heatter's text does not seem to be particularly accurate, historically. The WW II references I have in my personal library don't have any details about the evacuation because they don't seem to regard the flotilla itself as remarkable in the big picture; of much greater interest is Hitler's order to stop the advance on Dunkirk, thus allowing the evacuation. Wikipedia points to the Association of Dunkirk Little Ships, which contradicts much of Heatter's narrative:

On the 14th day of May, 1940, the BBC made the following announcement: "The Admiralty have made an Order requesting all owners of self-propelled pleasure craft between 30' and 100' in length to send all particulars to the Admiralty within 14 days from today if they have not already been offered or requisitioned".

Although this may have sounded something like a request, it was, in fact, an Order. These ships were required for harbour services and national defense and thus the idea of using private yachts as naval auxiliaries was quite well established by the time the emergency of Dunkirk broke upon the Nation.

On the 26th May 1940, a secret cipher telegram was sent by the War Office to the Admiralty stating that the emergency evacuation of troops from the French coast was required immediately. A contingency plan, long prepared under the code name 'Operation Dynamo' - the name being derived from the control centre at Dover, which was an existing generating station overlooking the harbour - was to be executed. In overall command was the Vice-Admiral Commanding Dover - Bertram Ramsay. On the following day, May 27th, the Small Craft section of the Ministry of Shipping was telephoning various boat builders and agents around the coast requesting them to collect all small craft suitable for work in taking troops off the beaches where the larger ships could not penetrate. What was needed were boats with shallow draught and this directed attention in particular to the pleasure boats, private yachts and launches on the Thames and also in muddy estuaries and creeks in deserted moorings along the South and East coasts which would be suitable for such an Operation.

In many cases the owners could not be contacted and boats were taken without their knowledge - such was the speed and urgency of the Operation. Mr. Douglas Tough of Tough Brothers, Teddington, who, with Ron Lenthall, collected many of the boats on the upper reaches of the Thames, reported that the owner of one of the boats which was being commandeered could not be contacted but, hearing that his boat was being taken away, informed the Police that it was being stolen and pursued it to Teddington Lock. More than l00 craft from the Upper Thames were assembled at the Ferry Road Yard of Tough Bros.

Here everything unnecessary was taken off and stored. Bob Tough, son of Douglas & a past Commodore of the Association, has lists of china, cutlery, pots and pans etc. all taken off and stored and returned to the owners in due course. The boats were then checked over and towed by Toughs and other tugs down river to Sheerness. Here they were fuelled and taken to Ramsgate where Naval Officers, Ratings and experienced volunteers were put aboard and directed to Dunkirk.

The Mrs. Miniver story of owners jumping into their Little Ships and rushing off to Dunkirk is a myth. Very few owners took their own vessels, apart from fishermen and one or two others. The whole Operation was very carefully co-ordinated and records exist of most of the Little Ships and other larger vessels that went to Dunkirk.

Maybe they're a bunch of cranks with an obscure axe to grind, but it sounds pretty good to me. There are also other parts of the story I know Heatter leaves out or elides -- the overall length of the evacuation process, the importance of cloud cover, the cushioning effect of sand and water on bombs and shells, the French, etc.

To bring this around to the original context, none of the above, particularly the historical inaccuracy, would be caught by the new Tri-State Quality Review Rubric And Rating Process, because such things are simply not considered in the rubric.

This is all going to go really well.


Maggie Abrams said...

Thank you for posting this. I have seen several issues with the CCSS arise when teachers start "close" reading of them.

Tom Hoffman said...

Thanks for the comment Maggie. I'm sure lots of teachers are seeing the same thing I am now that they're really confronted with these, but it is a lot harder to speak out when everyone's job is under threat right now. As an outsider at this point, I can shoot my mouth off. A little confirmation from people having to deal with this on the inside is helpful though.

EC said...

"However, it isn't apparent what kind of objectives one should use under Common Core ELA, as the standards limit the scope of the discipline to the point where a curriculum comprised almost entirely of "reading and writing practice" would be sufficient to meet the enumerated and tested standards."

And what exactly is wrong with that? Reading and writing practice is EXACTLY what our curriculum should be. Anything more is just a matter of taste, a matter of what KIND of reading and writing practice...