Monday, November 11, 2013

What Would You Do, Mr. Smarty-Pants?

Eric Westendorf, last week's guest blogger at Rick Hess's and co-founder of LearnZillion, was a classmate of mine in the Brown MAT class of 1999. He was Social Studies and I was English, but it is a little boutique program, and we had an unusually close-knit group, so we got to know each other fairly well. Played some ultimate. We haven't kept in touch though.

And if you read his last post, a lot of it is in my wheelhouse: Open Source! Lesson Study! Yet... now that LearnZillion has some secondary ELA lessons, they're... kind of awful. I participated in enough discussions of educational philosophy, psychology and pedagogy to figure that Eric would on some level agree with that (although I certainly wouldn't expect him to admit it, maybe even to himself). If you saw, for example, the work the Arts/Literacy project at Brown did with Central Falls High School students and teachers working with professional actors to interpret Shakespeare... it isn't even a fair comparison to a straitjacketed CC textual analysis whiteboard video.

The thing is, this is one case where I could send Eric an email outlining the above, perhaps a bit more tactfully, and expect that at least he would respond with a "OK, so how should we be doing this?"

The entire "lesson sharing" problem is much, much harder than it appears to the surface, so there's no glib answer to that question, but I would be willing to have a crack at it circa 2013, if it wasn't for the Common Core situation. A central problem with LearnZillion's secondary ELA lessons is they're just too closely aligned with the CC, which makes them deadly dull. I don't know how to get around that.

When we organized a curriculum around performance standards (The New Standards) at FHS, it was fine because it was inherently a project-based interdisciplinary curriculum with standards that emphasized applied learning and authentic student work. The themes and questions driving the curriculum were external to English class, but that worked fine.

The same sort of thing would work -- less well -- with CC, but you can't assume a multidisciplinary context if you're just publishing ELA lessons on a website.

If you already have an ELA curriculum, you can modify it to hit the CC notes, while still having the big themes and context coming from whatever it is already drives things, but again, these lessons are probably not going to be useful out of context.

If you're just starting from scratch with nothing but the Common Core standards... I have no idea what to do. Anything other than "Read text X, perform textual analysis task Y," just seems arbitrary, and there is no reason to think anything else would be applicable to someone else's Common Core ELA class.

Obviously, in real life, teachers successfully muddle through these issues every day. I'm not even making a principled stand here... I just don't get it. What is the basis of the ELA curriculum outside of the skill and task-driven CC even supposed to be? What is the nature of this dark matter? I have no idea.


Tom Hinkle said...

At the secondary level, I have to say I don't see why CC provides such a straitjacket. Standards like "Determine a central idea," "cite strong textual evidence," and "analyze complex characters," for example, don't seem out of line with all kinds of creative ELA curriculum, ranging from a curriculum based on student empowerment and civil rights to one based on bringing Shakespeare alive with arts lit to one based on a traditional text. In all cases, you'd have the students read, you'd hope they read things with complex characters, and you'd ask them to cite text in both class discussions and assignments.

Other items like, "Analyze the representation of a subject or a key scene in two different artistic mediums" don't seem too bad -- adding some variety of media to any curriculum is probably good teaching and quite common.

If I go to writing, we have items like "write arguments," "write explanations" and "write narrative" -- none of this seems restrictive.

I am with you on complaints about the lack of attention to detail in these standards, and I'm very much in doubt of many of the standards for younger grades, but it seems like the closer you get to college which is where David Coleman began his thinking, the better they get.

Tom Hoffman said...

Well, that was kind of my point. If you already have a curriculum, you can tweak the standards in the same way you always do, especially if your kids are likely to mostly pass the tests anyhow.

But if you're looking at it like, "OK, I'm starting from scratch with the Common Core standards..." then I feel pretty lost.

Tom Hinkle said...

Ok, I guess that begs the question: *should* the standards tell us where to begin writing our curriculum? Or are they supposed to give us guides for doing so once we begin.

If you want to use the American approach of highly localized education, with teachers tailoring their teaching to the particular communities in which they find themselves, it would seem like you wouldn't want your standards to tell you where to begin your planning. Rather, you'd want a set of standards that helped you say, okay, here I've got this whole unit on César Chávez and latino poetry, or this unit on Amy Tan and the immigrant experience, or this unit on the Southern gothic and the legacy of slavery, or what have you, now *what* do I assess the students on so I can prove that my unit is just as rigorous as any other. Isn't that what CC, theoretically, is doing?

(btw, quite strange to find myself playing devil's advocate here, but it seems worth it to clarify...)

Tom Hoffman said...

The thing is that how this is supposed to work in ELA, in 2013, is simply never explained anywhere. What is not said, but apparently mostly understood, is that in addition to the standards there must be another set of curricular outcomes coming from ???

I've also lately come to the conclusion that our "tight/loose" approach to standards just has not worked out the way we'd like. To be honest, the best example of the failure of this approach is the relatively easy initial adoption of the Common Core. Almost nobody objected on the grounds that their current standards are important.

Put it this way: if a country's elites quickly and quietly pushed through a new constitution, and everyone shrugged and said "Fine, whatever," you'd probably conclude that their constitutional process was deeply flawed in some way.