Recently, my husband and I took a piece of art to our favorite framer. The print had been hanging on the same wall for so long it was part of the background, something we didn’t even see anymore. A remodeling project had caused us to rethink the way we had displayed many of the objects in our house, and that is how we came to reconsider the way this particular print was framed.
When the framer took the piece apart, we realized that it had originally been framed when we were 22 years old, newly married, and not knowledgeable enough to know that a fine art print should be mounted on an acid free board and hinged at the top so it would appear to float. We hadn’t known enough to tell that framer of so many years ago not to tape the print on all four sides to a piece of ordinary cardboard.
“I haven’t seen something like this in a long, long time,” our framer remarked as he removed the old metal frame and lifted the mat. We could clearly see the adhesive that pinned the print to the board. On top of that, the mat itself was not acid free, and it had left a burn line all around the print itself.
Fortunately, the piece could be restored and appropriately reframed.
As I listened to the framer talk about methods for framing art and thought about our own need to reconsider the way we were displaying this particular piece, I was put in mind of the remodeling project going on in education.
Some of the things we do as teachers spring from habits and approaches we developed when we were novices. It’s a complex thing, teaching, and in the beginning, when something works, we are so pleased and relieved that we keep on with the practice until it becomes so much a part of what we do, we don’t even know we are doing it. In other cases, we continue a practice because it appears to do what it is supposed to do. It’s hard to make yourself change when you think what you are doing works.
But with the introduction of the Common Core State Standards, teachers will have to undo the habits of years.
For example, for years English teachers have relied on textbook companies to lay out a scope and sequence they can follow with confidence —solacing themselves for capitulating to a company by remembering that the textbook companies are advised by practitioners and scholars. If we use the anthology conscientiously, many teachers reason, by the end of the year we will have exposed our students to the most important writers and their most accessible or well-known stories and poems. And, if we progress at a brisk pace from August to May, we will have “covered the curriculum.”
However, a wide but thin acquaintance with great writers does not result in students who are enthralled with literature. This approach doesn’t whet their appetites for more. It does not give them a deep understanding of any of the writers they’ve read, and it doesn’t particularly develop their critical reading skills. What it does do is produce students who can play Jeopardy.
The Common Core State Standards present us with an opportunity to “reframe” our English courses. They ask us to read deeply, rather than broadly, and connect texts and text types to each other and to other disciplines. They ask us to do close reading in our literature classes and approach informational text with a focus on the content, not on prior experiences that may not even be relevant to the topic. The Common Core standards ask us to have our students write more often and use evidence from the text to build an argument.
It isn’t really that we are teaching content and skills we’ve never taught before. The picture is still the same. But it’s framed differently.
Some content will be taught earlier than it used to be—various grammatical concepts, for example, are supposed to be introduced earlier than they often are now. By high school, teachers should be able to conduct conversations about style and discussions of writing technique that are predicated upon students knowing the vocabulary and structure of English grammar. As it is now, we repeat basic grammatical concepts year after year, and by 10th grade, some students still don’t know what we’re talking about. Is it just remotely possible that this is because we repeat ourselves so much (parts of speech in grade after grade, for example) that kids realize they really don’t have to dig in and learn the material?
Some modes of rhetoric will be emphasized—like argumentative writing—and others—such as narrative writing—will be called for less often. But shouldn’t our students know how to set up and defend an argument? Shouldn’t they know how to spot specious claims? Detect holes in arguments? Shouldn’t they know how to use quotes and statistics and examples—and how not to misuse them? And narrative still has a place, make no mistake. Narrative writing is still specified in the Common Core. It’s the emphasis that has shifted.
Students will be doing research with more frequency than usual. But that doesn’t mean a series of full-blown research papers four times each year—rather, the skills involved in research can be teased out, presented sequentially, and the ante upped gradually. Teachers can challenge students to learn a variety of presentation modes—including those in the multi-faceted world of technological presentation. Students can develop their expertise with technology skills just as much as they can develop skill with traditional print forms of reporting information.
The books we ask the students to read are supposed to reflect higher lexile levels—but really, it isn’t just the lexile level. There are other measures of complexity than that, so many of the texts we use now, we’ll still be using when we teach the Common Core. And if our texts are more difficult, no one is arguing to throw the kids a book and let them flounder. Instead, we’re asked to support the students with appropriate instruction—scaffolding, it’s called.
Novels we typically teach will no longer be stand-alone units of instruction. As teachers, we’ll look for and connect the books to poems that reflect the same themes, to essays that address a shared topic, to informational texts that elucidate ideas pertinent to the story. Assembling readings that are related by topic or theme and creating instructional tasks that ask kids to think deeply about a subject is actually fun and refreshing for the teacher. Why not start with a book we already teach—an age-appropriate and complexity-appropriate one—and collect other texts (poems, essays, magazine articles) that complement it and lead students on to an exploration of the common theme? What would be new? Maybe some of the readings, but not the anchor text. Not the need to build vocabulary, develop comprehension, or teach writing and research skills to go along with the readings.
With the Common Core, we’ll make interdisciplinary connections, and even, in the best of circumstances, teach collaboratively with our colleagues. As it is now, the curriculum often overlaps from discipline to discipline and creates redundancies that dull our students’ appetite for learning. I am thinking of a unit I created once that began with the excerpt in our American lit text from William Bradford’s “Of Plimoth Plantation.” It was a unit that called for students to envision what they would do in a new world. (That was its name: Starting Out in a New World: What Would You Do?) I presented the students with information they didn’t already know about the Mayflower and a list of resources the intrepid souls on that boat had (and didn’t have). The activities of the unit took the students deep into Bradford’s text and other primary sources from the Puritan time period, texts which were available on the internet and in print in my room.
The enthusiasm that I expected for the task wasn’t there. Why not?
My students had studied the Pilgrims in elementary classrooms every year of their lives and then considered the Puritans again in 8th grade American history and then again in 11th grade American History—and here I came with yet another “unit” on this topic from the country’s far, far past. What might have happened if the American history teacher and I had collaborated? Might we together have generated some excitement among our students instead of both of us hearing questions like “Hey! We’re doing this in history (or English)? Why do we have to study it here?”
The Common Core was introduced several years ago, yet I am still hearing resistance—and in some cases, foot-dragging–in the hope that it will all just go away. I hope it doesn’t.
The Common Core Standards do not ask us, really, to throw out our old art. Instead, they ask us to reframe what we’ve always had hanging on our walls.
This could be fun. It’s all in one’s frame of mind.
By the way, you should see the print my husband and I had reframed. It seems like a whole new piece, but really, it isn’t. The frame is new, and so we look at the piece afresh—but suddenly, it has come to life again: strong, vibrant, exciting our imaginations. I see no reason why reframing for the Common Core shouldn’t have the same impact.